Gary King Sr. tries to avoid idle moments. When he’s not working as a drywaller, he keeps himself busy refurbishing his tidy, single-family house on Congress Avenue in Oakland, California. Sometimes he drums for hours, his hands a blur as they beat out a rhythm. If he is still for too long, the memories of his eldest son’s death come flooding back.
“It’s like it was yesterday,” he said. “It’ll always be yesterday for me.”
His son, Gary King Jr., was killed on Sep. 20, 2007, by Sgt. Patrick Gonzales of the Oakland Police Department. Gonzales, who allegedly stopped King Jr. because he looked like a suspect in a month-old homicide, stunned him with a Taser and then shot him twice in the back. Gonzales says he felt a gun on the youth and fired because he feared for his life.
Witnesses and relatives are not sure whether King Jr. was armed. Police say they recovered a revolver of unspecified caliber and make from the scene. However, no one claims the victim pulled a gun, and witnesses say the 20-year-old was fleeing when Gonzales fired.
In May 2008, the King family filed a federal civil rights suit against the city of Oakland, claiming Sgt. Gonzales used deadly force unlawfully. The trial is set for this September.
The King case is one of three wrongful-death suits against the Oakland Police Department currently in court. The families of Andrew Moppin, 20, and Mack “Jody” Woodfox III, 27—both killed by rookie officer Hector Jimenez in separate incidents in 2008—have also filed federal civil rights suits. Both men were reportedly unarmed at the time of their death. An Internal Affairs investigation cleared Sgt. Gonzales of all wrongdoing in King Jr.’s death, and Jimenez was also cleared in Moppin’s death. The Woodfox case was still under review as this issue of ColorLines went to print.
In 2008, nine people were shot by Oakland police, with six fatalities. In 2007, there were 12 police shootings and five deaths.
Other law enforcement agencies in Oakland have also killed young men of color. This last New Year’s Day, BART police officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed 22-year-old Oscar Grant in the Fruitvale station. Grant was unarmed. His family has filed a $25 million claim with BART.
These shootings and subsequent lawsuits have raised more questions about the department’s training and oversight and further exacerbated long-standing tensions with communities of color. Historically, the violence by
Oakland police served as an impetus in the rise of the Black Panther Party, whose 1966 platform included a demand for “an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people.” Although the police force today is significantly more multi-racial than in those years, residents say officers continue to misue their power.
Oakland police have been under the supervision of a federal judge since 2003, when a settlement was reached in the “Rough Riders” lawsuit in which a group of officers was accused of assaulting suspects, planting evidence and falsifying reports. A team of independent monitors created by the Negotiated Settlement Agreement is supervising an overhaul of departmental policies. Attorneys for all three families mentioned previously say that in the absence of effective, independent oversight, litigation is the only means to compel the department to change its policies.
“The most effective check on the Oakland police has been civil rights lawsuits,” said attorney Michael Haddad of Haddad & Sherwin, who represents the King family.
Indeed, litigation filed after Oakland police officers attacked antiwar protestors at a 2003 rally outside the Port of Oakland led to a new crowd control policy with stricter regulations on the use of non-lethal force. In 2008, a federal judge struck down a departmental policy authorizing officers to conduct strip searches in public.
“Whenever you have to go to the courts to fix your police department, that’s a problem,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York Police Department officer and professor of criminology at the City University of New York-John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Since 2003, Oakland has paid an average of $2,403,877 every year to settle suits against the police.
As his father tells it, Gary King Jr. was a typical American boy. He excelled at baseball, basketball and tae kwon do. He was also close to his three siblings. Born to a Black father and a white mother, he grew up in West Berkeley, where he attended school before the family moved to North Oakland in 2002. At the time of his death, King Jr. was working towards a GED and selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door; he was also expecting a baby with his longtime girlfriend.
King Sr., who was raised with his three brothers by a community activist and single mother in Watts’s Nickerson Gardens housing project in Los Angeles, says he raised his children as a disciplinarian, admonishing Gary and his brother, Jamayah, to act respectfully towards police.
Once his sons stepped out of the house, however, they were in a different world with different rules. Shortly before his death, King Jr. was robbed twice at gunpoint by neighborhood youths. Though his father was unaware of the incidents at the time, he did notice a change in his son’s demeanor. The young King also complained to his father about problems with local boys: “Dad, the kids are crazy around here,”
Although he had no criminal record, the young man had repeated run-ins with the Oakland police. On one occasion, he and his brother were stopped and detained by police at the corner near their house. The police said they were looking for a group of armed, young, Black men. The youths were released only after their father intervened.
For King Sr., these circumstances are instrumental in explaining how his son was killed. “Kids like Gary get the worst on both ends, because they’re not involved in gangs, and they’re not financially deprived, but they still walk around with their low jeans,” he said. “Gary lost his life on the way he looked, period.”
On September 20, 2007, young King and three friends were at his family’s house playing video games. Around
3:00 p.m., they went to a liquor store on 53rd Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Sgt. Gonzales was
driving southbound on the boulevard when he spotted the four youths. He swerved across both lanes into the store’s parking lot.
Sgt. Gonzales approached King Jr., and the two exchanged words. Although the subject of the conversation remains unclear, the confrontation turned violent. Witnesses claim Sgt. Gonzales grabbed the young man, pulled him into a headlock and punched him repeatedly. King Jr.’s friends and other witnesses claim that he did not swing at the cop and was trying to get away. Sgt. Gonzales shot King Jr. with a Taser repeatedly while holding the youth close to him, a detail confirmed by the police and witnesses.
King Jr. broke free of Gonzales and staggered across the street. Witnesses say his shirt had been torn off, and his pants had fallen below his waist. Sgt. Gonzales pulled his gun and fired twice, hitting King Jr. in the back. After he dropped to the sidewalk, Gonzales cuffed King Jr.’s hands together. Gonzales said later that during the scuffle, the youth had reached for his waist as if to draw a gun.
Sgt. Gonzales, the Oakland Police Department and the city attorney declined to comment for this story because of pending litigation. In court documents, the city attorney confirms that Sgt. Gonzales shot King Jr. but claims the officer acted according to departmental procedure.
The city’s handling of the shootings by police officers Gonzales and Jimenez underscores for many residents Oakland’s persistent failures in addressing police violence.
“The culture of the [police] department is out of control—micromanaging isn’t going to work,” said Prof. Eugene O’Donnell, referring to the detailed reforms of the Negotiated Settlement Agreement. He believes the agreement shifts responsibility for departmental conduct down to officers on the street, while Oakland’s mayor and city council have “abdicated all responsibility” for the department’s methods.
Oakland police are still far from fulfilling the requirements of the federally negotiated agreement. At a September 2008 hearing in front of Federal Judge Thelton Henderson, the independent monitoring team noted that the police department is in full compliance with only 13 of the 50 criteria required by the agreement.
What’s striking about the agreement is that it’s just one of many ways residents have tried to reform the police department.
Oakland has an independent police review commission, the Citizens’ Police Review Board, which reviews complaints filed against officers by citizens and recommends discipline for sustained cases. The final decision on disciplinary action, though, falls to the chief of police.
The Internal Affairs Division also simultaneously investigates complaints. Its statistics reveal that 1,161 complaints were filed against police department employees in 2007. As of late last September, 1,087 complaints had been filed with the division, and 1,400 complaints were expected to be filed in 2008, according to division chief Capt. Ed Poulson. The division sustains approximately 10 percent of all allegations.
Although independent oversight is simultaneously conducted by the Citizens’ Police Review Board, the
civilian agency receives fewer complaints than the Internal Affairs Division. In 2007, 82 complaints were filed by 88 people, according to the board’s annual report.
Police review proceedings in California have been closed to the public since the 2006 state supreme court decision Copley Press v. San Diego. “The Copley decision eviscerated a lot of what the [Citizens’ Police Review Board] was able to do,” said Haddad, who is representing the King family. He added that the review board is also understaffed and suffers a high turnover rate. “It’s pretty feeble.”
The most recent shootings have reopened decades-old wounds that have never had a chance to heal, according to community activists, and have made young people of color reluctant to join the police. Only 18 percent of the November 2008 police academy class was from Oakland. Cops are not required to live in the city, which is plagued by chronic unemployment (11.2 percent as of November 2008). A police officer’s annual base salary is more than $70,000.
Oakland also has many people with criminal records—about 3,000 parolees—who are barred from employment with law enforcement agencies.
After an initial flurry of protests and press coverage, the story of how King Jr. met his death faded into the background of Oakland’s ever-present street violence. For the King family, the pain is all too fresh. His father says his other children are struggling to cope. As he tells it, Jamayah has become an introvert, his daughter Noele is struggling, and his oldest daughter, Noreen, has become obsessively protective with her young son. The victim’s uncle had been about to graduate from the Los Angeles Police Department’s academy but quit after his nephew’s death. King’s marriage also faltered since his son’s death. He and his wife, Kathy, have separated.
In his free time now, King studies for his contractor licensing exam, drums and paints over graffiti on the BART pillars adjacent to a mural for his son. When he comes home, he often catches himself saying hello and speaking to his deceased son in the present tense. Drumming, he said, helps purge the bad thoughts, the pain and the anger. He takes life now a day at a time, trying to cope with his demons and not let the chasm of his son’s murder swallow him whole.
“I’m getting to know myself all over again,” he said.
Ali Winston is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, California.