Justice for Dennis Carolino, end police terror in San Diego

It appeared to be a Saturday like any other in my East San Diego community of El Cerrito. I had just finished a run and was headed down the hill on Adelaide Avenue to my house. As I walked, I came upon a neighbor whom I had seen many times before — a brown-skinned, Filipino man, who lived in a house on Adelaide with his two elder aunts. Although we had never spoken before this moment, for some reason we locked eyes, and I felt compelled to wave. I noted that he seemed a bit troubled as he turned and headed to the back of his house.

By the time my family and I arrived home later that evening after an outing, the entire block surrounding my neighbor’s house had been cordoned off with yellow tape and police cars. I shortly came to learn that Dennis Carolino, the person to whom I had waved just hours before, had been killed in his own backyard by Brad Keyes, an officer of the San Diego Police Department.

Dennis Carolino graduation photo, Manila, Philippines (1980s).

As it turned out, Saturday, Aug. 24th, was not just like any other day. For Dennis Carolino’s family it now registers as an unspeakable horror. None of his surviving relatives are experiencing this horror more than his aunt who, earlier that evening, had called the police asking for help after she realized that Dennis was experiencing an episode related to his mental illness — which she gathered was largely due to the fact that he had not taken his medication.

She had become alarmed when her nephew tossed a brick in her direction after she had asked him to clean himself up in preparation for dinner. Thinking they might be able to de-escalate the situation and help to get Dennis to take his medication, she called the police. Rather than receiving help from the police, her mentally ill nephew received bullets into his body and was executed in front of her eyes. In an interview conducted after the killing, a family member said of Dennis’s aunt: “She’s questioning herself why she called 9-1-1. She’s blaming herself, [thinking] my cousin died because of her.”

Dennis Carolino, San Diego, California.

Dennis Carolino did not die because of his aunt. He was killed because of a racist San Diego police force — one that along with other branches of local law enforcement has taken the lives of nearly 1,000 San Diegans with virtual impunity since the 1950s. (https://uaptsd.org)

And, as is the case in cities throughout the country, most victims of police terror in San Diego have been Black or Brown, in poverty, and were often dealing with some form of mental illness at the time of their murder. For anyone familiar with this history, names such as that of Alfred Olango immediately come to mind — a case from 2016 in which a Black woman called police in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon in hopes of getting help with her brother who was suffering from a psychological episode likely having to do with the recent death of a longtime friend.

When police arrived on the scene, they ultimately killed Olango, an immigrant from Uganda, in broad daylight, in front of his sister — claiming that the officer who killed him had mistaken an e-cigarette that Olango was said to have been holding for a gun. This list also includes Valeria Tachiquín-Alvarado, a mother of five who was shot nine times and killed by an off-duty Border Patrol agent in the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista, in 2012; and Victor Ortega, whose murder at the hands of San Diego police in the same year was declared “justifiable homicide.” From the perspective of surviving family members, “justifiable” homicide is actually legally sanctioned murder.

In each of these instances, and too many more to name here, the blackness or brownness of the victim placed a veil of impunity over the heinous actions of the police. And, in Dennis Carolino’s case, as in the case of many other police shooting victims, the victim’s mental illness added yet another layer of disposability onto his body. As a recent report has pointed out, people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than other people. (https://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org)

We also know that when police do not resort to killing mentally ill people, encaging them has become the norm, with more than 10 times the number of people dealing with mental illness being locked in prisons and jails as are receiving professional care in the “free” world. When combined with the social demonization associated with mental illness, Carolino’s status as a dark-skinned Filipino man rendered him executable in the eyes of Brad Keyes and the racist institution that he serves.

This process has been exacerbated by much of the local media coverage, which has amounted to a stenographer-like transcription of the police department’s narrative. These accounts have worked to convict Carolino for his own killing within the court of public opinion, blaming the victim, and representing police violence as “peace keeping.” This is the same scenario that we have seen over and over again with the recent spate of police and vigilante slayings of Black people, including Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland. Accepting the officers’ version of what had occurred at Carolino’s home as fact, these reports tell of how an enraged Carolino attacked his aunt with a brick, “striking her in the chest.” They also speak of how “witnesses” saw Carolino advancing on the officers in the backyard, “swinging a shovel,” just before they shot him.

What family testimony unreported in the media makes clear is that the only “witnesses” to what happened in that backyard were the victim, his aunt and the police who shot him. And according to Dennis’ aunt, whom I have spoken with directly for the purposes of this article, she was never in fact “struck” by a brick—she knew full well that he never intended to harm her—a point made clear by the fact that she suffered no injuries and did not get taken to a medical facility after the event in question.

She stated to me that “there was no shovel” in her nephew’s hands at the time she witnessed the police kill her nephew. According to her, Dennis was actually holding some sort of small pole. And to be clear, even if he was actually holding a shovel, this should never have equaled a death sentence.

What Black, Brown and Indigenous people know all too well is that reported “facts” in cases of police killings can nearly always be manipulated to construe the actions of the victims as threatening or menacing — thereby turning murder into “justifiable homicide.” That said, some have expressed that Carolino’s family may be able to receive justice as a result of recently passed state Assembly Bill No. 392, more commonly known as the “Stephon Clark Bill.” (https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov)

This legislation was written by San Diego state Assemblymember Dr. Shirley Weber, in response to the groundswell of community organizing that followed the killing of Clark by members of the Sacramento police in March of last year.

However, when looking at this reform to police procedure as to the use of deadly force there are a number of concerns. Firstly, the most important aspects of the legislation, as it was originally penned, were gutted due to the lobbying efforts of law enforcement — namely that which would have required officers to attempt to use practices of de-escalation rather than firearms in situations such as that which ended Carolino’s life.

Furthermore, while SB 392 acknowledges that many victims of police killings are mentally ill and find it difficult to comply with police orders, the bill states that deadly force may be used when the officers deem such violence to be “necessary” to protect officers or others from the threat of serious bodily injury or death. To acknowledge that many people are killed by police because their mental illness disallows them from complying with orders, and then to give officers the green light to murder such people because they fear they represent a threat, is a complete contradiction in terms. How does an apparently “non-compliant” person going through an episode having to do with their mental illness not appear “threatening” when holding a shovel, a pole, an e-cigarette that “looked like a gun,” or absolutely nothing at all — especially when that person has black or brown skin?

The fact is that no amount of tinkering with a rotten, violent, racist system of policing will make people like Dennis Carolino safe from being killed, or from having the blame for their premature death placed on them rather than their killers. From the perspective of Black, Brown and Indigenous people, the discourse of reform hides the fact that the system is actually functioning the way it is supposed to — that since its outset, the police have played the role of an occupying army in our communities.

I know something of the pain that Carolino’s family is feeling in this regard. My own father, also named Dennis, was murdered by police in Tulsa, Okla., when I was seven years old. Rather than being phoned by the authorities, my mother and I were left to learn of his death on the evening news. My younger brother was also seven years of age when his own father, also a Black male, was killed by police.

Just after the act of state-sanctioned terror against Dennis Carolino’s family, I spoke at U.C. Berkeley as part of a symposium marking the 400th year since the first slave ship arrived to these occupied Indigenous lands in 1619. During my lecture, I stressed how the everyday murder and imprisonment of Black people in the U.S. cannot be separated from their origins in the Middle Passage and plantation slavery.

The more I consider the case of Dennis Carolino and his family, the more I think of the connections between the terror they endured and that which Filipinos have long faced at the hands of the U.S. colonial state going back to the Spanish-American (and Philippine-American) war at the beginning of the 20th century. This was the moment when the U.S. used the occasion of Filipinos’ successful resistance to Spanish colonial rule to invade the islands in a campaign that led to the death of somewhere between 200,000 and 1.5 million people. (https://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/
franciscofirstvietnam.html)

The connection between the terrorism endured by my family and Dennis’ is thereby reflected in much more than our shared first name: it is historical in nature. In fact, the most commonly used term deployed by U.S. soldiers to describe Filipino men, women and children as they were massacring them or placing them in concentration camps was “nigger.”

While I call upon everyone reading this to join in advocating for justice for all of the Dennis Carolinos, Alfred Olangos, Valeria Tachiquín-Alvarados, Stephon Clarks, Tamir Rices and Sandra Blands of the world, I do so with the caveat that what we absolutely do not need is “reforming” or “retraining” of police, prison guards, border agents, prisons, jails and immigrant detention centers. What we need is de-policing, de-incarceration and the cessation of deportations. We also need more mental health care professionals (not cages or bullets for mentally ill people), affordable housing, good jobs, community control of our public schools, along with more empowerment and togetherness within our neighborhoods.

In this light, I am left to think of my own responsibility for what happened to my neighbor. I wonder whether if I would have taken the time to know his name and something about his life—had given something more than a wave as I walked by his house—whether Dennis’ aunt may have been able to call upon me or other members of our community rather than the police when all her family needed was a little help and human kindness.

Dennis Childs is Associate Professor of African American Literature, University of California at San Diego