Reporting on police misconduct can be tricky business. Witnesses are sometimes people harboring anti-cop sentiments, and journalists have to be wary of exaggeration. The officer accused of excessive force or otherwise abusive behavior never gets a chance to tell his side of the story; we almost always have to rely on pro-forma statements from police spokespeople, and without detailed opposing accounts, readers can only take an accusation with the appropriate grain of salt, until a trial—if the case gets that far—sorts out the facts.
At times, however, there's reason to believe something terrible really did happen. David Ross—who's known to many as the “Water Man” because he can often be found passing out free bottles of water to homeless people in East Village—says that on Sunday morning, March 15, he was physically attacked by a San Diego cop who had ordered the dispersal of a group of homeless people who'd gathered around Ross to collect water.
The account here is based on what Ross has told CityBeat and what witnesses have told lawyers representing Ross: After Ross urged the officer to let the water distribution continue, a homeless man named Myron Hill, 41, confronted the officer to protest the order to disperse and was pushed up against a wall. When Ross, who's around 70 years old, tried to intervene, verbally, in what he considered inappropriately abusive behavior, the cop told him to shut up and then flung him to the ground. When another homeless man, 59-year-old Marvin Britton, tried to help Ross get to his feet, the officer threatened Britton with a Taser gun and then ordered Ross to get up. Ross said that when he tried to get up but couldn't move his arm, the officer kicked at his foot and told him again to get up. More police cars and an ambulance arrived, and Ross was taken to the hospital, later to be diagnosed with a concussion and a torn rotator cuff (an internal shoulder injury common in baseball pitchers). Britton was arrested for battery and resisting a police officer but released. Hill was cited for impeding traffic.
Ross told CityBeat that two officers from the San Diego Police Department's Internal Affairs unit visited him in the hospital and, while there, expressed Police Chief Bill Lansdowne's concern and acknowledgment of Ross' ongoing good Samaritan work. That was good to hear; it likely indicates that the department is taking the incident seriously.Ross is well-known to some in the Police Department and City Hall; his volunteerism on behalf of San Diego's homeless has occasionally brought him before the City Council. This was probably a case of a single ignorant cop hopped up on too much testosterone and with an ingrained distaste for street people; the department must hold him accountable for his actions. Furthermore, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith must drop all charges against Marvin Britton and Myron Hill, saving them the aggravation of having to negotiate the criminal-justice system on top of the rigors of homelessness, and saving pro-bono lawyers or pubic defenders the unnecessary time and effort.
But what if Ross hadn't been a well-known good guy? What if some random person had been trying to hand out water to homeless people and a crowd gathered, and this same cop happened to drive up? What about those times when homeless people are mistreated simply because they're homeless.
This incident, unless wildly exaggerated—which is unlikely—shows that there's still much work to be done when it comes to training our cops to interact with people on the street in a humane and understanding manner. There was no need to disperse that crowd in the first place. Just let them get their water and move along. If this cop and his partner were concerned about potential unruliness, they could have hung back and monitored the situation—as if it were a “situation” to begin with; CityBeat has been there when Ross hands out water, and the process is nothing but orderly.There are thousands of homeless people in San Diego, and many of them are concentrated in East Village. Until the mayor and City Council figure out how to get them off the street, the police must do a better job of treating them with respect.
Update: A spokesperson for City Attorney Jan Goldsmith tells us that all charges against Myron Hill and Marvin Britton are being dropped.
What do you think? Write to email@example.com.