Blog Post: July 12, 2020

      Experiences with Police Brutality by Joseph Rollins

      When I was a teenager I was what my father called a shit-head. For anyone unfamiliar with what my father was alluding to, he meant that I was always causing problems. I looked for trouble, and when there wasn’t any, I made some. Never big things; small ones. An argument with my sister that I both started and ended with a flurry of name calling. Stealing cash from my mom’s purse to buy beer on a school night. I smoked a ton of weed in high school and dabbled in more serious drugs. I was expelled my senior year when the school’s administration caught up with the excessive amounts of truants I had accumulated; I lived like Ferris Bueller twice a week my junior and senior years (minus the parade, but with a healthy dose of pot).
      I was rambunctious and reckless. Problems at home fed my anger and pushed my teenage dare-devil behavior to another level. I had a juvenile arrest record, although I never faced incarceration as a minor. Caught popping off the side decal of a Camaro with a screwdriver, stealing and a bottle of Seagram’s 7 from Albertson’s. Arrested for possession of a half-gram of hashish. Once I was busted with literally one joint in a state where recreational use is now legal. The cops would take me to the precinct where my mom would pick me up an hour later, or handcuff me and leave me in the back of the squad car for an hour. I did community service a couple times, picking up trash on the side of the road or in county parks.
      When I was 18 years-old, I experienced a half-dozen events that forced a reckoning in my life. Many episodes were good, some were bad. All were hard. That year I made the decision to seriously reduce by marijuana intake while quitting all other drugs. Unfortunately, that led to a string of bad decisions as I looked for a new outlet for my anger. The one I latched onto was an oldie-but-goodie: fighting. I behaved like a street-punk, picking fights with grown men who were both larger than me and acting like shit-heads. I broke a few noses, but also I got my ass kicked a fair amount, seeing as how I weighed a tweeker’s buck-and-a-quarter despite being six feet tall.
      Then one sunny Southern California afternoon I made the mistake of hitting Paul Blart, mall cop extraordinaire. I was trying to chat-up a cute girl, loitering and smoking cigarettes without purchasing anything. The fucker was outright rude, interrupting my conversation, telling me I had to leave, and shutting down my mo-jo with the girl.
      So I hit him. I am not writing this to defend my actions or explain why hitting Paul Blart was the right thing to do. It wasn’t. And it definitely was not the smartest thing I could have done. Immediately after I popped him in the nose, his mall cop partner tackled me from behind and sat on me until the real police arrived. In those few minutes, I spit out the most venomous words I could think of. They were ugly and dirty and a bit deranged, and paved the way for the night to come.
      Perhaps now is a good time to pause the story and give a bit more context. It was 1997, five short years after the Rodney King riots tore Los Angeles apart. I lived in a lilly-white community thirty miles south of L.A. During the riots, I could see smoke layered across the horizon, but I was no where near the action. The adults in my life, parents, teachers, friends’ parents, all condemned the violence as outright stupid. They argued that if African-Americans had legitimate grievances, why would they voice their outrage by burning down their own neighborhoods and committing violent acts within their own community?
      Because there was nowhere left to funnel their anger, that’s why.
      The mall cop incident was actually my first arrest since turning 18, so the procedure was a bit different than before. The sheriff drove me towards the Orange County’s Central Jail, known colloquially as OCJ. I was so rowdy and obnoxious in the back seat, shouting and cussing, that the cop decided to first have me checked at an Emergency Room before taking me to jail. Both wrists were handcuffed to the bed rails while a doctor did a quick once-over for signs of a head injury. I did not make it easy on anybody, cussing and spitting at the doctors and nurses as they came in to do their work. Of everything that transpired that night in the days to come, my behavior in the ER was what I feel ashamed for.
      From the hospital, I was driven directly to the county jail in Santa Ana. I went through the front doors into a room built entirely of concrete and Plexiglas. I sat on a cement bench against a wall with several other young men in handcuffs. When my name was called, I was told to stand facing a wall, feet spread apart, hands on the wall. I was to be searched again, despite having been searched already by the mall cops and the police officer that drove me to the hospital. The guard who searched everyone coming into the jail was a big mother fucker; he easily had a hundred pounds on me. I stood still up against the wall while the cop thoroughly patted me down. Then he reached between my legs and grabbed my junk.
      I was surprised, and reacted on that.
      “What the fuck,” I said, closing my legs and turning my head without removing my hands from the wall. The cop hooked me underneath my armpit as a second cop hooked his arm under my other arm. I was dragged backwards through a door and down a hallway lined with Plexiglas cells, taken into a cell, and slammed face-first onto the concrete floor. The big cop that searched me stomped on the back of my head, pounding my head into the floor a second time with his boot heel. He held his foot there while the second cop pulled off my shoes. They were out of the cell with the door shut behind them before I could bring myself to roll over. I undoubtedly suffered a severe concussion. It took me several minutes to sit up, and longer to process where I was and why I was there.
      It was an unimaginably long night in that Plexiglas cell, pacing the eight feet wall-to-wall, pivoting and walking back again. The booking process I went through is a haze; mostly I just remember pacing the floor that night. At some point the next day, I was moved to a general holding cell with other inmates still in their street clothes. My turn came to trade my clothes for an orange jumpsuit; a cop tossed a uniform at me and told me to strip. I said no. He repeated himself. I said no again. I did not swear or call him juvenile names or spit out a bunch of empty threats.
      I said no.
      Four cops dragged me down another cement hall and tossed me in a cell. One cop knelt on my neck. Two cops kicked in my head and body while the fourth wrestled my clothes off. I cursed them and threatened to somehow, someway, find them and do them bodily harm. They left me naked and bleeding on the floor, slamming the door behind them.
      I was fed meals through a slot in the door. I used the call button to ask the guards for clothes every few minutes. A female prison psychologist came by with a clip board and asked me a series of questions through the intercom outside the Plexiglas door. I ignored her questions and repeated my plea for clothing. I ate six meals completely naked in that cell before a plastic orange robe that barely covered my butt was brought. Another three meals passed before I was an orange jumpsuit and taken to a general population cell block.
      At this point the lesson of saying yes sir to the police had been thoroughly beaten in. But while I acted the part out of fear, to this day I have never respected the boys in blue. Although I did not have another altercation with the cops for the rest of my two week stay, I was in two minor fights with inmates. In one fight, I kicked the guy’s ass. The other I probably lost by decision, but it was close and over quickly. Neither opponent landed a solid hit to my face or head. For the most part, the inmates were kind to me; they seemed to understand what I went through.
      At some point my mother hired a lawyer. He met with me and laid out the eleven counts of assault and battery on police officers, as well as the domestic terrorism charges stemming from the outrageous threats I made to come back and kill the cops who beat the shit out of me. The district attorney was pushing for two years. I was dumbstruck when the lawyer asked me to explain my actions. My entire face was black and purple, bruised and covered in cuts. My eyes were swollen shut after the second beating; by the time I met with the lawyer, I could partially see out of my right eye.
      “Look at me,” I said. “I didn’t assault anybody. If anything, I’ve been assaulted.”
      The lawyer listened, nodded, and left. On my court date, he informed me that he had plea bargained the charges down to a single count of assault for spitting at a nurse in the hospital. If I plead guilty, I would be immediately released on probation, with court ordered therapy and fines and a half-dozen other hoops to jump through. I followed his lead and was released that night. I never doubted that if my family could not afford to hire a lawyer, I would have been incarcerated for two years.
      Later when I raised the question of the police brutality to my parents, probation officer, and court-order shrinks, I got the same response every time. The police claim that the inmates beat you up. I readily admit that I had not earned anyone’s trust due to years of lies and general shit-head-ed-ness. But the unified response destroyed what little trust I had left in the people around me, as well as the judicial and mental health systems. It took another bite out of my faith in humanity.
      To give context to the extent of my injuries, twenty years after the events in OCJ, I took a softball to the schnoz and broke my nose yet again. It healed crookedly, compounding allergies into a chronic condition. I saw a specialist to straighten my deviated septum, who sent me get an MRI of my facial bones before operating. She informed me that both my eye sockets had been shattered at some point; the layer of fatty tissue between the socket bone and my left eyeball had been forced out. She claimed to have only seen this in people who lost their vision due to injury. I was forced to see several psychiatrists and therapists of all different specialties after my time behind bars, but never a medical doctor.
      Recent events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement compelled me to write this. I read continuous accounts of people getting the crap kicked out of them for openly defying the police. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of white people have been gassed, beaten, blinded, cut, and broken at the hands of our nation’s failed police force. Small children and old men. Thousands have been arrested; a substantial majority herded and trapped until curfew passes. All because they had the audacity to directly petition the police to stop assaulting and killing African-Americans.
      In a sick, twisted way, I feel vindicated. The system is broken. The men and women sworn to protect and serve, whom we respect without question and carry deadly weapons to protect us with, are often the most violent criminals. Black Americans experience the same brutal treatment I did, only they do not have to act like shit-heads first. And no one has listened. Even in the last few years, the concept of widespread, systematic abuse at the hands of peace officers was dismissed by politicians and white Americans in general. Suddenly, there are thousands of new stories told by otherwise-privileged people about the truly brutal nature of America’s police force. We will see if we all listen this time.

More blog entriesBack to Top