The Merced chapter of the National Brown Berets, a Chicano militant organization, has begun routinely filming police actions in the city, something some local officials consider unnecessary and one called potentially “counterproductive.”
Jesse Ornelas, 39, the minister of defense for the organization, said he started the Merced chapter four years ago. Originally from Los Angeles, Ornelas has lived in town for more than two decades.
About three months ago, chapter members began going out almost weekly to film Merced officers as they pull over cars or respond to 911 calls. They use a police scanner or just follow a police cruiser until it stops. Then they use a cellphone or video camera to record the officers’ actions.
“What our intentions are is to hold them accountable,” Ornelas said. “And to make sure that the rights of the person they’re stopping are protected.”
Ornelas said the chapter has five members. The number has fluctuated, he said, because there is a big time commitment. “It’s like a part-time job,” he said.
One hope is that the cameras will serve as a reminder to police that they are being watched, Ornelas said. He noted that even those being arrested in the act of a crime have rights.
Historically, Chicanos have been under-represented by officials nationally and in California, Ornelas said.
He pointed to two highly publicized California incidents in which police actions resulted in the death of unarmed men, saying they could happen anywhere.
Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old Fullerton man who suffered from schizophrenia, died after being clubbed and shocked with a Taser during an arrest last year. And Oscar Grant, 22, was shot while restrained in Oakland on New Year’s Day in 2009.
“I don’t want people to think that we’re anti-police,” Ornelas said. “We’re just anti-police brutality and corruption.”
Ever since the video of Rodney King being repeatedly struck by Los Angeles police officers during a traffic stop surfaced in 1991, police have approached their jobs with a different philosophy, Merced Police Chief Norm Andrade said.
He brushed off the recent filming sessions, saying his officers act within the law. “It is nothing new,” he said. “We have always been under the assumption that we get filmed by people anyway.”
The Brown Berets are within their rights to film police actions, Andrade said, assuming they don’t get in the way of the officers and cooperate when asked to step back.
All of Merced’s officers wear body cameras that generally film from the lapel or chest area. Andrade said the officers are instructed to turn the cameras on whenever they might use force.
He said the video serves both as evidence to protect officers and to catch the actions of the individual. The officers use a Flex brand camera containing a digital video recorder and a wide-angle, 75-degree field of view lens. It contains roughly 12 hours of battery life.
Capt. Tom Trindad said the officers turn the cameras on and off on their own. They are not required to turn them on but are expected to give a good reason why if they do not use them, Trindad said.
“If circumstances dictated they should have turned it on, the officer should have a verifiable reason why they didn’t,” he said.
He said the camera has some limitations because it is filming wherever it is pointing, but it also records audio.
Not everyone in Merced trusts the police.
Tania Perez, 40, joined the Brown Berets last month after what she described as several unpleasant interactions her three daughters had with Merced police. Originally from San Jose, she’s been a Mercedian almost 30 years.
“They’re walking down the street and get pulled over,” Perez said. “It’s not right, I don’t think. They’re not gang-bangers.”
City officials support Merced’s officers.
Councilman Mike Murphy said he is confident Merced police are well-trained and professional.
“I certainly agree that they (Brown Berets) have the right to do what they do, and to have the public know what they find out,” he said. “That being said, I feel confident in the men and women that we have in our police force.”
Councilman Kevin Blake, who is also a sergeant with the Merced County Sheriff’s Department, agrees the Brown Berets are acting within their rights. He said he’s not sure they are using their time wisely.
He described Merced police as “professional and respected,” and said filming them could be “counterproductive.” “If they want to film cops and follow them around, that’s fine,” he said. “I believe we as a community, we should just support our Police Department.”
In a city with drug and gang problems, Blake said, a greater effect could be had by volunteering time with young people or conducting some other gang-preventive effort, as opposed to filming cops.
The Brown Berets remain convinced that their efforts to help people are making a difference. Ornelas said the organization, found mostly in the western United States, is often contacted by people who think they may be victims of police misconduct. He said the organization is there to help them file a complaint with police if they want to.
The group also takes reports of the incidents for its own records, and organizes protests.
He said the filming sessions have captured the police without incident and acting “professional.” However, Ornelas said, the sessions will continue.
“Cops tell us on the street, ‘If you’ve done nothing wrong, you got nothing to worry about,’ ” he said. “If the cops have done nothing wrong, they have nothing to worry about.”