Zisser: The lasting trauma of police violence
A San Jose police cruiser. File photo.

    When Claudia was 10 years old, a San Jose police officer pointed his gun at her.

    Claudia—not her real name—had just walked home from school with her little brother and four other young kids. Now 40 and still a San Jose resident, Claudia didn’t tell me this at my office or in a meeting through a community group. We found ourselves seated next to each other last Saturday at a little league game. Her niece and my son are teammates.

    I wanted to share her story because it’s a reminder these experiences don’t belong to “others.” Our neighbors and colleagues have experienced this fear and violence.

    Claudia told me the trauma has stayed with her. A few days later, we talked for over an hour. She cried, and we had to pause more than once.

    “When you’re a kid,” she said, “they just think, ‘oh, you’re little, you’ll forget, you can adapt.’ But no, you don’t. You just get stuck with those wounds.”

    She told me both the circumstances immediately following the police encounter and the circumstances of her immigration experience compounded the profound fear she felt that day. When Claudia had first mentioned the experience, I did not even consider the layers of terror beneath the surface my privilege protects me from imagining. It is why people with lived experience need to be empowered to lead on reform and why other leaders need to truly listen and act in honor of those experiences.

    “He might shoot me”

    When the officer pointed the gun at Claudia and aggressively told her to put her hands up, she immediately positioned herself in front of her seven-year-old brother to protect him. She thought to herself, “If I move wrong, he might shoot me.” She froze, not wanting to even blink.  She thought she was in trouble and would be taken to jail.

    She finally noticed other officers positioned all around the building. She didn’t know where her parents were as she stood on the stairwell outside her apartment, though officers were inside questioning her father. Claudia’s mom was not home. The officer, realizing he was aiming his weapon at children, holstered his gun and immediately started questioning her.

    “I’m gonna get lost”

    Meanwhile, Claudia was wondering where her parents were and feared if she went to jail, they wouldn’t find her and her brother. She told her brother they needed to stay together. Initially, she didn’t know her dad was at the apartment, and once she saw him, she felt relieved.

    That fear of separation, it turns out, has deep roots for Claudia. That fear grew when officers brought Claudia, her brother and father to the police station to continue questioning them about a crime at the apartment building. Officers separated Claudia from her father and questioned her alone.

    This isolation triggered her memory of the fear she felt when she, her little brother and mom were unwittingly separated from Claudia’s older siblings in Mexico while in transit to the U.S. She remembers seeing her mom bawling and terrified. After hours of waiting and wondering, the family was reunited with the help of a “guardian angel” who went to look for the older kids.

    The family settled in San Jose after brief stays elsewhere. Claudia described an idyllic childhood that made her feel safe and secure. Neighbors watched out for each other, invited each other over. Her trip home that day with her brother and friends was like so many innocent days. She had stopped off for candy and then raced her friends home. She was unwrapping her M&Ms. One of her friends was making silly faces and sucking on a lollipop. They were pushing each other playfully.

    They were so distracted they didn’t notice the dozens of police officers standing around. She didn’t see the officer unholster and draw his gun. She remembers only seeing the hole of the barrel pointed directly at her.

    Her sense of safety was shattered. She irrationally wondered if the police station was the same place her older siblings had been brought when the family got separated in Mexico. Would they have a guardian angel this time?

    “I’m gonna get lost,” she thought to herself. She would have to tell her mom that she lost her younger brother. What if they took her father? “Where are they gonna take me?”

    “The way they look at us”

    Claudia doesn’t hate cops. She says her community needs police, and that officers too often ignore communities victimized by gang violence. Claudia is incredibly strong, fighting leukemia while raising her kids and showing up for her niece. She thought telling her story might help others.

    “Hopefully this can help to change the way they look at us when we’re out there and they’re interfering with our life,” she said.  “I feel like they take it personal, like they had a bad day at work or at home and they’re coming with guns drawn and, you know, just because they’re feeling some type of way, they want to do this to us, you know? It’s not fair.”

    The depth of Claudia’s trauma is greater than I know, even after she shared so much. She rattled off a litany of other negative experiences with police and briefly mentioned one in particular—an incident that made her lose all trust in police. When I asked her if there was a story there she wasn’t ready to tell me, she responded, “I’m just gonna wait for that one a little bit more.”

    San José Spotlight columnist Aaron B. Zisser is Interim Executive Director of the Oakland Community Police Review Agency and the former San Jose Independent Police Auditor. He previously worked as an attorney with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and a consultant to Bay Area police and jail oversight entities. His opinions are his own. His columns appear every first Friday of the month. Contact Aaron at [email protected].

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