In a recent civil case, a San Jose police officer was found liable for using excessive force on Danny Piña, who was misidentified as a gang member. Piña was wearing a red shirt and police stopped him for riding a bike with a missing headlamp. According to a local newspaper, the jury found that the officer, Allan De La Cruz, used excessive force when he broke Piña’s nose and dislocated his shoulder.
The police officer said Piña resisted arrest, but testimony from neighbors and expert testimony from a former LA police Lieutenant persuaded the jury that the force was unnecessary.
I have a 16-year-old son who is Latino. Ever since he was young, I wouldn’t allow him to wear red, because it was the chosen color of the San Jose neighborhood gang where we lived. Besides not wearing red, I also cautioned him about hanging out in places that might be seen as gang areas. Last year, gang violence resulted in an increase in the city’s murder rate.
When the Marketplace shopping center on Coleman Avenue opened, it became his favorite place to go. To get there, he had to cross over Guadalupe Parkway, and he often walked along the Guadalupe River Trail. One day, a police officer stopped him and asked what he was doing there, if he was homeless and if he was undocumented and living on the river. My son doesn’t even speak Spanish, so this seemed like a far-fetched pretext for stopping him. Always polite to adults, he followed the officer’s request to prove he wasn’t homeless by showing the officer the contents of his daypack, including a receipt from Target to prove he had been shopping.
I only heard about this interaction months later, when I suggested he walk along the Guadalupe River Trail as a direct route to the Caltrains station from our house and he refused. When I pressed him for the reason, he told me about the incident with the police officer. He believes that he will be stopped again if he walks there.
I share this experience because it is a common one with young Latino and African American males in San Jose neighborhoods that have a gang presence. Many of our youth from Bill Wilson Center have talked about how they have been stopped and questioned when walking or riding their bikes downtown. I’m sure that our police officers condemn the behavior of Allan De La Cruz and any other police officer who is out of control like this, but there must be a better way to police our community than stopping and questioning so many youth under the pretext that they may be a gang member.