Guest Commentary

Cops Gone Wild: The case of protester Wendy Sampson should be disturbing to us all

Wendy Sampson has a court date soon, and she still doesn't know why. She was one of a couple hundred people who marched from De Anza Park to the federal building on Nov. 3 to protest the latest electoral debacle. She came away from the event with a misdemeanor charge, two seeping wounds in her back and no idea what she had done to deserve any of it.

She was one of five people arrested and charged that day with various crimes, mostly having to do with being in the street instead of on the sidewalk. She was also shot by police with a PepperBall gun, a weapon that functions something like a paintball gun, but with projectiles containing a substance akin to pepper spray.

Police claim that Wendy obstructed their attempt to arrest another protester. She claims that she was shot in the back out of the blue by an out-of-control cop because she happened to be standing--on the sidewalk--near an arrest in progress.

Unlike others, Wendy was not arrested immediately, but half an hour later and half a mile away from where her alleged infraction took place. In fact, she was not arrested until after police saw her showing her wounds to the local media.

Just before the arrest, Wendy said she heard officers talking nearby. "I heard one say 'We'll do it now,' and the other respond, 'Yeah, I've got your back,'" she says. "Then they called me by my name, and told me I was under arrest."

When she asked why she was being arrested, she was told that she had resisted arrest. It wasn't until they arrived at the processing desk that an officer pointed out that you can't be charged just with resisting arrest--there has to be some other charge that prompted the arrest in the first place. At that point, Wendy says, officers came up with "interfering with a governmental operation."

Well, this could be yet another of those she-said, they-said deals, especially if you read about it in the notoriously "objective" (read: "negligent") mainstream media. But I didn't have to take Wendy's word for it; there was plenty of interesting video of the day's events to show me exactly what happened.

I saw Wendy, on the sidewalk, shot twice square in the back at point-blank range by one very aggressive Officer Paul Tosca. In fact, I saw Officer Tosca barrel into the crowd and squeeze off a half-dozen shots (two more than the police claim) in two separate scuffles, all at point-blank range, and all at people on the sidewalk. Then, I saw and heard Wendy being singled out of the crowd by name, just as she described.

All of which is very disturbing, on several levels. First, the weapon in question is not intended to be used at point-blank range, for reasons that have a lot to do with the evolution of the term "non-lethal" to "less-lethal." Or, in the case of Victoria Snelgrove, the 21-year-old Red Sox fan who was shot and killed with a similar gun in Boston after the World Series, "not-quite-less-than-lethal."

The TPD insists that their PepperBall guns have half the kinetic force of the one that killed Snelgrove, and that everything that happened on Nov. 3 went down according to their training and approved procedures.

There are many questions here. Why was Wendy singled out for arrest? She was one of the organizers of the event; she spoke on stage at De Anza Park before the march. Was her arrest on-the-spot ass-covering ("We shot her, so we'd better arrest her and make it look like we had a reason"), or was it part of a pattern at such events in recent years, where leaders are often arrested--and sometimes held on spurious charges--in a pre-emptive or retaliatory manner?

Why did Officer Tosca go "ape-shit" as The Range quoted one protestor a couple weeks ago? Was this part of a recent pattern, too, of police intimidation at such events? Or was it just basic irresponsibility?

Lastly, when will police learn to handle such weapons, protestors (not to mention innocent bystanders) and the First Amendment with the respect they deserve? Based on TPD's reluctance to admit there's any problem here--and the Tucson City Council's repeated refusal to place the matter on its agenda--we can rest assured that neither Wendy nor the rest of us will get answers to these questions any time soon.

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