The graphic video posted last week on several Internet sites showing the death of Ernest Duenez of Manteca is a chilling argument for an end to the all-too- frequent use of deadly force by law enforcement in California. His death was only one in a staggering death toll racked up by police and sheriff's deputies. The body count in the past six years is approaching 700. If we executed every man on San Quentin's death row tomorrow, the toll would only be slightly more than the number cops have killed since 2007.
While Duenez died over a year ago, the San Joaquin district attorney's office has only now declared that the officer involved acted properly in shooting the victim 11 times almost immediately after demanding "Hands up!" As usual, the justification was that the officer "feared for his life."
The daily crime reports in the state's press are an archive of bad judgment by police and deputies, a literal record of overkill, with the usual cop-out about other officers who "feared for their lives." Cops who rush into burning buildings to rescue those in danger somehow fear for their lives when chasing a petty crook, or confronting a guy sitting on a porch in Long Beach twirling a hose nozzle.
Cell phones look to police like handguns, so if confronted by the cops, don't reach for your phone. Above all, if halted by an officer, don't ever make a gesture toward your waistband, for that is a fatal move. That can be avoided by wearing overalls. They don't have a waistband.
This year's California death toll is inexplicably high. Over 70 have died in Southern California alone, with probably a few less in the rest of the state. Even in an average year, slightly more than 100 people are killed by California law enforcement officers.
If the death penalty is supposed to be a deterrent, why isn't it working? When the executions took place at a state prison, there were on average about six a year. Now police and deputies kill almost 20 times that number annually on our city streets.
Peace officers killed more civilians in just five years, 2006-10, than California executed in 120 years. Since the state assumed the role of executioner in 1892, 514 death row inmates have died by hanging, gas or lethal injection. Peace officers killed 539 in the five years before 2011.
At least those who died at San Quentin had due process. Those killed on our streets by authorities, such as Duenez, find that the cop or deputy was judge, jury, prosecutor and executioner, all in a split second in Duenez's case, 4.1 seconds.
San Quentin's death row now holds slightly more than 700 inmates. That number increases, on average, by 20 each year as district attorneys and juries continue to demand capital punishment on a small fraction of those who commit unjustified homicide. The overwhelming proportion of murderers are sentenced to prison, not death. But cops make no distinction as to the crime committed, if any, when it comes to firing a fatal bullet.
Sometimes officers respond to a 911 call by relatives or concerned citizens who request help in dealing with a domestic violence situation. Manteca police did not reveal who made the call implicating Duenez. But it was his wife who came out of the house screaming, as seen in the video, rushing to him as he lay dying on the front lawn. As in most such incidents, those who called police wanted help, not the death of their loved one.
There are isolated episodes of outrage in the most questionable deaths. Usually the protests diminish as authorities conduct a lengthy investigation, as they did in the Duenez tragedy. Investigations nearly always end with the exoneration of the officers involved. "They followed department procedures" or an equivalent phrase is the deciding factor. By the time that decision is reached, only the immediate relatives have any outrage left.
When will the slaughter end? Until the public is as angry as the families of those slain, the bloodbath will continue.
Shaffer is a retired professor from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He lives in Los Angeles.