The Oakland Police Department has launched an internal affairs investigation after a video surfaced on Facebook, capturing an officer spitting on a person who was recording him in public Friday evening.
The short clip shows an officer from the Northern California law enforcement agency throwing a sunflower seed at the man recording the video, then spitting another one directly into the videographer’s face.
The incident apparently began when two young men pulled into a local gas station to make a purchase. They claim an officer at the station began giving them a hard time about their vehicle, accusing them of illegally modifying it.
A friend of the two objected to the harassment, telling the cop “you guys are pigs,” after which the officer radioed for backup. At some point, one of the two men began using his phone to record the interaction with the cops.
More officers arrived on the scene, including the seed-spitting cop. After he threw and then spit seeds at the photographer, the cop adopted a smug, non-caring posture and then says, “If I had another, I’d do it again”.
The men then accuse the cop of assault, claiming that if they did the same thing to the police they’d be immediately locked up. The men are correct that they would most likely be jailed for spitting something at a cop, but the actual charge against them (and the one the cop is seemingly guilty of) would appear to be battery, defined under California Penal Code 242 as “any willful and unlawful use of force or violence upon the person of another”.
Penal Code 243 (c) (2) further states the following:
When the battery specified in paragraph (1) is committed against a peace officer engaged in the performance of his or her duties, whether on or off duty, including when the peace officer is in a police uniform and is concurrently performing the duties required of him or her as a peace officer while also employed in a private capacity as a part-time or casual private security guard or patrolman and the person committing the offense knows or reasonably should know that the victim is a peace officer engaged in the performance of his or her duties, the battery is punishable by a fine of not more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000), or by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year or pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 for 16 months, or two or three years, or by both that fine and imprisonment.
The pair also accuse the officers of improperly searching their vehicle, claiming one officer reached into it even after they specifically declined permission to do so.
Regardless of how one feels about the propriety of calling the police “pigs”, it is protected speech under the First Amendment to do so and cops are not permitted to respond by battering the person making the comment.
Police are supposed to be professional enough to not let petty insults against them (which, frankly, come with the territory) anger them to the point of physical retaliation. In addition, police are well aware by now that recording them performing their duties in public is perfectly legal.
That is especially true in California now that Governor Jerry Brown has signed into law the Right to Record Act. This law specifically codifies filming police as lawful and lays out penalties for willful violations by cops, which are hopefully forthcoming in this case.
Department spokesman Johnna Watson is quoted in the KRON story as saying in part that “We pride ourselves on professionalism, respect for others, relationships and community trust building. We take this matter seriously and will conduct a thorough investigation”.
PINAC will be following up on this story to make sure they do.