By David Beck-Brown
"Amerikan Gestapo" is a collection of musings on topics ranging from the militarization of American police to the desecration of the Bill of Rights.
Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I had the opportunity to host two Russian nationals through a program sponsored by the Library of Congress. The morning she left for home, Tatiana, a University of Moscow professor, spoke these departing words: "David, fall to your knees daily and kiss the Constitution. It's the only document separating your country from all other nations." Unlike many Americans today, Tatiana understood the Bill of Rights, by design, protects us from becoming a Police State, stipulates vital checks and balances between our Judicial, Executive and Legislative branches, guarantees our fragile liberties, and as such requires no revision.
Seventy years after the fall of Hitler's regime, any United States citizen who cares about the Constitution, must question recent and ongoing events occurring on American soil, reminiscent of die Fuhrer's mindset. Police have become militarized. Law-abiding citizens are the targets. Who's calling the shots now?
From Sea to Shining Sea
The Big House
Prisons are well-funded schools for the criminally inclined. Lessons learned inside are comparable to a Master's degree in Criminal Justice, including the material contained in the San Quentin publication The Anatomy of a Set-Up. Few people realize hits can be arranged from inside prison. Yearly, hundreds of cell phones are smuggled into prisons and used for narcotics deals or to buy alcohol, prostitutes and even weapons. Need protection? Need to orchestrate a vengeance kill? For the right price, it can be instigated from the inside out.
The Netherlands, Sweden and Germany have lower incarceration rates than the USA, mainly because low-level criminals remain free to pay restitution to their victims. These countries continue to close penal facilities due to declining recidivism rates. In 1981, I toured a Dutch maximum-security prison. The environment was less hostile than our prisons. Most noticeable was the absence of the stress-invoking jailhouse din that permeates our institutions.
Here, incarceration is not about rehabilitation or public safety. It's about preserving California's 10 billion dollar Corrections budget. We're not only continuing to build new prisons, we're adding beds to the ones we already have. In 1980, California had twelve State lock-ups with an inmate population of 22,500. In 2009, the prison system had ballooned to an inmate population of 172,000, all housed in 33 prisons statewide, most of which were built during the mid 1980's smack dab in the agriculture belt of the Central Valley. In the early 2000's, a Federal lawsuit mandated then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to address the issue of prison overcrowding. His solution? Ship 10,000 California inmates to private prisons in neighboring states after receiving an anonymous $250,000 campaign donation. Follow the money. He won't be back.
A new trend is to house inmates in 'for-profit' prisons contracted by the State. These privatized prisons demand inmate populations kept at 90% to full capacity. If the inmate population drops, the corporations will sue the State for breach of contract. Consider the conundrum. If crime rates have consistently dropped since 1992, why are California lawmakers predicting our prison population will rise by 2020? Then consider who will be sleeping in these corporate beds. Watch your back.
Snitches & Rats
To be admitted into the FWPP, CIs must have a supporter in Congress and can only qualify once they've admitted to their crimes. One CI was purported to have confessed to so many brutal murders, his interrogator stopped debriefing him to read him his Miranda Rights, per Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) protocol at the time. Some rats have to learn how to shut their traps. He was accepted into the program.
Worthy CIs are given a new name and a new address. Some have been known to go so far as to undergo plastic surgery for a new face. A reliable CI can never return to his old hood. A vengeful grudge cuts deeper than a scalpel.
A case manager whose assignment was to create new identities for CIs once shared why she had left the program. One morning her supervisor, in a state of panic, contacted her. He needed to tell her face-to-face. The remnants of her co-worker had been discovered still hog-tied on the railroad tracks following the passage of a speeding train. Message received. The horror of the incident caused her to experience a rare medical condition wherein shock causes the inability to physically speak for several months. In other words, she remained silent. Funny how the body reacts when it chooses to survive.
When recruited as an educator to the FWPP, my supervisor advised me personally not to accept the assignment. He warned me CIs would kill their own mothers and were the "worst of the worse," lower on the criminal totem pole than child molesters. He informed me if I were to eliminate one, I'd be a rich man. Mob bosses pay millions for offing a CI. My training was direct and honest.
I often worked alone with male CIs. I kept them busy and distracted by any means of creativity ~ writing, painting, drawing, poetry ~ often with no guard in sight. For the protection of my "students" and myself from the general population, we were secluded in an undisclosed location of the institution. Ordinary criminals hated the CIs.
To get to their housing unit, I took an elevator, passed through multiple security checks, and signed three legal ledgers while passing under several mounted cameras. One correctional officer, armed only with the rings on his fingers, was assigned to the informants' quarters where I worked. A wall mounted alarm button was on the far side of the room. Few officers could pass the government background check required to work with the CIs. A disturbance would have been long over by the time back up could arrive. Inside the program, my safety was in the hands of the CIs. I was no one's "bitch", but I knew the critical value of choosing my "friends" wisely, in order to survive the dynamics of a prison subculture. The boys referred to me as "Dudley-do-Right." I had earned my prison handle. A right of passage. An understanding that inmates run prisons.
To obtain my clearance, I had to document all of my past activities and travels. Upon passing the background check, I was assigned an FBI number. Only then was I able to begin working within the "Briar Patch."
Inmates in the program gossiped about one another. One story circulated about an enforcer (an individual within a criminal organization designated as a hit-man) whose code name was Scorpio. Drunk on Jack Daniels while skinning a woman alive, his partner, unable to handle the task, convulsed and released her. She survived. Her report to the authorities led to Scorpio's arrest. Even a psychopath can be flipped. Scorpio became a CI to save his own skin. His testimony was vital in crippling two notorious crime organizations and neutralizing a possible gang war between the two. Years after leaving the program, Scorpio found me through an on-line search. He sent me a Youtube video of him reading poetry. I thought, "What is he thinking? He's a wanted man." He told me, "I'm not afraid anymore. I'm getting old." He wanted me to write his life story. "Dudley-do-Right" reminded him of his brother.
Andrew Gramby Hanley was another CI in my program. Hanley used his real name as a CI. He and his father intimidated Nevada businessmen, killing over 50 people and burying their bodies in desert graves on the outskirts of Las Vegas. The Hanley's stories are told in Vegas Rag Doll, a book written by Joe Schoenmann & Wendy Mazaros. As an informant, Hanley told me he never revealed meaningful information. He said there are more bodies buried in the desert than one can imagine. Hanley had a hand-made poster on his cell wall, asking the question, "Can you keep a secret?" He often tried to get the best of me. Scorpio, however, wouldn't let him. Scorpio said he'd take care of any inmate who threatened me, if I were to smuggle in a peanut butter and cream cheese sandwich for him. He knew I wouldn't do it. However, when he posed the "deal" in front of Hanley, while smiling and locking his gaze, Hanley quickly left the area. Mutual respect. Hanley later told me Scorpio would practice martial arts at night, in a slow and haunting manner.
As with most government crimes, no charges were filed against Hoover or his subordinates. To get away with murder, cops commonly say, "I feared for my life." Unfortunately, the protection of government criminals continues to this day.
After Weaver missed his court date, sharpshooters were summoned to his property by ground and by air, via two Air Force C-130s. Weaver defended himself and his family per his Second Amendment rights. The aftermath of the raid resulted in the death of the family dog, Weaver's 14-year-old son and his wife, who was shot from a helicopter while sequestered inside the cabin. Weaver survived. Later, courts awarded him a $3.1 million wrongful death settlement.
Unlike the actions at Ruby Ridge, the FBI showed restraint at Waco. Unlike J. Edgar Hoover, who used the news media to his advantage, the FBI director in 1993, William S. Sessions, would not allow agents to speak publicly about any investigation. This policy led the public to believe the FBI had conducted itself unprofessionally at Waco. Yes, mistakes were made. However, for a long time thereafter, respectable FBI agents bore the ridicule and condemnation of the news media and the public it influences. The FBI took the heat for the ATF at Waco. They may have won the battle, but they lost the war of public opinion. Three months after Waco, Sessions became the only FBI director in the history of the organization to be dismissed from his post, by then President Bill Clinton.
No charges were filed against any of the law enforcement officials involved with the killings at Ruby Ridge or Waco. All were exonerated. In fact, many were promoted. Case in point: Has San Diego County Sheriff William Gore's participation in Ruby Ridge harmed his career? Here's the real question. Rather than firing Sessions, if law enforcement officials involved in both sieges had been individually held accountable, could Timothy McVeigh's actions in Oklahoma have been prevented? Both incidents became his motivation to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building with a fertilizer truck bomb in 1995, on the second anniversary of Waco. Nineteen of the victims were children attending daycare in the building, their parents having just left to start their 9 to 5 jobs. Could these children's lives have been spared along with those who died in Waco? We will never know. McVeigh's life certainly wasn't spared, and rightfully so.
Dorner's rampage was based on his belief that the LAPD had wronged him. His grievance pertained to growing frustration over top brass' failure to clear his name following a departmental incident. Dorner had followed protocol and exhausted all Internal Affairs proceedings. Clean character is more important to cops than a polished badge. Smearing one's name in the criminal world can get you killed. Apparently in Dorner's case, hell hath no fury like a pig scorned. He began his revenge by committing a double homicide in Los Angeles. One victim was an attorney connected to his case.
Dorner included the following statement in his lengthy manifesto published on-line: "The LAPD has not changed since the Rodney King days, in fact it has gotten worse. The only thing that has evolved is the participants have been promoted to supervisors, commanders and executives. The question is what can you do to clear your name?" He also stated in his manifesto he knew that he would be poorly portrayed in the public eye.
At the conclusion of his killing spree, Dorner isolated himself in a secluded cabin near Big Bear Lake with representatives from multiple law enforcement agencies surrounding him. No escape. By the time of his death, sections of the cabin had been destroyed by heavy equipment. With Big Bear outside the boundaries enforced by the LAPD, instructions were given for them not to participate. LAPD ignored the order. Dorner, after all, was one of their own. They brought their SWAT team in by helicopter, using ropes to lower the team. The weather forecast for that night was below freezing, which would have assured Dorner's death by morning, since he lay mortally wounded. However, in a grand use of force and after banning the media, law enforcement set off combustion bombs, engulfing the cabin in flames. Forever silenced, Dorner's story will never be fully told.
Fast & Furious
The Department of Justice (DOJ) spearheaded the operation by targeting federally licensed firearms dealers who would be willing to provide inventory to undercover ATF agents. The agents would then, unbeknownst to the dealers, sell the guns to drug trafficking organizations. The goal was to track the flow of firearms into the hands of cartels. Over 3,000 guns were purchased and distributed on both sides of the border. The result? The recipients killed innocent Mexican and American citizens, as well as two federal agents. In California, a state with some of the strictest gun laws in the nation, dealers declined to participate in Fast & Furious. With strong noses for sniffing out setups, they knew 'straw deal' transactions, particularly with firearms, are illegal in any state. However, several Arizona dealers fell for the trap, a mistake they will regret forever. It remains to be seen if the man in charge of this lethal faux pas, Attorney General Eric Holder, feels the same.
In the fall of 2012, an undercover DEA agent shot and killed a Chula Vista mother of five who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her name was Valeria. My contacts in law enforcement informed me the agent, in plainclothes, approached Valeria as she was trying to drive away from an alleged drug house where she lived. The agent, there to serve a warrant at the house, shot at her while standing squarely in front of her car. He didn't stop shooting. Instead, he jumped onto the hood and fired a second magazine through the windshield.
A standard magazine holds 10 bullets with one in the chamber, but law enforcement usually has 46 rounds at their disposal. Later, referring to Valeria, the agent said he "feared for his life." The media spun the story and stated only a few shots were fired, apparently ignoring the glaring evidence of countable bullet holes in the still-shot of the windshield. Law enforcement officials often twist news stories to manipulate the public. The truth is Valeria is no longer with us to tell us how much she feared for her life. Could she be in the program?
Police Hot Stop: It Could Happen to You
Sharon knew I collected found objects from the streets for my art installations. Inner city residences often place discarded objects on sidewalks for others to utilize. Sharon asked me if I wanted the yellow thing, to which I replied, "Of course." While I left to get my car, Sharon stood by the object. Together we picked it up and placed it in the hatchback of my compact hybrid Honda. At the time I was on temporary disability, recovering from arm surgery, a torn ligament and a broken leg, which required me to walk with a medically prescribed, aluminum cane. The latter two injuries occurred on the grounds of RJD.
While driving away, I became aware of a man driving recklessly behind me. After stopping at the curb to let him pass, the man sped up, pulled over in front of me and backed his pick-up truck into my car, concealing his back license plate. The impact left an impression of his tow-bar in my bumper. We thought we were being carjacked. The driver rushed to my door, reached through the open window and tried to grab my keys from the ignition. I pushed him away while still harnessed in my safety belt. Again, and again he opened my door grabbing for my keys. I forced him back. Then he began yelling, "He has a gun!" which was a lie. I was unarmed. To counteract my assailant, I pulled at the door handle so hard it ripped off. Sharon was tugging at my shirt from the passenger seat fearing the man would hurt me if I got out of the car. The man wanted the object we had picked up, so I said, "Take it!" and popped the trunk. He took it. But his rage didn't quell.
I used my cane from inside the car to jab at the man (whom I now call 'the thug') with non-lethal blows to his upper chest and shoulder area, based on Prison 101 training. Since the tower guards are the only armed staff, I learned alternative ways to maintain control during volatile situations. If circumstances escalated, we were to focus on nonlethal tactics for resolution. Without this training and with my adrenaline high, I could have killed the thug. But I didn't. Instead I seized the opportunity to execute a James Bond departure. I drove the hell away.
Sharon implored me to drive straight to police headquarters. The problem was we didn't know where it was. I drove the speed limit and obeyed all traffic signals trying to find the station. San Diego doesn't post signs for police stations. Apparently the locations of the library and horse shows are more important. En route, Sharon called 411 to ask for directions. Once connected to the SDPD, however, she was placed on hold. Too late. Across the street from our destination we became victims of what we later learned is called a Hot Stop.
The streets looked like a parking lot of black and white squad cars. More than a dozen guns were aimed at us. A helicopter hovered overhead. We were sitting before a firing squad as we heard the ch-ch-ch of ratcheting firearms. A Glock was pointed sideways at Sharon's head, 'gangsta style.' Neither of us had been told why we had been stopped, nor were we read our Miranda Rights. We were cuffed. My car and Sharon's purse were searched without permission and I was charged with three violent crimes worthy of 25 years to Life in prison: (1) Assault with a Deadly Weapon (for my aluminum cane) (2) Industrial Robbery (for the found object) and (3) a Weapon's Charge (for an imaginary gun). Sharon? She was let go, a puzzling decision. If my 'crimes' were so bad, she should have been charged as accomplice. Letting a teacher go was their first mistake. Falsely arresting an artist was their second. The first thing Sharon said after my release was, "Draw his picture. Now."
I spent the night in County jail on a cold, concrete floor with no blanket or toilet paper. It took seventeen hours to process me. My bail was $130,000. Yet no charges were filed? Something was up. I had and have no criminal record. I had and have an FBI number. My car license plates qualify me for DMV confidentiality based on my employment at RJD. I had worked in the criminal justice system for over three decades. Why was I being framed?
I tried to get my bail money back by first going through my bondsman, who told me I had to go through the City. The City told me to go through the DA and the DA told me to go back to King Stahlman. No one had the answer to what seemed like a no-brainer: "Why should I shell out $130,000 with no charges filed and no arraignment?"
The driver of the pick-up truck, whom Internal Affairs later claimed was the foreman of a construction company, knew too much. All signs indicated he was an undercover agent. (1) He said I had a gun, which automatically generates a weapons charge even if it's not true. (2) He inflated the monetary value of the yellow object, which bumped that charge from a misdemeanor to a felony. (3) He knew engaging in the hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect is one of the few circumstances when cops can search without a warrant. (4) He seemed to be calling the shots through the female Detective who led my interrogation. She railroaded me by dismissing obvious indications of my innocence, including Sharon's testimony. The thug told her I had hit him in the mouth, but my knuckles were clean. This should have been enough to prove him a liar. She showed me a photograph of the thug's torso. No face. Exposing an undercover cop's ID would nullify his worth in the field. We believe the thug had a personal investment in keeping us from reaching headquarters. His cover would have been blown had we reported him.
After receiving a threatening voicemail from an anonymous male caller, I met with the FBI. The agent said, "He sounds like a cop." Maybe now he'll be held accountable. Today I carry a copy of the Constitution in my back pocket. I know my rights. Consider doing the same.
Policing the Police
Nothing can justify Christopher Dorner's rampage, but on some level I understand the frustration he must have felt. Unsatisfied with the CRB's conclusion, I spoke with two former members who told me the Board is a rubber stamp for law enforcement. When we began attending Board meetings, members were ridden roughshod by the SDPD Internal Affairs Department (IA) and the City Attorney's representative, the latter of whom would frequently interrupt citizens in the public forum, a gross violation of the Brown Act.
As Nationally Certified Range Safety Officers (RSOs), We know guns can unintentionally fire. Firearms' training emphasizes never point a gun at anything you don't intend to destroy. Therefore, for all intents and purposes, on the day of the Hot Stop, the SDPD was ready to destroy us.
The CRB does not have political over-sight over the police and as such has no power. Law enforcement is protected by a myriad of policies, including the wealthy Peace Officers Association (POA), the California Peace Officers Bill of Rights (POBR), City Charters and the public's perceptions. The bottom line is law enforcement has greater rights than civilians. The difference between Christopher Dorner and me is I uphold the law and I follow procedures. No matter how painstakingly slow the process may be, it must be respected.
The Code of Silence is a mindset within an organization that causes members to lie or withhold vital information due to the threat of being branded a traitor. Police are known to have a well-developed 'Blue Code of Silence.' Classic examples include the Irish- American precincts of Boston and the climate within the New York Police Department (NYPD) as depicted in the movie Serpico.
A New York Times commentary written by Michelle Alexander, the author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the age of Colorblindness," elaborates on why police lie under oath. "Everyone knows you have to be crazy to accuse the police of lying. The odds of a jury believing your word over a police officer's are slim to none. The police shouldn't be trusted any more than any other witness, perhaps less so." A former San Francisco Police commissioner wrote an article in The San Francisco Chronicle stating police culture treats lying as a norm.
In 2011, the NYPD dismissed hundreds of drug cases after it was proven police had mishandled key evidence. Jeannette Rucker, Chief of Arraignments in the Bronx, claimed police officers had provided false written statements, lied in their depositions and given false testimony. Judges, especially the ones who can be bought, tend to rule in favor of police officers. Many DEA cases have been linked to federally funded task forces eager to keep the cash coming.
Aware of the magnitude a weapons charge can pack, such as PC 417(c) or a PC 245(a), beat cops are known to add them to an arrest charge to ensure a collar sticks.
Up until last year, the local POA published a monthly column in their newsletter titled the 'Ipso Facto Files.' Ipso Facto translated from Latin means 'by the fact itself.' The phrase is used to convey the idea that something, which has been done contrary to the law, is void. The column was pulled from publication after Sharon brought its content to the attention of the Executive Director of the CRB. The final column gave insider police information on how a suspect can be detained, arrested and potentially convicted despite having no criminal record. Additional tips included how to use a suspect's website and Facebook page to make them appear more dangerous or to depict them as lacking in character.
There's a difference between justice and a conviction. From my experience, police seek convictions, not justice.
Up in Arms
In a study conducted by The Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, the findings on the effects of restrictive gun laws were surprising in that the conclusion failed to find any gun control initiative that works. In countries where guns are banned, shooting deaths have risen. Luxemburg, which bans all guns, has a murder rate nine times higher than Germany, which allows limited guns. Yet Austria, where guns are not banned, has the lowest murder rate of any industrialized country. That'd be Glock country.
Gun violence and murder rates rose in the European Union (EU) when gun control was enacted. According to the FBI, violent crimes with guns during this same time period dropped in the USA. The FBI also concluded violence associated with guns in the USA is at a twenty year low.
Arming citizens is known to save lives. Unfortunately, the stories that telling how mass shootings are thwarted rarely make the news. For example in Pearl River, Mississippi, a 16-year-old middle school student was stopped from killing fellow students when Assistant Principal Joel Myrick retrieved his .45 caliber handgun from his car. This isn't the first time guns have prevented massacres we'll never read about. As is the case in all school shootings, the Pearl River boy chose his school for a 'soft target'. Until educators see the connection between folks who want to harm others with guns and their current Zero Tolerance policies, a 'gun free zone' will continue to be a kill zone.
Not only does law enforcement have more legal rights than the average citizen, they have more equipment and have more powerful firearms. In Utah alone, 62 police agencies signed up for the White House 1033 (WH1033) program, which allocated $4.2 billion dollars worth of surplus military equipment, from blankets to grenade launchers, to local law enforcement agencies. Whether or not the intent of WH1033 was to militarize our police, that is what has happened. An additional $502 million dollars was allocated by WH1033 in 2011. The New Hampshire police force, along with other police departments around the nation, applied to purchase armored vehicles for $250,000 a pop. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) intends to use their recently acquired 15-ton tanks, and other war surplus armament, to fight against 'domestic terrorism.' Shipping military vehicles back to the USA from the Middle East often costs as much as it did to manufacture them. Military equipment allocated in WH1033 includes thermal imaging devices and other items never considered, let alone appropriate, for domestic use. To his credit, the mayor of Boston vetoed the purchase of 33 AR-15 military rifles at a cost of $2,500 each, stating "arming beat cops with high-powered rifles is counterproductive to establishing trust with residents."
Law enforcement officers often target practice with some 1,500 rounds before reporting to work. The Federal Government is currently stockpiling over 2 billion bullets and 2,700 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) tanks and bulks of full body riot gear. If DHS's jurisdiction is within our borders, as opposed to overseas, why are billions of bullets needed for use on American soil? What are they preparing for?
The availability of ammunition to the public has become scarce. According to the Editor of BearingArms.com, our current shortage of bullets can be traced back to 1997 when a North Hollywood shootout proved the perps outgunned the cops. Since then, government agencies began stockpiling ammunition. Fears of gun control grew when Obama was elected president in 2008, adding to the stress of the market as gun purchases skyrocketed. One-half of U.S. households legally own guns and gun owners are purchasing ammo at an alarming rate. California will soon require individual bullet registration. What are we preparing for?
We the People
Without political checks and balances, any of our three government branches could gain unprecedented powers. Law enforcement needs civilian oversight. My goal remains to effect change for the common good by exercising my Ninth amendment rights. How far are you willing to go?
David Beck-Brown is retired from the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation. He has worked at State, County and Federal lock-ups, including the Federal Witness Protection Program.