Responding to the Occupy movement: A cop's side of the story

Occupy cop
Castro Valley High School beat Deputy Timothy Vales poses with his wife Michelle at their Brentwood, Calif. home. Officer Vales lives near his in-laws in this quiet residential neighborhood and makes the hour long commute Monday through Friday to San Leandro. Their oldest son Joshua Vales is currently enlisted with the U.S. Army, while their youngest, Joey Vales, is a freshman at Sacramento State. Photo by Nick Moone.

Every day, Sheriff’s Deputy Timothy Vales wakes up and puts on his uniform. Though his son left May 1st to serve in the United States Army, Vales stops briefly in his son’s room every day to tell him he loves him before he goes to work.

Vales is a School Resource Officer at Castro Valley High School and normally deals with unauthorized visitors on campus or misbehaving kids. Nov. 2, however, he was dispatched to Oakland to the front lines of Occupy.

“We got a request from mutual aid Wednesday night,” Vales said. “They had 350 officers on the street but they wanted more.”

In addition to the 350 Oakland police officers on the streets, officers from San Leandro, Hayward, Fremont, San Mateo and Contra Costa were called upon to assist the Oakland Police Department with the protest, which occupiers promised would close down the port of Oakland.

“The true 99 percent protesters did not cause any issues,” Vale said. “It was the anarchists who wanted to destroy stuff or get hit by the cops to get on TV in order to sue.”

Pulling officers off their normal beat is not unusual in today’s economic crisis. With budgets getting slashed on all fronts, police officers have faced their fair share of problems.

“Our staffing level on the streets of Oakland has been worse when it comes to patrolling the neighborhoods,” said Dominique Arotzarena, president of the Oakland Police Officer’s Association. “With (fewer) officers we’re barely able to defend ourselves. And if we can’t defend ourselves, how can we protect the public?”

Both Arotzarena and Vales mentioned that officers have been cut by at least a third from patrols since the last budget cuts and that the worst of the cuts won’t be instituted until the end of the fiscal year.

“We have an occupation and we consider ourselves part of the so-called 99 percent,” Arotzarena said. “We’re just humble public servants.”

Vales is nonchalant about his own safety concerns at work when he is given patrol duty, but his wife Michelle is often worried that his working conditions could lead to his harm.

“(The police department) doesn’t hire new officers so they’re always at minimum staffing,” Michelle said. “It’s unsafe.”

Michelle believes that police officers are treated unfairly and often dehumanized by media coverage of crime.

“It’s easier to make them look bad,” Michelle said. “The news is really good at twisting the facts instead of showing the full story.”

UC Davis Police Chief John Pike captured national attention with his apparent unprovoked attack on protesting students with pepper spray. Vales believes this incident is widely misunderstood.

“It looks bad on video but I was told that policeman went up to all of them individually and told them that if they didn’t move they would be pepper sprayed,” Vales said. “There’s no pretty way to use force on a video.”

Though the ideology of the Occupy movement promotes solidarity with the police, there have been incidents of violence, and unfair treatment in past movements has created a rift that prevents unity.

“I feel that in the end of the end there’s a duality that’s set up that permeates, not only the conscience of the police, but in the conscience of the occupiers that someone is wrong and bad,” said Oakland occupier and musician Hyim Ross.

Ross believes that in some cases a dichotomy of good versus evil prevents occupiers and police officers from fully trying to understand one another. He also mentioned that in many cases he has had positive interactions with police officers.

Many occupiers sympathize with the police officers on a human level, but feel that they are in place to harm the movement.

“They’re part of the 99 percent but when they put on the uniform they become the militant arm of the 1 percent,” said SF State junior Terence Yancy who has been a participant in the broader Occupy SF and recently at SF State. “It’s their role in society to protect corporations and protect the banks. They’re enforcing the role of the people trying to exploit us.”

As the momentum of Occupy continues to strengthen, roles of authority are given responsibilities that compromise their personal values. Though it may be a natural human response to assign roles of good and evil to the Occupy movement, Ross believes that this mindset is detrimental to its overall meaning.

“I think it’s very dangerous when people demonize the police,” Ross said. “(The police) are used as pawns by the power that be to distract the popular discourse.”