Do San Francisco police really have no duty to enforce laws or make arrests?
My attorney advised me early on, “By the time this is over, you’re going to hate all lawyers.”
In the passing months as I shared his prediction, I would add the bravado of a rueful laugh and say, “It’s not over, and I already do!”
Now, not so much. It’s complicated.
I have learned to stop shooting the messenger as we draw ever closer to the business end of a serious lawsuit. Now I just pray that my attorney, wearing his white hat, is as formidable as the ruthless, soulless, deceitful and nefarious cowboys at his polar opposite end, wearing their black ones.
It is, as they say, no longer my first rodeo. I am already two court dismissals ahead of where most Americans will ever be, having been unfairly booted out of both the Northern California U.S. District Court and the San Francisco Superior Court. If my recent Google search is even remotely accurate, I will be in the bucking chute for the First District Court of Appeals for the next 12 to 18 months. I could lose again. So why not just hang up my chaps and quit?
It’s complicated. There are truths at stake. Basic humanity. Morals. The Golden Rule. Right and wrong. Innocence and guilt. Self-respect. Duty.
Although my lawsuit must seem like great fun for the the San Francisco cowboys (sadly, cowgirls, too), it has been agony for me. Although these lawyer cowhands routinely risk injury to their city, the risks to me are personal. My experience in this circuit has been rough and cruel. Once, when I remarked to my attorney that I had not started this fight with the police he had replied, “Fair enough.”
From the beginning, when 24 San Francisco police officers went FUBAR in Hallidie Plaza on February 16, 2010, the city lawyers quickly established an impenetrable no contact zone, a grievous disenfranchisement for both sides, actually. Even so, when the SFPD refused to decently return a single call and repeatedly “disallowed” a release of the police report for 119 days, I recognized these actions for what they were — the admission of guilt.
In January, 2012, during a face-to-face of our side in the Walnut Creek office, when I desperately wailed in frustration, “But no one has even said they are sorry,” there were two distinct responses. First, a sympathetic, “We get that a lot,” and second, “You want an apology? If that’s what you want, I can get you an apology.” I will always wonder what would have happened if I had said, “Yes. Get me that.”
I used to be an idealist. Now it is much more complicated than that.
I have not cared — necessarily — about what happens to me ever since what happened to my son Dylan Yount. Even so, I have often been surprised (like everyone else) about the wellspring of my determination. Where does it come from exactly?
Am I just stubborn like a Missouri mule? Do I see red because the city only sees blue? Does the unequivocal police defense work like a “hotshot?” Did the police and the city government think I would just ignore what had happened?
I cannot forget the man whose first home was my body. I cannot forget that his last one was the narrow ledge above the Forever 21 store in Hallidie Plaza. I will never forgive that 24 SFPD officers caused his death – unless or until they show me what they will do to keep a similar death from happening to anyone else. I am what any other mother whose child had died in a suicide baiting would be. I am mad as hell.
I had thought my anger was in remission. After all, our jury trial was imminent, scheduled to begin Monday August 25, 2014. We would win. The public and press would at last be allowed a seat inside to see what the city had been shielding from sight. I was spurred on with hope that this case would be the catalyst for societal growth and change.
Cue in the Honorable Judge A. James Robertson II, of whom I had never heard until I read his dismissal, dated July 23. One statement in particular has kept me mostly sleepless since I read it. It is a pitiful, cursory rubber-stamping approval of bad policing: “The defendant did not owe a duty to arrest the hecklers.”
Really? Police officers do not have to make a arrests when a crime (CA Penal Code 401) is being committed? If that is true, then let me graduate from the harmless raconteur I have been so far to a more militant crusader! Law enforcement officer is the very term the police use to refer to themselves! SFPD documents are rife with references indicating that enforcing laws and making arrests are priorities.
In their recruitment hype, for instance, applicants wanting to become entry level SFPD Q-2 officers (at starting salaries of $80 to $112k, by the way) have duties “to prevent crime” and “arrest suspects” (Google entry level Q-2 SFPD officer).
In “Duties, Salary and Benefits,” SFPD officers are charged with “detaining suspects” and “making arrests” (Google Duties, Salary and Benefits SFPD).
In “General Orders,” the SFPD declares the basic mission to be to “prevent crime” and “enforce criminal laws,” and even off-duty SFPD are tasked “to prevent crime” and “arrest offenders” (SFPD General Orders 2.01, #1 and # 2).
Interestingly, while I was researching a myriad of references regarding “enforcing laws and making arrests,” I stumbled upon Liu v. City and County of San Francisco, a 2012 lawsuit challenging whether all SFPD officers should be obligated to perform strenuous tasks in the event of physical disablement (in this case the man’s heart attack). One argument – “The SFPD reasoned that the primary role of police officers is to enforce the law” – stood out because this decision had been upheld at the First District Court of Appeals (Google Mitzel Group SFPD’s requirement that all officers be able to perform strenuous field duties or Liu v. City and County of San Francisco).
This latest Superior Court decision in my own case just keeps gnawing at me: “The defendant did not owe a duty of care to arrest the hecklers.” Was Judge Robertson indirectly calling me a fool for daring to question police procedure? Since a heckler is one who provokes a speaker or performer, was Robertson II echoing Officer Cezar Perez Q-2’s calling my son a “fool” (“Get back into your apartment, YOU FOOL!”)? Was the judge deliberately implying that Dylan was a performer? That suicide occurring during a suicide baiting is performance art?
Can any of us be so ignorant about mental illness? Mental illness is not a choice. Or a weakness. Or a character flaw. It is an illness. It can be treated. Yet the SFPD’s ignorance about mental illness and the department’s – and the city’s – adamant refusal to implement Crisis Intervention Training cost my son his life. Are any of these people parents? Do they not understand their own children may need psychological intervention one day? What kind of world do they wish to leave them?
Myself, I still experience days when I regret not joining Dylan on that cold 2010 February night back in Missouri, 1,600 miles away from where my son’s body still lay on the bloody brick pavement as I learned from the M.E. who answered Dylan’s phone.
On other days, I keep fighting because I know what happened was not right and that there is something inherently wrong with a system that disallows citizen adversaries the right to formally question a government’s action. If the police did nothing wrong, would they not be vindicated in the end? Are courts so afraid of truth?
Yesterday, one of my former students interrupted me while I was writing. I found him standing at my door with the familiar Jehovah’s Witness literature in his hand. He and all his brothers and sisters had been my students over the years. They were a fine family. He looked at me as if he were seeing a ghost, then stammered that he had known, “You used to live here,” but that he had heard, “Um, that you had moved.”
I get that a lot. As with the rest of this, it’s complicated.
A lot of people think I already live in San Francisco, even though my son’s best California friend always jokes gently, “I don’t think they would let you.” Well, I have made some powerful enemies, but who knows? Will the dormant old lady codger activist in my finally emerge? Will I advocate for change each day with the denizens of Hallidie Plaza until I die?
Lately, I have thought a lot about the life of pro bono attorney Tony Serra, a remarkable and colorful legend in San Francisco. He never worries about money and the Pier 5 law offices where he maintains his office often pull double duty as the designated site for poetry readings! Who knew?
Lately, I have also felt the sweet taste of surrender – not about this case or the evilness of what happened and the attempt to cover it up – but of my decision to bring my personal best to my work for as long as I can.
What should have been a conversation between the police/lawyers/city and me has escalated into a legal contest. One side worships money and the other, truth. No matter what happens, neither will control the destiny of the story about Dylan’s terrible death.
That’s not complicated at all.
The story is either going to be remembered as the DAY when San Francisco gave away its humanity or San Francisco as the CITY that gave away everyone else’s.