A sad message

Jeff vonKaenel

I was stunned last week when the Sacramento Police Department announced that Officer Anthony Figueroa, caught on video in April punching Del Paso Heights jaywalking suspect Nandi Cain Jr., had gotten his job back. And that he would likely patrol Del Paso Heights again. And that the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office had decided not to prosecute Officer Figueroa.

In April, I couldn’t have imagined this outcome. Too many people had seen the dash-cam video. This video shows Officer Figueroa driving slowly through a residential neighborhood, spotting a slim 24-year-old African American walking across the street. The officer pulls his patrol car over. He tells the young man to come over. The pedestrian, Nandi Cain Jr., seems confused and starts walking away. Officer Figueroa tells him to stop and asks him repeatedly to get down on the ground. Suddenly Figueroa pushes him down and punches him over and over in the face. Figueroa punched Cain 18 times before several more police cars drove up and Cain was taken to jail. He was later released with no charges.

The reaction in April was furious. Local television stations showed portions of the video. The Sacramento Bee and SN&R ran stories saying that Cain had not even jaywalked. Mayor Darrell Steinberg started a City Council meeting saying, “This is wrong, is wrong, is wrong.” The mayor went on television advocating changing the culture of the Police Department. Officer Figueroa was put on paid leave, pending investigation. The district attorney was considering charges.

And then, seven months later, Officer Figueroa is back on the force. Citing state law prohibiting him from revealing the details of an internal investigation, including whether Figueroa was disciplined, police Chief Daniel Hahn told the Bee that the end result of this contact (between Figueroa and Cain) “is not what we want to see.”

What about District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert? In an unsigned letter written in July, but just released to the Bee last week, the district attorney concluded “that it is not reasonably likely a jury would convict either Officer Figueroa or Cain of a criminal offense related to this incident.”

This is the same district attorney who, in 2015, was prosecuting Black Lives Matter activist Maile Hampton, charging her with a felony lynching charge after she unsuccessfully tried to pull her friend out of police custody during a demonstration. This charge was so ridiculous that the state legislature subsequently voted unanimously to strike the word “lynching” from the lawbooks, noting its racially charged nature.

The Police Department and the district attorney are sending a message about police conduct. A sad message.

When I started out as a young reporter in Santa Barbara during the early 1970s, one of the first stories I covered was a wildcat garbage-worker strike. One issue was that the management would not fire workers who were fighting in the yard. The garbage workers knew that if employees who fought in the yard were allowed to stay, then it would damage the reputation of all garbage workers.

When Officer Figueroa repeatedly punched Nandi Cain Jr., he was not only hitting a man. He was also damaging the honor and reputation of the Sacramento Police Department.

After the beating, Cain’s healing process began. But the district attorney and the Sacramento Police Department’s actions have left an open wound. The honor and reputation of the Police Department will remain battered and bruised.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.