A memorial for Raymond Johnson outside the Moreno Valley Burger King where he struggled with police. Stan Lim/Staff photographer
I talked extensively today with Woodie Rucker-Hughes, president of the Riverside NAACP, about the death of a Moreno Valley man after a confrontation with Riverside County sheriff’s deputies.
Raymond Johnson, 41, died Friday outside a Moreno Valley Burger King shortly after Riverside County sheriff’s deputies repeatedly struck and kicked him, and after witnesses said Johnson was shaking and flailing about uncontrollably. The cause of death hasn’t yet been determined.
Space constraints meant a lot of my interview with Rucker-Hughes didn’t make it in the story. So I’m including more of it here, along with reactions from Moreno Valley Unified School District board President Cleveland Johnson, school board member Denise Fleming and Moreno Valley activists Librada Murillo and Alicia Espinoza.
My colleagues and I have been trying since Sunday to get a police comment on the incident, but they have said little.
Sgt. Lisa McConnell, a spokeswoman for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, responded in an email to Asbury that “due to the fact that this is an ongoing investigation, we are unable to answer specific questions.”
I called the sheriff’s department to get comments on the allegations below of deputies mistreating other people but did not get a response (in the two cases I mention in which police fatally shot a suspect, the sheriff’s department in the past had declined to comment to colleagues).
Rucker-Hughes said that after she learned of Johnson’s death, she called his widow, Lawanda Johnson, to express her condolences.
“I said we stand with her as she begins to unravel what happened and to the extent that we could help, we would,” Rucker-Hughes told me.
Rucker-Hughes said that, from her viewing of an amateur video of the incident, police appeared to act with “excessive force and unnecessary force.”
“I don’t know all the things that led up to it,” she said. “All I know is what I saw.”
Rucker-Hughes said it was painful to watch the video.
“It hurt,” she said. “It hurt because I don’t believe any human being needs to be treated like that. I’m looking at six police officers and I’m looking at one man, and that man didn’t have a gun….”
“Why? That’s the question I’m asking. Why? What was provoking that? What could cause them to do that that?”
Witnesses said Johnson was acting erratically before police arrived and believed he was in some type of distress, perhaps because of a medical or mental-health condition or a drug-related reaction.
But police are trained to act with restraint in such situations, Rucker-Hughes said.
“I don’t know how you handle it,” she said. “But I do know you don’t kick him and stomp on him.”
Rucker-Hughes said the sheriff’s department should look into whether more training is needed for deputies and if hiring practices and policies should be re-examined.
Since word spread about Johnson’s death, the NAACP has received 20 to 30 phone calls “from people expressing outrage, saying something’s got to be done, that this isn’t the first time that something like this has happened,” Rucker-Hughes said.
Rucker-Hughes said that for years the NAACP has received complaints from African-Americans saying that “you don’t want to get caught in MorenoValley because you’re not going to get a fair shake.”
Young African-American men complain of being stopped, questioned and asked for identification by police only because they’re hanging out together in the Moreno Valley Mall or elsewhere. The men say police treat them disrespectfully and as if they’re suspects, she said.
Rucker-Hughes said she can’t speak for the veracity of the complaints. “I’m just saying what’s perceived,” she said.
But, she said, they remind her of what she heard about the Riverside Police Department before the 1998 killing of Tyisha Miller by Riverside police led to reforms that improved community relations.
“We’re not anti-police,” Rucker-Hughes said. “We want to be as safe as anyone else. But we want the police to respect us.”
I also talked with Moreno Valley Unified School District board President Cleveland Johnson.
Johnson, who is African-American, said he’s not aware of any especially strong tension between the black community and sheriff’s deputies in Moreno Valley.
“I haven’t spoken with many African-Americans who have had a problem with the police,” said Johnson, who is not related to Raymond Johnson.
School board member Denise Fleming, who also is African-American, declined to be interviewed.
In a written statement, she called for “a thorough investigation of this incident.”
“No man, regardless of the color of their skin, should die in the custody of the very organization designed to serve and protect them…,” Fleming wrote. “We realize that this type of incident is not an ongoing practice in our community and if racial profiling exist(s) it will not be tolerated.”
Rucker-Hughes said any investigation must be conducted by officials from outside the sheriff’s department to ensure community trust in the findings. Right now, only the sheriff’s department’s Central Homicide Unit and Moreno Valley police – which contracts with the sheriff’s department for services – are investigating Johnson’s death.
Rucker-Hughes said the California attorney general’s office – and perhaps the U.S. attorney general’s office and the California Highway Patrol – should investigate the circumstances of Johnson’s death.
Moreno Valley has been majority black and Latino for years. In the 2010 census, the city was about 17 percent black and 54 percent Latino (more recent data is not available because of the federal government shutdown).
Latinos also have complained of police harassment and lack of respect.
Community activist Alicia Espinoza told me police actions on Friday were part of a pattern.
She said she has heard of repeated instances of police harassing and roughing up Latinos and African-Americans.
Police say Jesús Castillo was shot in July 2012 after he tried to take away a deputy’s gun. His family says he was shot in the back while walking away from the deputy.
The sheriff’s department also said the December 2012 shooting of the handcuffed Lamon Khiry Haslip was justified because he had a gun. In March, Haslip’s mother filed suit against the county, alleging that deputies had unjustifiably shot Haslip and that they were negligently trained.
Espinoza said the incidents indicate a need for more extensive police training.
Librada Murillo, an activist in Moreno Valley on education and police issues, recalled how when she was pulled over for speeding about four years ago, she and the sheriff’s deputy weren’t able to communicate because she spoke little English.
“Instead of trying to understand me, he made fun of me,” Murillo said in Spanish, recalling what she said were the facial expressions and mocking tone of voice of the officer.
More officers arrived, but none spoke Spanish, she said. The first officer briefly handcuffed her – Murillo said the cuffs were put on tightly, despite her complaints of pain – when she initially refused to sign an English-language document because she didn’t understand it. Murillo said she eventually signed it so she could leave to pick up a waiting child.