Image via El Paso Police Department
An execution video has become a morbid feature of this week’s news cycle. On screens across the country, click after click, a “graphic” warning gives way to grim curiosity. Viewers see a man whose arms are cuffed behind him. He struggles with officers and squirms on the floor. The executioner draws his gun and shoots. The body bleeds, convulses, and eventually lies still.
In Iraq and Syria, ISIS militants are masters of execution and know the value of a viral death video. But I’m not referring to Iraq or Syria — I’m referring to El Paso, Texas. This week, in compliance with an open records request order, the El Paso police released video of what can only be described as a summary execution. Officer Jose Flores shot Daniel Saenz, a 37-year-old bodybuilder, while Saenz was on the ground and in police custody.
The video released by the El Paso Police Department. The sequence ahead of the shooting begins around 18:00 (can be seen here).
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Saenz had been arrested for reportedly assaulting an off-duty officer and staff at a local medical center on March 8, 2013. Flores and a prison guard were transporting Saenz — shirtless, handcuffed, and struggling — from the city jail to a hospital to treat a self-inflicted injury. Flores fired the fatal shot with a Glock semiautomatic handgun as he and the prison guard wrestled with Saenz outside of the jail.
The bullet went through Saenz’s left shoulder and into his chest, piercing his heart. The authorities called it an accident. They said that the guard knocked Flores as he pointed his drawn weapon, causing it to fire. They said that Saenz could have moved his cuffs to the front of his body and, with his strength, use them as a weapon. They said a taser would not suffice to subdue him.
But the video speaks for itself. The bodybuilder was executed.
When BART police officer Johannes Mehserle shot Oscar Grant dead as he lay face down on the platform at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station in 2009, he was also caught on video (by the camera phones of onlookers). As the footage spread, the streets erupted. Protesters and rioters left smashed windows and burning cars in their wake.
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The video released by the city of El Paso, however, has provoked no such response. The streets are quiet. Of course, the differences in context between the two shootings are vast and multifaceted. It is merely my humble opinion that seeing a cop shoot an unarmed man dead should produce a collective rage so strong that the police can feel it, see it, and smell it.
Officer Flores was not indicted. A New York Daily News report said that “it was not clear whether Flores was still on the force.” It went on to note that “Flores is also the El Paso cop who became the focus of national attention after giving a pair of boots and socks to a homeless man in January 2013.” The Daily News story ends with this reference to the cop’s good deed. The indeterminacy over whether he is or is not on active duty after killing a handcuffed detainee is tucked between paragraphs.
I am reminded of the 2012 story of an NYPD officer pictured giving boots and socks to a barefoot homeless man on a wintery New York tonight. Hundreds of thousands of Facebook users “liked” the image posted online by the police department.
“The NYPD has been on a warpath against the homeless, going back decades,” Jean Rice, a long-time civil rights campaigner and homeless advocate with the nonprofit organization Picture the Homeless, told me at the time. “The kindness of one individual officer is a drop in the ocean of the NYPD’s pattern and practice of violating homeless people’s civil rights.”
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In the case of Flores we are confronted with the fact that a kind cop can be a killer cop too. It might appear inconsistent of me to urge a distrust of cops based on incidents of brutality but not urge an appreciation of them based on incidents of charity and kindness. If this is bias, it is empirically grounded in response to a structure of criminal justice in which a cop can shoot dead a handcuffed, unarmed man and not even face an indictment. A cop can kill a young black man prone on a train platform and face little more than a year in prison for involuntary manslaughter. A cop can kill an unarmed Bronx teen after he runs into his grandmother’s bathroom and have his indictment thrown out by a judge.
“That’s how they work,” said the weeping mother of this slain teen, Ramarley Graham, as fellow cops cheered for their colleague in court. “You see it every day.”
The mother’s use of “they” was appropriate. Anti-police sentiment is regularly met with ripostes like, “But they are people too,” or, “What if that officer has a family?” To such comments I respond that whenever we talk about a cop we’re not dealing with an individual but an institution — the uniform and weaponry indicate as much. Not all cops give warm socks and boots to homeless citizens. Not all cops shoot unarmed detainees. But all cops are part of a violent system of policing, colored by harassment and drenched in impunity. Yes, all cops.
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Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard