by Sikivu Hutchinson
When a white California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer used 51 year-old Marlene Pinnock’s body as a human punching bag he was continuing a bloody tradition of uniformed thugs who’ve assaulted black women with impunity. The unidentified officer’s attack on Pinnock (who is reputedly mentally ill and homeless) was captured in a horrific video by motorist David Diaz. Pinnock was lucky to have escaped with her life. In 1999 a fiftysomething African American homeless woman named Margaret Mitchell was killed by an LAPD officer after an alleged street altercation over a shopping cart. Mitchell’s murder spotlighted the inhumane treatment of homeless people of color. African Americans are half of the county’s homeless population yet the complex mental health and socioeconomic issues that they face make them more vulnerable to long term homelessness than white transients. Mentally ill homeless African Americans are more likely to be criminalized for their condition. They are less likely to receive treatment, therapy or medication for their illnesses and are often misdiagnosed. Nationwide, African Americans are also more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than are whites. But time and again when mentally ill black people “act out” or “meltdown” in public their symptoms are reductively perceived by law enforcement as dangerous, threatening and criminal.
At a recent community meeting with CHP commissioner Joseph Farrow, my father Earl Ofari Hutchinson of the L.A. Urban Policy Roundtable, Lita Herron of the Youth Advocacy Network, and Paulette Simpson of the Compton NAACP, as well as activists from the SCLC and the National Action Network, expressed their outrage over Pinnock’s brutal beating while contextualizing L.A.’s long history of officer-involved murder and abuse in communities of color. In contrast with the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s department, Hutchinson and Herron noted that the CHP has had relatively few incidents of racial misconduct. Yet with a 69% white and an approximately 7% female officer population it’s clear that the CHP has serious “diversity” problems. For many people of color, the overwhelmingly white culture of the agency (according to CHP stats there are only three female chiefs of color in the agency and African Americans comprise 3.5% of all its employees) means that Pinnock wouldn’t have gotten a beatdown if she’d been a white middle-aged woman with mental health issues. Black women, be they mentally ill, elderly, disabled or otherwise, are never proper victims; while white women, the Western ideal of beauty, innocence and femininity, are always perceived as such.
This is starkly borne out in the criminal justice system. Nationwide, black women are overrepresented in the prison population, often receive harsher sentences if they are darker skinned and, next to black boys, have the highest rates of suspension and expulsion in K-12 schools. There is no question that a video with an older defenseless white woman lying prone on the ground being knocked senseless by an officer of color (or a white cop for that matter) would’ve had the entire nation up in arms demanding the officer’s immediate termination and prosecution. Although the agency pledged to do a thorough and swift investigation, activists have called for a probe by the Department of Justice and the appointment of a special prosecutor—all recommendations that Farrow claims to be comfortable with.
When questioned about whether the agency’s training procedures were “culturally competent”, Farrow showed a three minute video clip showcasing stats which underscore the gravity of the state’s mental health crisis. Mentally ill folk are more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement. Over 1/3 of the homeless suffer from mental illness, and, shamefully, the L.A. County jail system is the region’s largest “mental health” facility. It is no coincidence that a significant number of those housed in county jails are African Americans afflicted with some form of post-traumatic stress and/or mental illness.
After the beating Pinnock was arrested, put on a 72-hour hold and is currently at the hospital. Despite the CHP’s claim that she did not suffer any injuries from the assault, her family says that she is recovering from severe injuries. The officer is currently on paid desk duty. And as the history of excessive force investigations have shown, law enforcement thugs and criminals have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting prosecuted much less convicted.
The public can keep the pressure on the CHP for full transparency in its investigation by pushing for the creation of a citizen’s advisory panel. It can also join the call for a federal probe of the beating and the appointment of a special prosecutor. Finally, it can push the CHP to make good on Farrow’s claim that the agency wants help recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce comprised of more people of color, white women, disabled and LGBT folk.
CHP Commissioner Joseph Farrow (c/o Chief Calvin Aubrey firstname.lastname@example.org, 916-843-3002)
U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte (c/o Bruce Riordan, email@example.com)