"They're killing me! -- I can't breathe -- I'm losing my air."
Oakland, CA -- That now-familiar refrain represents the last spoken words by 51-year-old Oakland resident Hernan Jaramillo, an emotionally troubled man as his breath and life were crushed out of him by several police officers who had responded to his sister's 911 call about a suspected intruder. Jaramillo was not a suspect and was supposedly not under arrest at the time of his death at the hands -- and beneath the knees -- of the officers. Just days ago the Oakland City Council hit up taxpayers to fund a $450,000 settlement in a lawsuit brought by the family of the victim.
The Contra Costa Times newspaper, which obtained bodycam video documenting the last five minutes before Jaramillo lost consciousness, reports that "The police department did not respond to questions about the incident, including whether an internal investigation was conducted and if the department has policies on restraint and medical treatment."
Jaramillo's sister Ana Biocini called the police at about 1:30 a.m. to report a disturbance that she thought might have been an intruder. When several officers arrived, they found Biocini barricaded in her bedroom. She tossed the house keys to one of them through her bedroom window. After they entered the home, Biocini told them that the noise apparently had come from her brother's bedroom.
From the beginning of the incident, the police were aware that Jaramillo had been identified as a victim, not as an intruder. This is admitted by the City's reply to the lawsuit, which claims that Biocini "frantically pleaded for police to `come quickly' because intruders were viciously attacking her brother and were going to kill her next."
After the officers knocked, Jaramillo tentatively opened his door. When he refused to admit the officers into his bedroom, he was seized and handcuffed and forced from the home. The lawsuit recounts that Biocini and several neighbors -- who had been drawn by the commotion -- repeatedly urged the officers to leave Jaramillo alone, since he was not the suspected intruder. Claiming that the puzzled (and, apparently, intoxicated) man was impeding the investigation, the officers tried to force him to sit in the back of a patrol car while insisting -- implausibly -- that he was "not under arrest."
Wearying of Jaramillo's legally justified intransigence, several officers threw him face-down on the ground. At about the same time, one of his hands slipped free from the cuffs. The lawsuit, citing multiple eyewitnesses, asserts that "One officer pressed his knee into Mr. Jaramillo's back while other officers used their weight to hold him down."
Once again cuffed behind his back, his face ground into the pavement, Jaramillo cried out repeatedly to his sister that he was having difficulty breathing and that the officers were "killing" him. At one point in the video, Biocini, speaking in Spanish, apparently asked that her brother be permitted to sit up.
Eventually, "Jaramillo became unresponsive," narrates the lawsuit. He was "visibly limp,""seemingly lifeless," and "covered in blood" when he was rolled over. Paramedics summoned to the scene attempted to revive the victim, who was pronounced dead at Highland Hospital shortly thereafter.
In its reply to the lawsuit, the City of Oakland invoked the all-sufficient justification for lethal police misconduct: "Because the officers acted reasonably under the circumstances in choosing to detain Jaramillo, they are entitled to qualified immunity."
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Could private security officers who behaved in the same "reasonable" fashion likewise claim "qualified immunity" if their actions led to the death of a similarly situated victim? There is no reason to believe that they could, unless they were government-licensed police officers moonlighting as private security.
In a 2014 case from Dayton, Ohio, two security guards at an apartment complex fatally shot a man who was considered a trespasser and disobeyed their "orders" not to leave. On occasions too numerous to recount, actions of this kind by police officers have been ruled "justified." In this case, however, the Montgomery County District Attorney insisted that “The shooters were employed as private security guards through Ranger Security – they were not police officers. They did not have any special arrest powers, authority or privileges beyond what a private citizen would have…. [T]hese private security guards had no legal authority to detain or attempt to detain the victim, and had no legal authority to use or threaten to use deadly force in order to make the victim comply with their orders.”
The needless death of Hernan Jaramillo -- who, once again, was regarded as the victim, not the perpetrator, of a break-in and possible assault -- underscores the fatal consequences of combining "qualified immunity" with a license to employ discretionary violence. When "helping" can take the form of cuffing, a leg-sweep, grinding the victim's head in the pavement, and then dog-piling on him until his heart gives out -- and those who perform that "service" cannot be held individually liable -- a culture of lethal impunity will take root and flourish.
The Oakland PD has "an entrenched culture ... of promoting, tolerating, and/or ratifying with deliberate indifference the making of improper detentions and arrests," asserts the lawsuit. "The City of Oakland's failure to discipline or retrain any of the involved police officers is evidence of an official policy, entrenched culture and posture of deliberate indifference toward protecting citizen's rights and the resulting false and arrests and injuries [are] a proximate result of the City of Oakland's failure to properly supervise its officers."
Had the case gone to trial, rather than being disposed of in familiar fashion -- a settlement underwritten by those supposedly served by the Oakland PD -- the case of Officer Robert Roche might have been cited as evidence of the department's entrenched culture of corrupt impunity, and its institutional indifference regarding critical injuries to citizens.
After Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen was struck in the head by a lead-lined beanbag round during an October 25, 2011 protest in Oakland, Officer Robert Roche fired a CS tear-gas canister into a crowd of people who had gathered to help him. This act of self-indulgent sadism is hardly out of what passes for Roche’s character: As a SWAT operative, Roche was involved in three fatal shootings, and has posted a photograph boasting of his accomplishments as a killer.
“That’s the last thing many of the more observant people I’ve `met’ have ever seen,” gloated a caption Roche composed for a photograph of himself in a prone sniper’s position. “Consider yourself fortunate.”
In response to public outrage over Roche’s criminal actions, the Oakland PD fired the officer, who had been placed on paid vacation (aka "administrative leave") for two years. In March 2013, Oakland residents were soaked to underwrite a $4.5 million settlement with Olsen. The following month, Roche filed for arbitration to get his job back -- and in late 2014 he was reinstated to the force and awarded two years' back pay.
There was no substantive dispute as to whether Roche’s assault was “unreasonable” and illegal. However, in arbitration proceedings Roche successfully used the “Nuremberg Defense,” insisting (in the words of a report from PoliceOne.com) that his actions were “justified because he was following a superior officer’s orders.”
Roche’s on-site commander, Captain Paul Figueroa, is now the Oakland PD’s assistant chief. Apparently, he wasn’t held liable for Roche’s criminal actions because no specific order to fire was clearly given.
This is a case of self-reinforcing police impunity: Roche is exonerated because he was just following orders; Figueroa, for his part, isn’t responsible for Roche’s crime because he was just ordering followers. In his new position, Figueroa helps define the policies and disciplinary standards governing officers like those who "helped" Hernan Jaramillo by assaulting and fatally suffocating him.