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An Epidemic of Brutality: Oakland Filmmaker Feels Police Wrath

Hours after San Francisco Bay Area radio show host J.R. Valrey screened his documentary film about police brutality at a university in Philadelphia daily newspapers in that city carried articles about two separate lawsuits filed against Philly police alleging brutality.

Those lawsuits, filed respectively by a state legislator and a high-profile media commentator (both of whom are black) didn’t surprise Valrey. His travels across America screening his film highlighted for him – again – a reality that governmental officials constantly reject: police brutality is a widespread scourge.

“Police brutality is definitely not ‘isolated incidents’ as officials always say after each new killing or beating by police,” said Valrey, host of the Block Report, a program aired on KPFA-FM, the Pacifica station in the Bay Area.

“When we screened the film in Atlanta people were still talking about the police murder of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston [in 2006].”

Valrey’s film “Operation Small Axe” primarily examines the January 1, 2009 fatal shooting of unarmed Oscar Grant by a transit policeman at a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in Oakland. That killing sparked riots in Oakland.

That deadly New Years Day incident, which was captured on cell phone videos by eyewitnesses, triggered condemnations across America.

In an unusual twist for police abuse incidents, a jury last summer convicted Johannes Mehserle, the BART police officer who shot the handcuffed Grant in the back, of involuntary manslaughter. (Police officers involved in abuse incidents rarely face criminal charges, and most escape even discipline from their police department.)

Decades of incidents across the country and repeated documentation from a variety of sources substantiates Valrey’s assessment of the systemic nature of police brutality.

Thirty-two years before that Philadelphia state legislator filed his federal civil rights violation lawsuit alleging two policemen roughed him up when he inquired about their mistreatment of an elderly man, a Pennsylvania House panel conducted an investigation into widespread often deadly brutality by Philadelphia police dating from the 1960s.

During those August 1978 investigative hearings a respected black pastor called police “raving maniacs” when telling that legislative panel about his beating by Philly police when he asked them to stop beating a teen on his doorstep.

Data in the 2010 semi-annual report released by the National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project listed 2,541 cases of various kinds of police misconduct nationwide between January and June of this year. Abuse from “Physical Force” constituted the largest category of those misconduct reports.

Further, according to the NPMSRP’s report, police misconduct caused 124 deaths in the first six months of 2010, with 60-percent of those fatalities resulting from police gunfire.

The “Operation Small Axe” film also features a segment about the prosecution of Valrey, who, during an unruly protest days after the Grant shooting, was arrested by Oakland police and charged with felony arson.

Valrey says his arrest was a blatant attempt to punish him for his coverage and his criticisms of police brutality, racism and other contentious issues in Oakland. Valrey, who faced 3-to-5-years in prison if convicted, spent two days in jail after his arrest and then 14-months on bail before prosecutors dropped the arson charge on the first day of his trial citing lack of evidence.



story | by Dr. Radut