I recently took a road trip to Placer County in Northern California. The county offers myriad outdoor recreation opportunities in the High Sierra, including hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. Parts of the county resonate an untouched Wild West feeling—beautiful landscapes, gold rush artifacts, protected bird sanctuaries, free-roaming wildlife, and indigenous plant life. The northernmost groves of giant sequoia are rooted in Placer County.
The county’s website boasts “Placer County offers a civilized lifestyle surrounded by the rugged outdoors of the wild west.” At a newsstand, however, I saw an August 15, 2017, front-page article in the Sacramento Bee that highlighted the rugged indoors of the Wild West in Placer County. The headline read “Lawsuits Follow Reports of Abuse in Placer Jails.”
I’ve always been struck by the black irony in the juxtaposition of places, things, and events. Disneyland, a.k.a. The Happiest Place on Earth, is about a fifteen-minute drive from the Orange County Jail. The latter is the unhappiest place I have ever been. Likewise, having a president—someone who you’d expect to possess some semblance of a moral compass—who makes ignorant and hate-filled statements tacitly sanctioning repugnant hate groups is another example of black irony where the abandonment of facts is an abandonment of the truth.
The Sacramento Bee article contains an equally black irony in search of the truth of what we can see and what we cannot. The front-page headline is a prelude to a startling report by Sam Stanton of alleged abuses in a Placer County jail. I use the qualifier alleged because as a former practicing attorney, I’ve learned that media perspectives of events don’t always provide all the requisite information for a trier of fact, be it a jury or judge, to get to the truth—to get to justice. In his book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons for the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder gives Believe in Truth as his tenth point: “If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so.”
In the context of police and jail or prison guards, the lack of truth about their abuse of incarcerated people leaves the abused, the public, and the government blind to the inhumanity that occurs behind the closed doors of power. I witnessed this dynamic during my two years of incarceration in the California prison system. The guards could be perpetuators of racial friction and enactors of arbitrary physical and mental abuse. With the advent of the now-ubiquitous mobile recording devices and citizen-filmed footage, police brutality, once protected by the public’s uninformed belief that cops don’t break the law, has been shockingly exposed time and time again.
While not specifically referring to prison conditions in the context of reform, Snyder’s twenty lessons penetrate not only what is going on in the nation’s political challenges of executive constitutional power but also synopsizes exactly how abusive conditions can be at the hands of the cops who run county jails and prisons. Snyder’s words expose the building blocks of the blue wall of silence, a nasty code of unwritten ethics that enables and perpetuates abuse by law enforcement, in a cone of silence of comradery, to the detriment of their powerless victims.
The story of the notorious New York City whistle-blower police officer, Frank Serpico, who worked to change the blue wall of silence within his department—with little success—illustrates the power of the perpetual force of police brutality.
Media reports often provide compelling factors that, when aligned with representations of an opposing party, fan the smoke of allegations and foreshadow the potential of a legal flamethrower. The written media coverage of prison abuse is the next-best thing to videos, even though what is reported is hearsay and not a direct account from a primary source.
According to its website, “The Placer County Sheriff’s Office serves the people of Placer County by providing law enforcement . . . from the Sacramento County line to the Nevada state line at Lake Tahoe.” The website goes on to say that “the Sheriff’s Office also provides jail services . . . to the entire county. Our mission is to maintain the quality of life enjoyed here, and to ensure that our county is a safe place to live, work and visit.” (Emphasis added)
The public relations statement on the county’s website conjures up visions reminiscent of the small-town sheriff and sheriff’s deputy played by Andy Griffith and Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show. They would tend to their law enforcement duties with wide smiles, going about their business in a flimflam quickstep of public service.
Check out this video by Placer County Sheriff Devon Bell and other law enforcement personnel wherein they discuss the sheriff department’s “core values” and “organizational culture.” Measure those public representations with the allegations and reports of pending litigation in the Sam Stanton article.
The Sacramento Bee article reports the following:
Ten weeks after Placer County Sheriff Devon Bell announced that three of his officials had been arrested on allegations of excessive force against inmates at the Auburn Main Jail, his department is facing a series of [federal civil rights abuse] lawsuits claiming that abuse at the jail has routinely gone unchecked and that video and audio recordings have been altered to cover up the wrongdoing.
The abuses included acts against three men being held at the jail, including
- A former Marine who was arrested July 14, 2016, after he stopped to take a nap in the parking lot of a Granite Bay church. . . . [The man] claims two deputies roughed him up, then arrested him and took him to the Auburn jail, where he was taken to a solitary cell and beaten.
- [A lawsuit by a second inmate alleges] that jail and patrol car video [his attorney] obtained from the county while preparing [the inmate’s case] . . . had been altered, with one video containing a 26-minute gap and another that would have shown excessive force while [the man] was being arrested was “inexplicably missing” that portion of the arrest. “The final insult to the criminal justice system in Placer County came on May 31, 2017, when Sheriff Devon Bell made a misleading statement about when and how he first learned about the abuse of inmates at the Auburn Jail,” the lawsuit says.
- [A third inmate’s lawsuit alleges that jail guards] burst into his isolation cell, where he was being held for observation because he is mentally ill. “The three sheriff’s deputies Tased [him] repeatedly, struck him with their fists at least a half-dozen times in the back of the head, jumped on him and choked him into unconsciousness,” the lawsuit says. . . . [The inmate] was then handcuffed and placed in a restraint chair without receiving medical treatment, the suit says, and video and audio recordings of the incident were altered.
The arrested sheriff’s office officials were a female sergeant, a male deputy, and a male corrections officer. All three have pleaded not guilty and refuse to talk about the case.
The article goes on to report the following:
In his May 31 press conference, Sheriff Bell would not detail the alleged abuse inmates suffered, but he said department officials discovered the abuse and attempts to cover it up, and acted quickly. Bell also said that “under no circumstances” would he tolerate such behavior.
The lawsuit claims that “abuse of inmates has been occurring at the Auburn Mail Jail and reported long before May 2017,” and it alleges that the department had a policy of using unreasonable force against inmates and a practice of covering up such incidents.
The lawsuit also notes that claims of “inaccuracies and discrepancies in recordings” made at the jail had been reported to officials as early as December 2016, but that Bell took no action until May 2017.
My purpose is not to prosecute the criminal defendants in this case. As I said at the onset, the judicial process does not rely on allegations in criminal prosecutions but on evidence of a crime that is beyond a reasonable doubt. Inferences do not admissible evidence make.
My purpose is to give a picture of what appears to the insidious construction and implementation of a blue wall of silence, from the top down—Sheriff Bell’s apparent dereliction of duty—that filtered down to subordinates who implicitly or explicitly thought they would be invisible because of the wall.
I dare say that the county of Placer’s bird sanctuaries afford more protection to avian species than to proverbial jailbirds. Don’t be fooled by the beauty and bucolic milieu of seemingly innocent environments such as where the alleged incidents occurred. When facts are not forthcoming concerning events taking place behind doors and walls, we are all vulnerable to the darkest side of human’s nature to abuse by those empowered by unchecked power.
Read your local papers’ reports of situations and conditions in the jails and prisons around you. And, always be aware that a blue wall may be hiding the truth.
I suggest reading Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil for more insight into how people with authority can become abusive.
Your comments and insights are always welcome.
Image courtesy of 123rf