The only reason we know what a Sacramento sheriff’s deputy did to a child is because someone with a cellphone recorded it
The video clip is only 15 seconds, but it is a stomach-turning 15 seconds.
The bald, muscle-bound cop pins the skinny teenager to a dirt shoulder walled by a cyclone fence with wild grass on the other side, and starts twisting body parts like they’re made of taffy. Bearing down with all his weight, the cop wrenches the youth’s toothpick arm and palms the nape of his neck, he rams a fist into the kid’s bony chest and he flips him with such force that the teen’s face nearly snaps into the cement curb.
The video clip is only 15 seconds, but that was enough to outrage millions of viewers and once again cast the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office in an unfavorable light.
Condemnation rained down far outside the Sacramento bubble. Sen. Kamala Harris of California called the incident a “horrific abuse of power.” Former Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro called the clip “sickening.” Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus pleaded to “end this violence.” And the New York Post, BET, news outlets in the United Kingdom and elsewhere picked up the story, jarred from the nonstop coronavirus news cycle by a white cop’s unspeakably hostile encounter with a black youth.
And for what crime? The 14-year-old boy was given a citation for possessing a swisher.
Sheriff’s deputy in police officer’s clothing
The April 27 incident unfolded in the city of Rancho Cordova, where the Sheriff’s Office has a contract to provide police services.
Rancho Cordova Mayor David M. Sanders responded to an interview request by emailing links to statements released by the city’s Police Department (which, again, is really the Sheriff’s Office). In a written statement to the media on Tuesday, the department said its employee was responding to complaints about drugs and alcohol being sold to minors when he witnessed what he believed was a hand-to-hand transaction between an adult and a juvenile. The deputy, identified in reports as Brian Fowell, lost sight of the adult, and so he turned his attention to 14-year-old Elijah Tufono.
The agency says the youth lied up his age four years and resisted the deputy’s attempts to detain him.
In an interview with Fox40, Elijah acknowledged fibbing that he was 18 and said that when the deputy became aggressive with him, he instinctively pulled his right arm back out of fear.
“He’s on top of me and it looks like he’s about to hit me. Like, I’m reacting like any other normal human being would,” Elijah told the local news station. “It could’ve been better on both of our parts in this situation.”
Elijah said he’d asked a stranger to buy him some tobacco products and was holding them when Fowell pulled up and asked what was in his hand. “As soon as he asked me that, I just gave it to him,” Elijah told Fox40.
In a YouTube video posted on Wednesday, Rancho Cordova’s brand new police chief, Kate Adams, noted that she started her position the same day as the encounter.
“I have viewed the video that is circulating, and as a chief of police and a mom, I have many of the same concerns that have been expressed since the release of the video on social media,” Adams said.
Indeed, the only reason the public knows what Fowell did to the boy is because a bystander recorded it with a cellphone.
A record of hiding from the public
Despite what he tells the public, Sheriff Scott Jones has spent years fighting efforts to pry the facts from his agency. He’s violated the California Public Records Act, ousted independent oversight, lobbied against state legislation to make body-worn cameras mandatory and has given county supervisors one reason after another why his department can’t do what other agencies have accomplished with a sense of urgency.
So, for now, the public only knows about the Elijahs of Sacramento County when a civilian with a smartphone is there to bear witness.
The Sheriff’s Office says it has opened an internal affairs investigation into the rough encounter, but seemed to tip its hand in its statement to the media: “This type of situation is hard on everyone—the young man, who resisted arrest, and the officer, who would much rather have him cooperate.”
Mark Evenson, Sacramento County’s new inspector general, said he’s watched the video and spoken to the undersheriff, but couldn’t comment on an ongoing investigation.
“What I can tell you is that I will be closely monitoring it,” he said, adding that his focus will be to ensure “that the sheriff’s department does the right thing.”
Evenson, who used to be Brentwood’s police chief, called himself “a big advocate” for body-worn cameras, as well as comprehensive tracking of use-of-force incidents.
Evenson’s predecessor, Rick Braziel, said the Sheriff’s Office was in the process of adopting his recommendations for greater use-of-force tracking and early intervention systems when Jones forced him out in August 2018 for criticizing a fatal shooting by deputies. Braziel, who is now vice chairman of the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, said he didn’t know how far the department got with implementing those systems.
“In this day and age, transparency is everything,” Evenson told SN&R. “When you don’t have complete transparency, the first thing the public thinks is the agency is covering things up.”
The viral video of Monday’s violent encounter certainly won’t help that belief, something Rancho Cordova’s new chief noted in her video remarks.
“This isn’t the way I would have liked to start as the chief,” Adams said. “At a time when I should be getting to know members of the community, I’m called to ensure the efficacy of the investigation, to mend relationships that have been strained and to forge a path forward that is filled with compassion and understanding.”
Fowell appears to have first joined the Sheriff’s Office as an on-call deputy in 2012, according to the public compensation database Transparency California, which shows he earned nearly $117,000 in pay in 2018. The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office credited Fowell with arresting a man who tortured two dogs in 2017.
He currently remains on duty. In her video statement, Adams said that, “due to the volatile nature of the situation and the pending investigation, the officer in question has been temporarily reassigned to a role outside of the Rancho Cordova Police Department.”
Elijah told Fox40 that he forgives the deputy for assaulting him—and then went further, giving his next message directly to Fowell.
“Sir, I’m sorry for the way that I acted towards you and for not cooperating,” he said. “And I just hope that we could meet again and be on better terms.”
While Adams said she and her embattled officer would like to take Elijah up on that offer, no one wearing a badge has publicly apologized to the beaten child.