Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | San Jose police deny excessive force in arrest of student
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San Jose police deny excessive force in arrest of student

The San Jose Mercury News has been driving the coverage of the ongoing controversy over the way San Jose police officers arrested Phuong Ho, a 20-year-old San Jose State math major who allegedly threatened his roommate with a steak knife. Another roommate shot cell phone video footage that appears to show Ho crying out as he’s Tasered and beaten by one officer using a baton while another stands by with a relaxed stance. Ho was treated at a hospital for Taser burns and cuts, including to his head.

The Merc (full disclosure: I work for MediaNews Group, the parent company of the San Jose Mercury News) published the video on its website over the weekend, and the footage has sparked a protest within San Jose’s large Vietnamese community and within the Asian American blogosphere, claiming the police officers abused their power.

Attorneys for the officer deny that excessive force was used, and said in an article today on the Merc’s website, “Mr. Ho is responsible for his conduct, and he is responsible for not taking lawful directives from a police officer. He is being combative and non-compliant, and he raises the stakes of the game.”

The Mercury News obtained a copy of the videotape last week from Ho’s attorney, and showed it to six experts, four of whom expressed alarm at the force used by the officers as Ho can be heard on the ground, crying and moaning. Several of the experts expressed alarm at the last baton strike, appearing to occur after Ho has been handcuffed — which is how Ho recounts the incident.

But attorneys (Terry) Bowman and Craig Brown … both said Monday that Ho was struck only after he was resisting, and not after the handcuffs had been applied to both hands. Bowman said that the poor quality of the video has caused confusion over this point, adding: “Whatever people think they are hearing, it is not the sound of handcuffs before the last baton strike.” Siegel is a 15-year veteran; Payne, a three year veteran of the force, is a combat veteran and son of a veteran officer.

The Mercury News provided a copy of the tape recording to police officials last Thursday with the approval of Ho’s attorney, and they promptly launched the investigation.

The Merc published this editorial decrying the treatment that’s shown on the video.

The four cops involved in the arrest have been put on leave pending the investigation sparked by the Mercury News’ coverage, and the newspaper has followed up with a video interview with Ho, which was the subject of a column by Merc columnist Scott Herhold.

Ho’s attorneys filed a civil rights complaint with the FBI over the arrest. The case has galvanized the Vietnamese community, which had already been on edge over a series of events including the killing of a mentally ill Vietnamese man by police, which is still being investigated.

The video has become a flashpoint in the Vietnamese community, discussed on radio stations, in cafes, and in conversations among community leaders who sought to mobilize a response.

Chief Rob Davis sent one of his top-ranked officers, Captain Phan Ngo, to assure members of the Vietnamese community that “we really are digging into their concerns.” Ngo said he urged community leaders to await the outcome of the police investigation before reacting.

But community leaders such as Paul Loc Le, vice president of the Viet-American Voters of Northern California. said the arrest of Ho was only the latest in a series of incidents raising concerns of how San Jose police treat members of the Vietnamese community.”Clearly, there’s a pattern of excessive force to a minority group,” he said.

According to a demographics page on the City of San Jose website, the Vietnamese population is a powerful bloc, which may explain why three city council members have publicly expressed their concern over the apparent violence during Ho’s arrest:

The City of San Jose has by far the largest Vietnamese population of any city in the United States as a result of phenomenal growth during the past two decades. Numbering just 8,000 persons at the time of the 1980 Census, the Vietnamese population rose to about 40,000 persons in 1990, and then doubled to nearly 80,000 persons in 2000. Thus, the number of Vietnamese persons in San Jose increased ten-fold over the last twenty years, and now accounts for 8.8% of the City’s total population.

Although I work for the newspaper’s parent company, I want to applaud the Mercury News for its coverage — this is an example of the kind of watchdog role that great newspapers provide as a community service. We’ll follow the news with great interest, and see where the story leads….