EDITORIAL: Law enforcement must be held accountable for Ernie Serrano’s death

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Sandra Serrano, Ernie Serrano’s aunt, marches south on Market Street toward the District Attorney’s Office building in downtown Riverside on Dec. 27. The Serrano family has asked critics of their lost loved one the simple question: What if this was your son? (Erik Galicia | Viewpoints)
By The Viewpoints Editorial Board

“I can’t breathe.”

Eric Garner in New York City, George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Hector Arreola in Columbus, Georgia, Muhammad Abdul Muhaymin in Phoenix, Arizona, Rodney Brown in Cleveland, Ohio. Up to 70 people have said those words before dying in police custody, according to The New York Times. 

And now, Ernie “Teddy” Serrano in our own backyard.

This narrative hit home in December and we are experiencing the same tired story. Three words that always seem to accompany the seemingly avoidable death of people of color.

Serrano, 33, spent his last moments being shocked with tasers and pummeled with batons in a Rubidoux Stater Bros. on Dec. 15. His face gushed blood over a checkout counter conveyor belt before a spit mask was placed around his head for the sake of Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies’ safety.

“I can’t breathe,” he told the deputies. “Please let me go. Please.”

Deputies acknowledged he stopped breathing five minutes, 51 seconds later.

Maria Lowrie first watched her son tackled and beaten by deputies on a widely circulated cell phone video of the incident captured by a shopper. She then watched her son die when Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco released some of the footage of the incident Dec. 21. She continues to watch Serrano die as more footage is released.

Lowrie cannot escape it. But she has watched law enforcement escape the phrase “I can’t breathe” time and time again. Police cannot be allowed to dodge responsibility for their ineptitude any longer.

The claims yet to be substantiated in this case are many. In the newly released footage, a security guard is heard telling deputies Serrano attempted to grab his firearm, but the store’s surveillance footage shows no clear evidence for that claim. The footage shows no indication Serrano ever attempted to strike anyone.

Still, a man who struggled with meth addiction was shocked with tasers multiple times before he was restrained on his stomach, with two deputies applying pressure on his back. They contacted Serrano the night before his death and observed him to be under the influence, Bianco said at a press conference.

“Is he high on meth again,” a deputy is heard asking in the released body camera footage.

After dishing out a brutal beating, they simply told him to relax. The incident is further evidence that law enforcement is simply not qualified to respond to obvious mental health crises.

But ineptitude is no excuse. There should be none for those who are tasked with protecting and serving.

Until the day when law enforcement is no longer left to blunder situations that require mental health professionals, police must be held accountable for all avoidable in-custody loss of life.

District Attorney Michael Hestrin’s office is deciding whether or not the deputies will be charged, while Bianco’s department is deciding whether or not the deputies’ conduct abided by the department’s policies.

Investigations are naturally lengthy. But in the meantime, the Serrano family waits in the dark, uncertain if those who were elected to uphold the county’s justice system — one who echoed the symbolic platitude of kneeling with Black Lives Matter protesters and another who took the podium at a local Blue Lives Matter rally  — will make due on their obligations to their constituents.

The Serrano family deserves accountability. They have called for a meeting with Hestrin, but continue to wait. Their attorney Humberto Guizar has sought the names of the deputies involved, all of whom continue to roam the streets, but continues to wait.

Guizar said Hestrin contacted him in writing and said his office will not be quick to judge. But Serrano was judged. And regardless of his addiction, which is considered by Riverside County’s Facebook “law and order” pundits to be an absolvement of all other parties involved, his death was avoidable. It occured on deputies’ watch, and if not Bianco, Hestrin must hold them accountable.

Now is the time for Riverside County to prove that Bianco kneeling with protesters was more than just a quick appeasement tactic.

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