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Police with The Offender Law-2
Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel…
These were the words used by New York Times reporter John Eligon 15 days after Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. This disclaimer led into a victim-blaming paragraph that detailed the 18-year-old’s lack of a halo. Eligon wrote about how the police claimed the teen stole cigarillos from a convenience store. He wrote that Brown “lived in a community that had rough patches and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol.” He also wrote that Brown, shortly before his death, had begun experimenting with rap. Imagine that: An American teen enjoying music that includes both “contemplative and vulgar” language.
This sounds like me during the some of my teen years: I regularly stole beer (and sometimes candy) from one of two convenience stores near my high school. I was safely removed from the “rough patches” of my hometown, but I nevertheless dabbled in drugs and alcohol. And I experimented with rap... insomuch as I would rhyme right along with anything on which Tipper Gore would later slap a warning label.
I was no angel.
This could also be said of Reggie Harmon, the 32-year-old Black man with bipolar disorder who I wrote about in my last column. He is incarcerated at George F. Bailey Detention Center where I met him last month. He’s scheduled to be sentenced at the end of this month under Penal Code 422 for having verbally threatened a cashier at a 99 Cent store after the two exchanged remarks (one of which included a racial slur directed at Reggie).
I can already predict certain reader responses reductive of Harmon and deaf to the complex set of circumstances that landed him where he is now. Reggie is documented as a gang member. He has one prior 422 felony conviction from 2007 for which he pleaded guilty; he’s got this one, and then the District Attorney’s office went through Reggie’s file and has decided to file a third felony for another incident. This, even though Penal Code 422 is a “wobbler,” meaning the DA can choose to charge it as a misdemeanor if she/he wants.
But for whatever reason, the DA’s office didn’t want to. Perhaps it had something to do with teaching Reggie a lesson. Or perhaps it’s because the prosecutor is a former investigator with the Gang Prosecution Unit.
No doubt, Reggie has made some bad choices. But does he deserve to be in prison? And what of the thousands of others just like him? Is jail the place to house non-violent criminals with mental health issues?
HE DOES NOT BELONG IN HERE!!!
That is what I wrote in my journal as Reggie prepared to head back to his windowless cell after our first meeting. He and I didn’t talk much about his case as all conversations are recorded and I didn’t want to accidentally have him say something that could be detrimental to his case later. The whole system is already designed to be against him; I wasn’t about to be helping bolster the DA’s case. So we chatted about other things—human things—instead.
Here’s what I learned about Reggie: He went to the same elementary and middle school as my daughter, just down the block from my home. He is fluent in two languages, able to read, write and speak both English and Spanish. He has held the same job for the last 10 years. He digs old-school R&B; Marvin Gaye and the like. He loves his daughter and his girlfriend’s son, who he raises as his own. Reggie is concerned about and interested in his kids’ education, and he shared a parenting tip on how he deftly draws his son into conversation about books he reads.
Of course, there is pain in Reggie’s life. His twin brother was murdered in the fall of 2014 and the loss has been devastating not just for him, but for his mom, his dad and his sister. He’s on medications and sought in-patient treatment several times since his brother died.
Since 2002, Reggie has been stopped by police in his community 45 times. The day before the 99 Cent store incident he was held at gunpoint by a police officer in a case of mistaken identity. Imagine the trauma of that for a second, will you? An officer points a gun at him and screams at him to get on his knees. It’s not like everyone and their mother hasn’t seen what happens to Black men in police interactions.
The officer, who admitted in court to being nervous, can be seen in body cam footage trembling and looking to his superior for guidance. At the time, he’d been on the force nine days. If a person weren’t already mentally ill, I think 45 stops would push anyone over the edge.
The more I learn about Reggie’s past, the more it seems inevitable that he would be where he is. Even if he’d been that perfect angel, he’d have still landed in the CalGang Database because he fit three of ten criteria that allow law enforcement to designate people as gang members. Even if he’d been the most angelic of angels, the relentless stops by police that add up to years of harassment would have a deleterious effect on Reggie’s mental state.
This is what goes on in the rough-patch part of our city. It is as if there’s been a long game; a concerted effort among various bureaucracies and individuals that, together, conspired to predetermine Reggie’s fate. And there are thousands and thousands of Reggies out there, forced to plead, marked as criminals, harassed by law enforcement, and over-charged by prosecutors.