April 07, 2009

i-fromthemarginsA lot has been said about the false incarceration of Edmond Ovasapyan by the Glendale Police Department. The 28-year-old spent eight months in prison for the crime he did not commit and was later released as the Glendale police officers found evidence of his innocence.

There seem to be two approaches on how to view this experience.

The federal court awarded the falsely incarcerated individual $1.3 million in damages, which included $150,000 in punitive damages from the individual officers. Some believe police acted properly, a view championed officially by the Glendale Police Department as well as many elected officials.

The other view is advanced by some community activists and in particular, the Armenian National Committee. It is an approach that seeks more answers. In an appearance at the City Council meeting, Zanku Armenian, the chair of the committee, stated that the reputation of the Glendale Police Department could be tarnished and that residents may also lose trust in city government.

He added, "The bottom line is that we cannot allow this issue to be swept under the rug."

The politicization and polarization of the issue is inevitable at this point. This is not surprising as we are in election season, and any criticism of the Police Department can be interpreted as being soft on crime.

Two major concerns emerge from this experience.

The first has to do with accountability of government to the public. If we are not ready to accept the federal court's decision as proof that something did go horribly wrong during the investigation and incarceration process, then what type of checks and balances do we have built into our city government to ensure that probability of such experiences is minimized in the future?

If the highest-ranking officials of the city and the official party line of law enforcement are assuring us that everything was prim and proper, then should we expect that there is nothing that can be done to make sure such cases are not repeated again?

In the absence of the Armenian National Committee, what other guarantees do we have to assure the public that our city government is well equipped to openly analyze such issues. With all due respect to the committee and its membership, are they the only entity that is curious about whether this case could have been handled differently?

After all, we are talking about more than the police department's reputation. We are also talking about someone's life.

Which brings me to the human aspect of this issue. Few individuals who have spoken about this case have shown remorse or empathy, as if the falsely incarcerated person was just a number. How would the honorable councilmen feel if their sons were falsely incarcerated and spent eight months in prison? Would they be able to sleep at night knowing what type of experiences awaited him in the jail cell? Or is it that they just know nothing like this would happen to them?

Councilman Dave Weaver's response to Armenian's comments illustrates a lack of respect for any other point of view than his own. In response to Armenian, he said, "When somebody does not know the facts, he should not open this mouth."

I can't put my finger on what is most bothersome about his response. Perhaps it is his lack of respect for a fellow resident who has the legitimate right to ask questions. Maybe it is the fact that his response belongs in a John Wayne movie rather than in a City Council meeting. The difference being that we don't live in the Wild West, and to my knowledge, no one on City Council has shown the same commitment to the values that John Wayne's characters used to portray on the screen.

This is not a case about those who support the police department most. We are all thankful to our police force for keeping our neighborhoods safe. In life, sometimes things do go wrong. Having the openness and humility to accept that this could happen is the first step in minimizing the probability of such cases the future.

Can we learn anything from this experience? In Wayne's words, "Tomorrow hopes we have learned something from yesterday."

I am not sure what we have learned in this case. Could it be that everyone acted properly, and therefore, this could happen again?

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