You know that tree, the proverbial one that falls in the forest and raises the old question of how we know it made a sound if nobody was there to hear it fall?
Well, that tree comes to mind every time I see a video like this of cops beating someone up because they figure – or at least I figure they figure – that nobody’s looking.
If David Martinez hadn’t installed a surveillance camera behind his tattoo shop in Westminster, it’s likely nothing would have come of the fact that two city police officers hauled off on him, unprovoked, in August 2016.
It went down like this: The North Metro Drug Task Force had a warrant to arrest Martinez on a charge of distributing a controlled substances. Sgt. Steven Holton and Detective Ben Russell of the Westminster Police Department staked out Martinez’s tattoo shop. A video, captured on a surveillance camera installed behind the business, shows Martinez arrived at the back door, and lit a cigar, which he was holding in one hand while holding what looks like groceries and a six-pack in the other. While he was smoking it, with his back turned, Holton – dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and sneakers – approached him swiftly from behind, grabbed him, stiff-armed him in the throat, and slammed him into a wall. Then Russell – dressed in shorts, a T-shirt, and sneakers – approached, helping Holton continue attacking Martinez, then dragging him down to the pavement, choking, handcuffing and arresting him. The attack came so fast, so suddenly that Martinez never raised his hands toward the cops.
The video is unedited, but has no usable sound, which makes it unclear whether Holton identified himself as a cop as he approached Martinez from behind. But it doesn’t much matter. Martinez’s account of the incident – that he didn’t see the cops coming and was startled as they jumped him – bears out in the video footage.
“I thought I was getting robbed. I thought I was getting jumped,” he told his lawyer, Faisal Salahuddin, to relay to me for this column.
Courts records say he had a hernia surgery prior to the incident, and that the attack reopened that wound, causing him to require another operation. They also indicate he has permanent face wounds.
After his criminal case on the drug charge ended with probation and work release, Martinez filed a federal lawsuit against the cops on Feb. 1. The complaint says the officers assaulted Martinez excessively and “without justification” in violation of his civil rights.
Westminster police haven’t returned several inquiries about the case, the officers’ job status, and the videotape, which is attached to the lawsuit.
It’s unlikely that Martinez would have had a viable lawsuit without the video evidence. It’s also unlikely that, without the video, his case would have made news. Let’s face it: It would have been the word of a long-haired, tattooed Latino guy being sought on a drug case against the word of police. All too often, I’m sorry to say, that translates into a non-story.
Which brings me back to that tree falling in that forest, out of earshot, and the nagging question of how we can know – truly know – what we haven’t heard or seen or experienced.
I have no proof that what Steven Holton and Ben Russell did to David Martinez has played countless other times between other cops and other suspects without being captured on videotape. But I have no doubt, either.
It is an act of terrible acquiescence to accept that, far more than we can ever know, there are cops who mess with guys like Martinez beyond the lenses of surveillance cameras, the gaze of witnesses, or the earshot of someone, anyone, with the conscience and fortitude to speak out.
What’s even more terrible is the knowledge that they’re getting away with it.