Pat Perez sat in the back row of the Richmond Citizen’s Police Review Commission’s November meeting, which she’s done every month since 2015. It’s a small conference room, on this night holding all eight review commissioners, and just 10 others, including city officials and representatives talking about police policy and crime rates. Pat Perez was joined by her husband, Richard, and their son Rick Perez Jr. She wore a sign around her neck, with her grandson’s face printed on it. His eyes looked upward.
The police chief and union president both finished their presentation, which included plans for a holiday toy drive. This signified the end of the meeting’s open session, and the beginning of the executive session, which is closed to the public. People filed out of the building, got in their cars and went home. But Pat Perez and her family stuck around in the lobby until the end of the closed meeting, which went on for more than an hour.
After the monthly meeting, she sent out an e-mail summary to some of the commissioners and other community organizers. In the most recent, on November 2, she expressed frustration. “My heart was in my throat, expecting to hear what the decision, about Pedie’s case, would be,” she wrote.
Pat Perez is referring to Richard “Pedie” Perez III, her grandson, who was killed by a Richmond police officer in September 2014.
After an investigation, the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office determined that the cop shot Perez in self-defense. But the Perez family subsequently filed a complaint with the Citizen Police Review Commission (CPRC) in March 2015. A year later, they settled a wrongful death civil suit against the city of Richmond for $850,000.
Yet after more than two years, the Perezes say they show up to every police commission meeting, awaiting results of its investigation in to Pedie’s case. Both Pat and Rick Perez Jr. always wear a pin or T-shirt with Pedie’s face on it. These items also feature a slogan that has become their calling card:
“Justice for Pedie.”
The family is worried that justice will evade him. The CPRC investigation has taken more than a year to complete, because of staffing and administrative issues. They also voice concerns about the group’s ability to complete a thorough investigation, because of laws that protect cops’ privacy. But Both the review commission and the Richmond Police Officers Association say their grievance over transparency can only be addressed by state legislators. But the Perez family is not satisfied by this reasoning. They are convinced that the Peace Officers Bill of Rights is being abused to “cover-up” the deaths of Pedie Perez and other victims of officer-involved killings.
With help from the Oscar Grant Committee Against Police Brutality and State Repression, the Perez family’s campaign has evolved: They now hope to also address use of force policy changes within the Richmond Police Department.
Despite obstacles, the family has remained undeterred, and are looking at a bigger picture.
“Raising my son was a heavy-duty task,” Rick Perez Jr. said, then chuckled. “Now that my son’s gone, this is an even greater task,” he said referring to his mission of reforming policy.
“Because nothing’s gonna bring Pedie back.”
In pursuit of the truth?
On September 14, 2014, Officer Wallace Jensen approached an intoxicated and unarmed Pedie Perez during a security check at Uncle Sam’s Liquors at 3322 Cutting Boulevard in Richmond. While walking in front of the store, someone “believed to be a store employee” pointed out Perez to the officer, and told him that he was “causing problems in the liquor store,” according to a press release from the district attorney’s office, which provided details from Jensen’s official statement.
Jensen suspected Perez was drunk, and told him to sit on the curb. At one point, Perez began walking away from the officer. According the DA’s statement, Jensen “used a judo move” to put him on the ground, and they wrestled while Jensen tried to cuff him.
During the tussle, Jensen said he felt Perez’s hand grip his gun. When they both stood up, Jensen says his hand was still on his gun, so he hit him in the chest, which broke his grasp.
Next, the officer says Perez charged him. So, he shot him three times. Jensen believes the third bullet hit him in the chest. Perez stumbled into to the liquor store and fell to the ground.
In January 2015, the DA determined that Jensen was acting in self-defense when he shot Pedie Perez. He was put on permanent disability leave.
Earlier that month, on New Year’s Day, Rick and Pat Perez came to a vigil commemorating the life of Oscar Grant, who was killed by a BART police officer in 2009. There, they met Gerald Smith, a police accountability activist and member of the Oscar Grant committee.
“We took notice, because they were feisty. They came with their own signs made,” Smith said of the Perez family.
Together, Smith and the Perezes filed a complaint with the review commission, alleging that the city was “covering up” the Jensen’s illegal use of force.
“[Jensen] escalated the situation on his own,” Rick Perez said. “He backed away from my son with the gun drawn and lied about that.”
But the family’s grievance was filed almost six months after the commission’s original complaint deadline, which was 45 days after the incident (the deadline is now 90 days). It was originally denied by the city attorney’s office.
“We said, ‘No, we don’t accept that. Guess what, we’re not gonna go away,’” Smith said of he and the family’s response to the denial.
Felix Hunziker, who is in his ninth and final year as a CPRC commissioner, wrote an editorial at RadioFreeRichmond.com about his concerns over the denial of the family’s complaint. Hunziker felt that the late filing qualified as a “mistake or excusable neglect,” and that Pedie Perez’s death ought to be looked at by the independent commission.
“Our investigator never even told the commission that we received a complaint from the Perez family,” Hunziker said during an interview, referring to a former CPRC investigator. “And to me, that’s just an absolute miscarriage of justice.”
“The citizens of Richmond still have an interest in figuring out what the hell happened,” he added.
Hunziker says that Richmond’s residents deserve answers, such as why the cop used his gun instead of another de-escalation technique. “And that’s what an investigation by us will cover,” he said.
The family and their supporters told city council that the review commission’s investigation was imperative, because, they argued, the one conducted by the by RPD and the DA lacked transparency.
“The police investigation and the DA investigation amounted to a cover-up of the killing of Pedie Perez,” Smith said, putting air quotes around “the killing,” even though he views Pedie Perez’s death as a murder.
In February 2016, almost a year after the original complaint was filed, city council members directed the CPRC to put the Perez case on their meeting agenda. There was just one stipulation: The investigation couldn’t begin until commissioners found a new confidential investigator, since Simpson vacated his position shortly after the Perez’s initial claim was denied.
Enter investigator Lucky Narain: He is responsible for filing a report based on evidence from the police.
“We’re back at square one again,” Rick Perez said of the progress of the CPRC investigation. “The police department is withholding information,” adding that they are waiting on DNA evidence, and a video that a witness allegedly took.
While the CPRC chairperson David Brown says he understands the family’s frustrations, he will not make Narain’s findings public, or put them on the group’s monthly meeting agenda until Narain has “every piece of evidence that there is out there.”
“He could have had his report to us probably last month,” Brown said. “But I said ‘No, we’re not doing that.’
“When we finally do this, I want Rick and Julie Perez to believe that we have conducted a thorough and complete investigation.”
“I don’t know if they will believe that, but that’s my goal.”
Killing and credibility
The review commission’s goal is to conduct an investigation that is totally separate from the police department. The group evaluates policy and looks at claims of “excessive or unnecessary force and racially abusive treatment,” according to the city’s website.
“We’re more like a finder of fact than an advocate for a particular position,” said Brown.
However, he says that the eight-person commission could be operating more efficiently, and cited the absence of a full-time administrative employee to handle clerical work such as printing agendas.
“We struggled for 18 months to get an investigative officer,” Brown said. “We kept hammering [city council], ‘Get us our investigator, get us our investigator.’ And they kept just sitting on their hands.”
Smith and Perez argue that, beyond the administrative challenges, the effectiveness of the CPRC is hampered by legislation, including the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights . They say that these statutes are “misused by police that do have criminal intent.”
But, Richmond police union president Ben Therriault says that privacy laws are in place to protect officers from “frivolous complaints” and unreasonably difficult interrogations and internal investigations.
Therriault, like the Perezes, attends all CPRC meetings to provide “perspective for what it’s like for the women and men who work in the field.”
“A lot of police review commissioners don’t understand these laws,” Therriault said. “I just try to use the opportunity to kind of bridge that gap.”
But Smith believes that the CPRC is being “intimidated by the city attorney” to keep the investigation private. He feels that the police union and city attorney have an ulterior motive.
“They have a conflict of interest with what? The truth,” Smith said, reiterating his theory that these groups are participating “in a cover-up.”
But, assistant city attorney, Bruce Sublet says that he is not trying to help the city hide any wrongdoing. Rather he is making sure that the review commission does not take any action that will result in Richmond’s police union filing a lawsuit against the city.
Therriault seemed unfazed by these allegations. He says that he understands why folks may be more comfortable with a non-police body investigating claims, but says that the police union has no control of the privacy protections that are established by state legislation.
“There’s certain things that [the commissioners] want to do that legally they can’t. And those are things that are above me,” Therriault said. “It’s not something that we’re actively behind the scenes manipulating.”
Therriault reiterated that the bill of rights is not meant to cover up nefarious acts, or protect officers from punishment if their actions are found to be unlawful. He says that that, if personnel records are made public, a lawyer might paint a cop as a bad one based on the volume of complaints, even if the officer is cleared of wrongdoing.
“Let’s say you had access to [an officer’s] complaint file,” Therriault said. “Basically, [these complaints] gives [an attorney] an avenue to put the cop on trial and not the criminal, or the suspected criminal.”
The Perez family and Oscar Grant committee are not the only stakeholders who feel that police protections are problematic. In February 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California introduced Senate Bill 1286, with the goal of pulling back the curtain on how police departments “handle the most serious use of force incidents and confirmed cases of misconduct,” according to an ACLU fact sheet.
To achieve this goal, SB 1286 would make “police agency’s full investigation file, any evidence gathered, and any findings or recommended findings, discipline, or corrective action taken” public record, just like other documents are under the California Public Records Act. But this bill has been stuck in committee for more than a year.
Meanwhile, the Peace Officers Bill of Rights Act stipulates that cops are not subject to “punitive action, nor denial of promotion” if an investigation lasts longer than a year. So, while discipline is off the table, and Jensen is off the force, the family and supporters want the investigation to change policy and clear Pedie Perez’s name.
“When you are killed by the police, there are two murders,” Smith said. “One, they kill your body. Two, they try to kill your spirit and your credibility.”
Locally, Pat Perez and community activist Kishana Harley have drafted the human rights bill. Its goal is to stop Richmond’s tax money from being used to “reward cowardly-incompetent police officers,” according to its language.
Smith believes that bill’s like SB 1286 and Value Human Life are necessary steps in repairing relationships between officers and the communities they serve.
“The police culture is so toxic,” Smith said. “I don’t believe it is possible to fundamentally change it, without changing the laws.”
The Perez family today
The Perezes and Smith took turns speaking in front of the commissioners during the CPRC’s meeting in December, same as they did last month — and the months before. As usual, they gave statements about the progress and handling of Pedie’s case.
And, once again, the commission did not address it.
However, the issues that commissioners say are holding up the Pedie Perez investigation were a focal point of the meeting. City councilman and CPRC liaison Jael Myrick took the brunt of their frustration over agendas not being posted nor printed, and meeting materials arriving late.
And, Brown spoke candidly about his dissatisfaction with the city expanding the scope of responsibilities for the commission without providing proper clerical support.
“Suck it up, and find us some money,” Brown said in response to the reasons for the delay in allocating clerical help. “I don’t do this for fun.”
While the meeting did not end with a resolution in Pedie Perez’s case, Pat says she is unfazed by the idea of returning to the review commission meeting next month.
“We’ll just keep going ’til something happens,” she said after the meeting. “We have everything in it and nothing to lose by going back, we’ve already got our life programmed toward it.”
Some have questioned the family’s motivation, however, especially after accepting the $850,000 settlement from the city. “They just don’t like the outcome of the investigations,” Therriault said. “They could’ve taken that all the way; they didn’t have to take the settlement. And I don’t know what the CPRC is gonna do. What happens if they don’t like the outcome of that investigation?”
But the family says it feels no guilt about accepting the settlement money, and remain adamant that doing so did not stop the emotions they deal with after the loss of Pedie Perez.
“It never was about money,” Pat Perez said. “We would give every penny back and then some if we could only get the truth out there, and that’s all we’ve ever wanted”
Rick Perez said the family settled in part because he did not want to see his wife go through depositions. He also dismissed the idea that the money heals the pain.
“I looked at my son as someone to be around in my old age. Now what do I do got, a little bit of money?” Rick Perez said.
While the window for any disciplinary actions has passed, the Perezes, Smith and CPRC agree that the investigation is an opportunity to start a serious conversation between police, city officials, and the community about department policy.
“I’m not sure that there anything that I can say that would give them any kind solace,” said Brown.
“I wish it was within our power to help them come to resolution about what happened. I don’t think it is. And that’s terribly frustrating.”
Still, the family is continuing their crusade to clear Pedie Perez’s name and apply pressure to city officials about the importance of addressing what they see as problematic use of force and laws that protect cops to the detriment of the community.
“They can’t keep getting away with murdering unarmed citizens,” said Rick Perez, who emphasized that he is not an adversary of the police, rather someone bringing attention to possible shortcomings within the department. He hopes to mend the relationship between officers and the community.
“We’re trying to help them polish their badge. We are not trying to fling mud at them.”