Police brutality on the drag

Keeping the peace or shattering it with a nightstick?

By Kamala Platt
April 1990; pages 3, 11; Volume 1, No. 5

On January 26, a Friday afternoon, in front of the University Co-op, a crowd of at least thirty passersby witnessed the arrest and beating of a homeless man who, according to police reports, had been begging. He had been sitting with two other men, one of whom was playing a guitar. When asked if they were playing for money (or panhandling - reports vary) Tommy Winegeard "talked back" to the police. Several counts were initially recorded against Winegeard including begging and resisting arrest. However, the only charge he faces is "possession of drug paraphernalia" - a small pipe was found in his shoe when he was searched at the police station.

When I crossed Guadalupe from campus and came upon the crowd of people, Winegeard was on the ground beneath two policemen, officers Rodger Myers and Nedith Torres. One of them had him in a neckhold so that he could not breathe. His tongue was purple and there was blood drooling from his mouth; his face had turned a color I'd never seen in human flesh. Meanwhile the other policeman was beating him with his nightstick. His T-shirt had been pulled up and his exposed back was covered in swelling welts. Many in the crowd were quietly voicing disbelief and horror to one another and a couple of us began to ask for badge numbers and call out "Police brutality!" One other person - who yelled at the cops in indignation and tried to point out to them that the man's arm was injured (it had been in a sling) and was causing him excruciating pain because of the way it was twisted in the handcuffs - was also arrested. By the time that the policeman released his neckhold so that Winegeard could breath again, I had resigned myself to standing by with absolutely no choice but to watch the suffering and potentially the death of another human being.

Police brutality on the drag

That moment put into flesh and blood a horror I'd experienced previously only in the abstract - powerlessness in the face of suffering and death in the exercise of greed, power, discrimination and outright malice. I thought in desperation, "We need to call the police," then realized that this was the police, that there was no one to call.

Winegeard was not killed that afternoon, although the cops later told one of the others arrested at the same time that if there had not been a crowd they might have shot him. His acquaintances on the street told me sometime later that he had been hit on the head with nightsticks while in jail. This corresponded to the story of one of the students arrested who saw him taken into a cell by four policemen with chains and sticks and then heard beating going on for the next twenty minutes. The police report read that he had to be retained in a padded cell.

Less than a week later a different police officer was suspended for three days from the Austin Police Department for a brutality incident against homeless people that had occurred August 11, 1989; the suspension was the result of an internal investigation of a complaint filed by the victims. Several of us who witnessed the beating of Winegeard were hoping to file a complaint against the police officers, hoping for a similar investigation. Although we had collected a list of ten names and phone numbers of bystanders who were willing to witness to police brutality we quickly found out that only a victim can file a complaint under the Austin system. We could write letter which would be kept on file, but could not ourselves initiate an investigation of the incident. Tommy Winegeard, whose name we knew from police records, did not have an address or phone number. The only direct means of investigation anyhow was internal to the police department. I began to feel that the moment of powerlessness I had felt while witnessing criminal violence was stretching itself out, and I became interested in exploring its implications.

Police brutality

Being a student, I went first to the library, where I found only one report on Austin police-community relations researched and written by a student, Daniel J. Friedhoff, in 1976; as its title indicates, it explores the pros and cons of "Civilian Review Boards for Processing Complaints of Police Misconduct." It was written during a time when the police force was coming under question for racial discrimination and it cited the killing of a Mexican-American man in 1974 by Austin police and "overpolicing" in minority neighborhoods. The paper also included statistics on the complaints received from March to December 1975 broken down by race. Although whites filed more complaints than any other group, 66 percent (45) of the complaints for "excessive/unnecessary force" and 65 percent of the complaints claiming "harassment" were filed by people of color. Complaints by whites outnumbered others under less serious categories, like "conduct unbecoming to an officer" and "discourtesy." Friedhoff did not advocate civilian review boards, however, and if ever seriously considered, such a board has not been established here.

I read several books citing numerous cases of excessive force and unnecessary violence used by police, usually against racial minorities, the economically disadvantaged and homeless, and people whose political views or status in society (often professors and students) made them popular targets for malicious police. I supplemented my academic approach by asking others for their experiences and opinions. I came to realize that between the time that a police officer places one under arrest and one's case is heard in court one has in effect no rights and one is quite likely to be subjected to, at the least, psychological abuse. I also realized how unlikely it is that a police officer would be convicted of brutality in a system where the officer is brought to trial by their victim. Though I found no statistics for police brutality cases, I learned that "approximately 99 percent" of all police killings are found to be noncriminal and many killings which occur under questionable circumstances are never even brought to court. I learned that in Austin at least one case that was being pursued in the internal investigation system was dropped because of threat to the victim/plaintiff.

Tommy Winegeard was originally approached because the police were out looking for panhandlers and he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Ten days later The New York Times reported that a federal district court judge in Manhatten had ruled against a Metropolitan Transit authority ban on panhandling in subways, citing begging as a right protected under the First Amendment. One can only hope that as economic conditions for the unemployed and the underpaid workers in this country continue to deteriorate, such legislation continues to the take the civil rights of the disenfranchised into consideration. However, that is small compensation in the face of the bigger picture: Human rights abuses and violence by those in authority is not just something that occurs in police states and fascist governments abroad. And it is small compensation for those of us in Austin who would like to believe that local authorities are indeed on the streets to be (as they are called in department reports) "peace-officers."

Since that Friday afternoon, I have been asking the question that came to mind the instant after my initial response to the relentless and unnecessary violence that I saw dealt upon a man who was, at that point anyhow, beyond any means to resist: If we can't call the police, who can we call?

The only answer that I see is that we must call on each other as humans with respect for each other's rights to fair and nonabusive treatment in all situations. To be effective in this we must seek strategies together. We must call attention to abuse - another witness suggested afterward that we should have immediately called the media. We've also discussed the importance of photographic evidence; I now carry a small camera beside my UT ID at all times. We must call for the "inalienable rights" of every person to the respected by the "peace-officers" in our midst.

Complaints from witnesses to police misconduct will be filed by the internal affairs division of the police department and might prove to help substantiate the validity of a victim's complaint. Initially I expected such a small action to be useless, but I found the lieutenant in charge of this division to be helpful and concerned. We must call a halt to the abuse of power and we must call ourselves together to break down the police lines of power distinctions.

Only if we refuse to recognize as valid authority that discriminates against and abuses people according to economic and societal power can we ever hope to feel safe from that discrimination for ourselves, our families and friends. We must educate ourselves concerning our civil rights when being arrested - no one will inform you of your rights (outside of TV land) when you or someone next to you is being arrested.

I would urge anyone who lives in Austin and is concerned about human rights abuses, apartheid, and other systems of injustice and discrimination anywhere in the world to also be aware of what is going on in our own front yards. Maybe by actively opposing brutality we can encourage even the "peace-officers" among us to treat their "clients" with dignity - or at least to refrain from "unnecessary violence."