Jumping the gun
Accusations, anger build as Oxnard PD waits for results of brutality investigations
By Justin Formanek 11/15/2012
It has been a busy few months for the Todo Poder al Pueblo (All Power to the People) Collective of Oxnard. The group, most visibly represented by organizers Elliott Gabriel and Francisco Romero, has held several marches protesting alleged police brutality by the Oxnard Police Department since August.
“This campaign wasn’t something we initiated. It was simply a response, a response to every incident of harassment, every casual act of disrespect, every unjust incarceration and every act of routine abuse by the Oxnard Police Department,” said Gabriel, who is listed as the administrator on the Collective’s website, at an Oct. 23 Oxnard City Council meeting.
The earliest march, on Aug. 20, came in response to the June 24 death of Robert Ramirez, a 26-year-old Oxnard resident, who was overdosing on methamphetamine when police were called. The Collective, along with members of Ramirez’s family, has alleged that the cause of Ramirez’s death was not drug-related, but that he was beaten to death by seven to 10 officers after he was handcuffed.
The Collective has provided a “Fact Sheet” on its website (todopoderalpueblo.org, which claims that Ron Bamieh, the Ramirezes’ attorney, has “collected video evidence and witness testimonies which prove that Ramirez did not attack any officers but that they approached him first, took him to the ground, and began beating him.” No conclusive videos or photos, however, have been released.
The Oxnard Police Department, believing any additional evidence to be invaluable to its investigation, sent two letters to Bamieh, requesting any video evidence he possessed. Bamieh responded with a letter stating that, while he did indicate that he “viewed video tape and audio recordings,” he never actually “stated any such videos and/or audios were in [his] possession.” He did, however, offer to forward the requests to his clients and provide any information they authorized. To date, the Oxnard Police Department has not received any additional evidence from either Bamieh or the Ramirez family.
Photo by Heber Pelayo
A protester rests on the steps of the Veterans Memorial at Plaza Park in Downtown Oxnard as the demonstration winds down.
The exact cause of Ramirez’s death is still pending findings from Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office, a process that has stalled the investigation.
“The toxicology report hasn’t come back yet. There haven’t been any formal conclusions, which I find hard to believe, considering how long it’s been and how long it usually takes to do that,” said Bamieh, who added that results typically take “about six weeks.”
The Collective, meanwhile, organized a second march, which took place on Sept. 11. Nearly 200 protesters weaved through La Colonia neighborhood chanting “Killer cops, off our streets.”
As the marchers gathered outside City Hall, the sounds of drums and chanting drowned out a presentation given by CSU, Channel Islands President Richard Rush, who was accepting a proclamation for the university’s 10th anniversary. The noise continued even as members of the Oxnard Fire Department received a commendation for their response to a fire at the Ormond Beach Generating Station, and it did not subside until the start of the public comments section.
Photo by Matthew Hill
Family members of Robert Ramirez hold large photographs showing his bruised face. Ramirez died on June 23, 2012, while in Oxnard Police custody.
Only a few from the march were allowed time to speak during the public comment period, among them Gabriel, Romero and Teresa Ramirez, Robert’s mother. Those who had filled out comment cards, but were not called because others who had arrived earlier had taken the majority of the time, crumpled their papers and threw them to the ground.
Gabriel yelled, “Bullshit” in response to Mayor Tom Holden’s advisement that the 30-minute allotment had elapsed, adding “You don’t respect us, how do you expect us to respect you?” as he and others filed out of the chambers.
This came after Romero, whose 2006 bid for an Oxnard City Council seat was backed by a grass-roots organization of the same name as the Collective, issued subpoenas to Police Chief Jeri Williams and the “seven unidentified” officers involved in Ramirez’s death. The subpoenas — which were not officially binding under California law, not having been issued formally by a judge, court clerk or attorney — ordered them to appear before “the People’s Tribunal for Justice” held the following week at Cafe on A, listed as the Collective’s address of operations.
Williams did not attend, citing the inappropriateness of engaging in a public debate about the Ramirez incident as it was pending litigation and an investigation by the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office. She did, however, offer to meet with “persons who have a complaint or [wish to] make specific allegations of misconduct.”
The Tribunal took this as an admission of guilt.
“Our Tribunal for Justice hereby find Chief Jeri Williams and the seven unidentified officers guilty of the death of Robert Ramirez,” said Romero, adding that it was “determined the aforementioned individuals are clear fugitives who have refused to answer for their aggression and hostility towards us.”
Following its verdict, the Collective seemed to quietly go about its business until the events of Oct. 13, when two other Oxnard residents were killed in a police shootout.
Jose Zepeda, Justin Villa and Rafael Hernandez were stopped by police shortly after 10 p.m. and, after they attempted to drive away, a brief pursuit ensued. They stopped again at the 100 block of Garfield Avenue and both Zepeda and Villa fled on foot.
That’s when the bullets began to fly.
The Oxnard Police Department maintains that the officers at the scene were fired upon first and began shooting in return. Villa was wounded and both Zepeda and Alfonso Limon, an innocent bystander, were killed.
Photo by Matthew Hill
Oxnard residents march in protest of recent police-related deaths in their community.
Limon’s family has since filed a government claim for damages against the Oxnard Police Department, which called its actions “negligent” and “reckless.” Furthermore, the claim states that officers shot Limon despite his being in “full view” and yelling “multiple times” not to shoot. The firm representing the Limon family could not be reached for comment, but Bamieh trusts that it’s making the right call for its clients.
“I’m assuming that the lawyer knows what he’s doing. He’s done this before and has concluded, from his own investigation, that it’s an appropriate time to do so,” he said.
The Collective added a stop at a memorial for Limon and Zepeda during the Oct. 22 march for the National Day of Action Against Police Brutality. Unlike the previous protests, this one skirted the cusp of being considered orderly.
“The march was strong and, with very few exceptions, it was very disciplined,” said Gabriel.
Approximately 400 people took part, and as the Collective’s following swelled, its control over its own events seemed to wane. The crowd swarmed through intersections, with some yelling “Dogs! Murderers!” at police intent on keeping the group moving and not obstructing traffic. Others scrawled on trees, a bus stop and the gazebo and the Veteran’s Memorial in Plaza Park. Several jumped on vehicles downtown.
Photo by Heber Pelayo
Demonstrators shut down the intersection in front of the building where Alfonso Limon was killed.
Despite this, and the Oxnard Police Department’s assurance that it would be reviewing video evidence to determine “potential arrests,” the protest drew a barrage of media coverage.
The Collective has been critical of the previous coverage of its protests and details regarding Ramirez, accusing local news outlets of being “Xerox machines” for Oxnard PD’s press releases.
The group did, however, release a video on Oct. 15 that it claims shows the “execution” of Limon, and urged that the footage be “used effectively.”
“The video speaks for itself,” said Gabriel. “He was executed in cold blood as he pleaded for his life. The video shows that much.”
The video is not as clear-cut as Gabriel claims. It is a dark and shaky 90-second clip from the low-resolution camera of a witness’s cell phone. Beyond the presence of both police and gunfire, little can be ascertained with any degree of confidence. (To view the video, click here.)
The Collective did not respond to several requests for clarification or comment on the video.
Prior to the Oct. 22 protest, the League of United Latin Citizens (LULAC) advised that residents hold off on protests until the ongoing investigations bore fruit. Social justice committee chairman Dave Rodriguez stressed that LULAC’s foremost concern was the safety and well-being of residents.
When asked about the current state of the investigations, Rodriguez said the group was, at best, optimistic.
“Satisfied isn’t the word I’d use,” he said, adding that the group was taking steps on its own, including talks with Chief Williams and Ventura County Sherriff Geoff Dean.
LULAC’s stance drew condemnation from the Collective, which stated that those from the organization were “precisely the ‘community leaders’ that [they] don’t need,” and accused them of being shills for Chief Williams.
But the outrage displayed by the Collective is not indicative of all of Oxnard’s citizens. Others have added their voices to Council chambers in support of the police department, such as the Revs. Edgar Mohorko and Greg Runyon of the National Police Clergy Council.
At the Oct. 16 Council meeting, Mohorko affirmed his group’s commitment to “diffuse some of the tensions” felt in the community. Runyon, meanwhile, reminded those present to keep the situation in perspective.
“Sometimes we forget that, though it happened [in Colonia], it could have happened anywhere in our community,” said Runyon, adding ,“We have a tendency to polarize in our statements and in our actions. Until we know differently, I think we have to assume that this started because people broke the law.”
Former Oxnard Mayor Dr. Manuel Lopez was confident that the recent tensions were indicative of a typical ebb and flow and did not point to a growing rift between the police and citizens.
“By and large, we’ve gotten along very, very well. It’s periodic that something comes up and excites,” he said. “There have been many periods over the years where this happens and then, for a long time, there’s peace in the community.”
Walter Ontiveros, a lifelong Oxnard resident, expressed his doubt regarding the accusations that police officers were of a “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality.
“It can’t be easy for a police officer to have to pull out his gun and shoot somebody,” he said.
Yet it is impossible to ignore that there have been three deaths as a result of police gunfire: Limon, Zepeda, and a name often absent from the Collective’s Council addresses, Michael Mahoney.
Mahoney, a 36-year-old resident with a history of mental instability, was shot to death by police on Aug. 14. After firing a shot in his home, he confronted officers, holding a gun to his own head. Mahoney then challenged officers to shoot him and pointed his gun at them. His death has never received the level of attention that the Collective has given to Limon, Zepeda or even Ramirez.
Regardless, the attention drawn to Oxnard does seem to have borne fruit. Last week Chief Williams called for the aid of the Office of Independent Review, a civilian oversight group created by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, citing a need for an outside entity to review both the Ramirez and Limon incidents. The City Council would need to approve the expense, which could run upward of $100,000.
The question remains, however, whether the Collective’s continued involvement will aid in achieving an equitable resolution or if organizers are simply tossing matches at a powder keg.