A federal lawsuit alleging that the California city of Rancho Cordova “fostered a culture of violence” among local police was filed just weeks before videos showing a white Rancho Cordova police officer pummeling a Black teenager sparked national outrage on Monday. Local law enforcement officials are investigating the latest incident, which reportedly began when the officer stopped a 14-year-old boy for buying a cigar. The encounter escalated, and now-infamous videos circulating widely online show the officer pinning the boy to the ground and punching him several times.
For many, the videos are just the latest example of how people of color, particularly Black and Native people, must turn to social media to seek accountability for acts of racist police violence. Moreover, a lawsuit filed by two brothers arrested in March claims Rancho Cordova has “fostered a culture of violence” that allows its police officers to use excessive force against the public. Together the two cases raise important questions about race and police accountability in the diverse, working-class suburb of Sacramento — and around the country.
Last month, twin brothers Thomas and Carlos Williams filed separate lawsuits in a California federal court alleging that they were wrongfully arrested and violently beaten by three Rancho Cordova police officers on March 23. The two brothers were doing yard work outside Carlos Williams’s new home in Rancho Cordova when a white neighbor mistook them for burglars and called 911, according to the lawsuit filed on behalf of Thomas Williams. Without warning, the officers busted into the yard yelling expletives with their guns drawn.
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The Williams brothers, who are Black, tried to tell the officers that they were residents, but the officers “did not care,” the lawsuit claims. Thomas Williams, an education professor who founded a school for children with disabilities, told local reporters that he was “kneed in the head and elbowed on the side of my face.” The officers later accused the brothers of resisting their orders, but the brothers say their hands were in the air. One officer held Thomas Williams in a chokehold for over a minute until he became unconscious, according to the complaint.
“I said, ‘Man he’s not going to make it.’ I saw the veins and the officer just squeezing him tight,” Carlos Williams told CBS Sacramento.
While Thomas Williams was collapsed on the ground in handcuffs, the officers searched the two brothers and found Carlos Williams’s driver’s license, which made it “plainly obvious to the arresting officers that Carlos was not burglarizing his own home,” the lawsuit claims. Still, the officers searched the home and property before arresting the two brothers and holding them in custody for 20 hours. Neither has been charged with a crime, and the lawsuit alleges the officers have since made numerous false statements to justify the excessive use of force.
Now, five weeks later, a controversy over police violence unfolding in Rancho Cordova has ignited social media across the country. On Monday, 14-year-old Elijah Tufono was stopped and aggressively detained by a Rancho Cordova police deputy identified as Officer Brian Fowell in local reports. On the evening news, Tufono said he had just bought a cigar off a stranger when a cop pulled up and asked him what was in his hand. Tufono said he handed the cigar over to the officer right away, but the officer continued to ask him questions. Frightened, Tufono tried to talk his way out of it and the situation escalated into a scuffle as Fowell tried to put him in handcuffs.
In the video, Fowell is seen wrestling Tufono on the ground and throwing punches into the boy’s abdomen. Tufono was arrested and cited before being released to his family. Videos of the arrest posted by friends and family quickly went viral, drawing condemnation from thousands of viewers as well as former Democratic presidential candidates Julian Castro and Kamala Harris.
This is a horrific abuse of power. This officer must be held accountable. pic.twitter.com/jcAABFzWvj
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) April 28, 2020
While law enforcement officials in Rancho Cordova say they are investigating the use of force against Tufono, it remains unclear if the use of force against the Williams brothers is also being investigated. The Rancho Cordova Sheriff’s Department, which contracts with the city’s police department, did not respond to an email from Truthout. Unlike the arrest of Tufono, it appears that no clear video footage has emerged of the Williams brothers’ arrest, and the plaintiffs are not certain of the officers’ identities. A dashboard camera in one of the police cars was turned off shortly before the incident, and at least one officer repeatedly turned on and off a microphone attached to his body, according to the lawsuit.
So far, the police have made similar claims in both cases, accusing the arrestees of verbally and physically resisting officers attempting to make an arrest. In a statement released Tuesday, the police and sheriff’s department appear to defend Officer Fowell’s takedown of Tufono, saying the teenager “refused to give the deputy identifying information” and “resisted arrest,” causing the officer to lose his handcuffs. The officer “attempted to maintain control of the juvenile” until backup arrived.
“He’s on top of me and it looks like he’s about to hit me,” Tufono said. “Like, I’m reacting like any other normal human being would.”
In similar statements to the media, the sheriff’s department said the Williams brothers were not following directions and became “resistant both verbally and physically.” The lawsuit claims this statement is false, along with numerous statements included in incident reports filed by the officers. The officers charged the two brothers with felony assault and resisting arrest, but the district attorney quickly dropped the charges.
It remains to be seen if and how the police will be held accountable in Rancho Cordova. Tufono said he has forgiven Officer Fowell, but the Williams brothers fear they were targeted because they are Black and face ongoing violations of their civil rights. Thomas Williams told his attorneys that local law enforcement appear to be “engaged in a coordinated intimidation campaign” against his brother, involving “unmarked cars repeatedly circling Carlos’ home, spotlights shining brightly into Carlos’ home at night, and frequent flat tires to Carlos’ vehicle.”
“This is a case of police brutality,” his lawsuit states.