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Still breathing 

That’s what my Grandma would say when I asked her how she was doing.

“Oh, I’m still breathing.” 

It used to annoy me. I thought it was a cheap ploy to remind me of how old and frail she was so I’d feel guilty and move out, allowing her to live out her final days in peace. She must have mistaken me for one of her other grandchildren—the ones with a conscience. I always figured anyone who pickles herself in Icy Hot and thinks that breathing is an accomplishment should be listed as a dependent on my taxes. The only thing sweeter than free rent is free rent and a tax refund from Aunt Sam (bring on your angry comments and letters; I can always use fodder for next week’s column). 

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What I’m saying is that it took some time for me to appreciate the fact that there are certain circumstances—like when you’re over the age of 80 or have a run-in with Paso Robles cops—when you should count yourself lucky to come out of the experience alive. 

And I’m not the only one who thinks so. A Paso Robles police officer was recorded on a police tape telling a suspect, “Well, you should be careful how you treat the police here in Paso Robles, man. You’re lucky you’re still breathing.”

All because the man in question had the temerity to put his hands above his head and ask, “What am I being detained for?” after a police officer ordered him to place his hands behind his back. 

There are a lot of people who will try to paint you as a tie-dye-wearing, patchouli-smelling, criminal-sympathizing hippie freak if you happen to point out that police brutality is a worthy national talking point these days. Never mind the fact that the police seem to agree. How else would we get a video of a cop telling a man he’s lucky to survive an interaction with the cops?

After the man in question—who is accused of stealing a car and a smorgasbord of other crimes, so I’m not exactly nominating him for sainthood or anything—responded to the cop’s order with a reasonable question while his hands were in the air, Officers Michael Rickerd and Jeffrey DePetro responded by grabbing the man, punching him repeatedly, slamming him into the allegedly stolen car, and grabbing their police dog Ir so he could get in on the action. I know all this because I watched the police video—which I hear wasn’t all that easy to obtain, by the way, despite the fact that the police department is insisting that the officers conducted themselves perfectly. I think Chief of Police Robert Burton actually commended their “professionalism and courage” and went on to claim that they “took a violent criminal off the streets of our community.”

The problem is that I don’t see a violent man in his first interactions with the police. Actually, I do see two violent men but they happen to be the officers the chief of police is praising for tackling a man who had his hands in the air and then beating the crap out of him. Math was never my strong suit, but I can’t wrap my head around the idea that one man with his hands above his head, who has given no indication that he was going to attempt to flee, would somehow require two police officers and one dog to resort to such haphazard violence to resolve
the encounter.

While I pride myself on being a street-hardened newspaper columnist-type who is rarely shocked by anything I see or hear, the truth is that the video of this encounter is highly disturbing—and not just because it sounds like one of the officers is screaming “DIE” at the man they’ve wrestled to the ground while the dog alternately runs over to the wrong person, attacks the man laying on the ground with two cops on top of him, and pees on a fence.

I’d criticize the dog’s training and behavior, but in a crisis I’d trust his judgment more than Rickerd’s and DePetro’s, both of whom appear to have botched the takedown without resorting to punches and dog bites. There’s also this niggling little thought I can’t shake: If the cops had a dog at the ready to turn this guy’s legs into Swiss cheese, didn’t they have an easy way to get him if he decided to turn tail and run?

But the thing that disturbs me the most—more than the account in the police report that doesn’t seem to perfectly reflect what’s in the video, more than the apparent excitement with which two law enforcement officers brutalize a man not yet found guilty of any crime (or even informed he was under arrest, for that matter)—is how casually the Paso Robles Police Department is treating the matter. I don’t expect Chief Burton to condemn his officers’ actions—because I’ve learned not to expect it based on how police respond to public criticism of their tactics—but it’d be nice to have an honest dialogue about the relationship between the police and the community. Instead, Burton burps out some drivel about a “very dangerous confrontation,” disregarding the notion that it might have been made more dangerous because of how the officers chose to handle it. Then he chooses not to respond publicly when one of his officers tells a hog-tied arrestee that he was lucky enough to survive an encounter with the Paso PD with both lungs intact.

My advice: If you have run-in north of the grade, and think it’s cool to ask why you’re being detained without being charged with resisting arrest, don’t hold your breath.


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