Santa Clara County prosecutors try new approach to ease racial tensions with cops

By Tracey Kaplan | San Jose Mercury News | Link to Article

SAN JOSE -- The first time Lamar Noble encountered a couple of Santa Clara County sheriff's deputies, it didn't end well.

 After questioning their orders during a traffic stop in San Jose, Noble was pepper-sprayed, dragged out of his Chevy Tahoe, thrown to the ground and punched in the head. He wound up being charged with misdemeanor resisting arrest.

But earlier this month, the 45-year-old African-American motorcycle salesman with no previous criminal record and the same two deputies sat down in a county office on First Street, shook hands over coffee and talked about the problems of police and people of color under an innovative alternative-justice program inspired by the local chapter of the NAACP and designed by District Attorney Jeff Rosen's office.

It is believed to be the only one of its kind in the country, and it comes amid national concerns about recent cop killings in Dallas, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and San Diego, as well as anxiety and anger over the seemingly disparate treatment of blacks and other racial minorities when encounters with cops turned deadly in Baton Rouge; Falcon Heights, Minnesota; Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; and Baltimore.

"These have been difficult and dangerous days between law enforcement and some of the communities we serve," Rosen said in a written statement. "We thought we would start to address the distrust in a simple but powerful way -- with a sit-down conversation and a handshake.

The whole process, known as alternative justice, didn't entirely produce a kumbaya moment, and the participants were tight-lipped afterward. Noble, on the advice of his lawyer, and one of the deputies, Peter Nguyen, would not comment. The other deputy, Edward Muñoz, maintained he acted appropriately. And Noble's mother, Gail Noble, an activist with the civil rights group Silicon Valley De-bug, said he still believes the deputies overreacted.

But Muñoz also said the meeting was worthwhile. Noble told the deputies that he was afraid during the stop that no matter what happened, he would either be arrested and jailed because he was black -- or even shot and killed.

"Now I realize how much of an impact a car stop can have on a person's life," said Muñoz, who grew up in East San Jose. "For us, we write a ticket and go home. For them, it can be the most terrible day of their life."

Under the program, Noble was trained on a police "force simulator" -- a training tool in which officers armed with replica pistols stand in a room and are asked to respond to a realistic encounter with a threatening suspect projected on a full-sized video screen. He also met with the sister of an East Palo Alto officer killed in the line of duty.

Muñoz and Nguyen met with the Rev. Jethroe Moore, president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley chapter of the NAACP, and with the group 100 Black Men.

Then, with the help of a mediator from the county's Office of Human Relations, Noble and the deputies privately discussed what was going through their minds during the traffic stop. The charge against Noble was subsequently dropped late last month, and he won a $20,000 settlement from the county after filing an excessive force lawsuit, though the county admitted no wrongdoing.

His mother said the alternative justice program helped convince Lamar to handle a traffic stop differently next time, even if he believed it was unjustified, as he did about being pulled over on Scott Street at 1 a.m. in 2013 on suspicion of running a stop sign and having broken taillights.

"For safety's sake, he wouldn't say anything if it happened again, just give them his registration and license," Gail Noble said.

Muñoz said his duty was to protect himself and his partner, and that he didn't feel safe allowing Noble to call his mother during the stop, as he tried to do rather than step out of the car.

"As police officers, when it comes to car stops, we bring our experience from the past," Muñoz said "It keeps us safe."

In an analysis published in 2009, this newspaper found that San Jose police charged people with resisting arrest in 2008 more often per capita than any other major metropolitan police department in California. In a majority of cases the paper examined closely, force was used. About 60 percent of these cases involved Latinos, who constituted 30 percent of the city's population. There were no statistics about blacks, who made up 3.2 percent of the population at the time.

This year so far, prosecutors have charged 942 people countywide with resisting arrest. In 396 of those cases, that was the primary charge. The District Attorney's Office plans to update the data in the coming months.

Civil rights activists question the arrests, saying motorists of color are actually often arrested for "contempt of cop," or behavior by people toward law enforcement officers that the officers perceive as disrespectful or insufficiently deferential to their authority. In addition, they contend that officers tend to respond more aggressively toward black and Latino suspects than to whites.

Prosecutors also said they hope to use the alternative justice approach in other resisting arrest cases that do not involve physical aggression by defendants.

De-bug's director, Raj Jayadev, contended that the better approach would be not to file so many resisting arrest cases. However, he said the program is a start.

"At least," he said, "it's an inch closer to the kind of justice the community wants."

A spokesman for the union that represents the deputies said it supports creative approaches like this. And Moore of the NAACP is also hopeful it will build more trust, though it's not likely to happen overnight.

"How do you eat an elephant?" Moore said. "One bite at a time."