LONG BEACH — Stuart Harrison was at home watching television with his wife and kids when the police knocked on their door. Ten minutes later, the lab technician was lying face down across the hood of a patrol car, shaking violently. Shortly after, he collapsed. And two days later, the father of three was declared brain dead.
Police said Harrison suffered an apparent seizure while an officer conducted a pat search of him for concealed weapons. The coroner's office, however, classified his death as a homicide or death at the hands of another. Harrison's wife, Lynn, claims Harrison was killed by officers who believed her husband assaulted a woman.
"Police acted as judge, jury and executioner," Lynn Harrison told the Public Safety Advisory Commission Wednesday night. "They can get away with murder."
Lynn Harrison was one of about a dozen people who urged the commission to move forward with a proposal by the local chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People to establish a civilian review board to investigate complaints of police misconduct. Another half-dozen people, including the head of the police union, spoke against the idea.
"We don't like what we see coming down," said the president of the Police Officers' Assn., Doug Drummond, who was accompanied by about 20 police officers in civilian clothes.
When a death occurs while the person is in police custody, "it is investigated by just about everyone known to man," Drummond told about 75 people who attended the meeting. Police officials have said that they consider a review board to be demoralizing and unnecessary.
Deputy Chief Eugene Brizzolara explained, "What these groups are asking the commission to do is what the police chief should be doing."
And Police Chief Lawrence L. Binkley, who assumed his job in March, is "a tough chief," Drummond said. "This is a chief who fires. This is a chief who is going to book bad cops."
The commission, which will further discuss the proposal at its next meeting, heard comments Wednesday night which ranged from staunch support and praise to distrust and fear of the Police Department.
Among the speakers was Cortland Jackson, whose brother-in-law, Charles Edward Magee, died earlier this year of acute cocaine intoxication while being restrained by officers using a carotid hold around his neck, according to the coroner's report. Magee had also been struck with a leather sap on his shins, feet and knees, police officials said. A police investigation concluded there was no criminal action on the part of the officers.
"Police brutality does exist," Jackson said.
Magee was one of five people to die while in the custody of Long Beach police this year--an unusually high number which has further spurred the proposal for a police review board, an idea that has been around for years.
In the wake of those deaths, Binkley has instituted seven changes, including the creation of police boards of inquiry for all police-related deaths and a requirement for monthly training sessions on the use of force.
Seeks Independent Board
The NAACP wants the city to establish an independent board of citizens to review police conduct when there is the loss of life, great bodily harm and other special circumstances.
"You have to come to grips with the fact that people are afraid," Frank Berry, former president of the local NAACP chapter, told the commission. "If you don't deal with it, we will have to go further because it's a legitimate problem."
Commission Chairman Allan E. Tebbetts said such a board would require voter approval of a charter amendment. Commissioners' reaction to the proposal varied, with several members saying they needed statistical proof that such a board was warranted while others said they would support the idea. Commissioners asked the NAACP to bring back a more specific proposal.
Councilmen Evan Anderson Braude and Clarence Smith, who attended the four-hour hearing, said the concept was too vague as presented. Both said they would need to see a more clearly delineated plan before deciding whether to support it.
Berry said he purposely did not present the particulars of the proposed board in order to give commissioners a chance to decide how they would like a new investigative body to function.
Among the options Public Safety Commission members could consider is whether they themselves should assume the responsibilities of a review board. Commissioner Marshall Blesofsky said after the meeting he would support such a move. "That's my frustration with the commission," he said. "We don't have power."
Commissioner Bernard Gleason, on the other hand, said he would feel uncomfortable in the role of investigator.
Berry said he will return with a more specific plan as well as data, but he added that statistics are hard to get because, he said, many who have been subjected to abuse fear reprisal. Berry and others testified that blacks often are subjected to racial slurs, harassment and profanity from police.