In September 2005, Norman police officer Chad Vincent shot 17-year-old Richard Lee Sanchez 13 times, killing the teen who had escaped from a juvenile detention center, stolen a car and led police on a pursuit.
A coroner’s report — which I long ago threw away — said most of the shots hit Sanchez in the back, and the final bullets entered his body at an angle implying the young man was already on the ground.
Vincent was quickly cleared of wrongdoing by then-Cleveland County District Attorney Tim Kuykendall, and media were told an equipment malfunction meant the details of Richard Sanchez’s final manic moments had not been captured on any police recording devices.
Sanchez’s father, a few attorneys and the plurality of The Oklahoma Daily’s student newsroom were outraged. Mostly me, I suppose, and I wrote 1,000-or-so words railing on a dangerous precedent — that police could shoot a troubled teenager 13 times in the back when he didn’t even have a gun:
I have only had a few direct encounters with (or needs for) Johnny Law in my 21 years, and I know of too many stories with bad endings for my own taste.
But the death of Richard Sanchez is by far the worst — exacerbated by the fact that, 10 years from now, the official record will say that everything unfolded normally that morning, and Officer Vincent acted appropriately.
Indeed, Officer Vincent’s record reflects that he acted appropriately, and he was promoted to sergeant in 2012, despite the Norman City Council paying a $75,000 settlement to Richard Sanchez’s father in 2008.
It’s been a long 10 years
Ten years later, 2015 has been a year of mass shootings and police brutality.
While Norman police have so far avoided the shitstorm that appropriately befalls law agencies who, say, let bumbling rich guys play cop and accidentally shoot suspects to death at point-blank range, the Norman PD has had its own controversial headlines this month:
NORMAN — A city councilman charged with drug crimes related to his employment at a pipe shop pleaded not guilty Friday and immediately posted a $2,500 bond to be released.
Councilman Stephen Holman faces one felony count of acquiring proceeds from drug activity and six misdemeanor counts of possession of drug paraphernalia. He is general manager of The Friendly Market, which sells pipes, smoking accessories and other merchandise. The felony charge stems from cash found in a bank bag in his briefcase, his attorney said.
Supporters of Holman and the Friendly Market are outraged by what they view as targeted police bullying.
But here’s your daily dose of brutal honesty: Let’s not pretend this marijuana-paraphernalia legal battle with Holman and local business owner Robert Cox is even remotely the stupidest thing the Norman Police Department and the Cleveland County DA’s office have ever done. It just happens to involve a politician and pot, two of many Normanites’ favorite things.
In Holman and Cox’s case, no teenager has been viciously killed, a la Sanchez. No officers have been fired or charged in a federal investigation into steroids as they were in 2004. No bicyclists had their arms broken and faces bloodied while being choked-out by police after the 2013 Norman Music Festival.
But 10 years after Richard Lee Sanchez’s last breaths, it’s clear Norman police just keep doing Norman police things.
Is this the best my hometown can do? Is this the “community policing” Mayor Cindy Rosenthal lauded to me numerous times when I lived in and covered her community?
Has Chief Keith L. Humphrey made “glass pipes” Public Enemy No. 1 because he knows something I don’t? Will his department go after Zig-Zag rolling papers next? Is Holman correct in calling the charges “politically motivated,” stemming from either his comments on “civil asset forfeiture” or his once-considered mayoral aspirations?
Regardless of those questions, Humphrey and District Attorney Greg Mashburn have reputations that precede them, and they should work to repair them with the public.
In truth, those reputations mostly follow their offices. Mashburn ousted Kuykendall from office for a reason, and the former DA’s decision to clear Vincent in Sanchez’s death played a role.
Humphrey replaced long-time Chief Phil Cotten in 2011 and inherited a department largely defined by its hassling of college students, end-of-the-month traffic ticket blitzes (revenue!) and overzealous officers with chips on their shoulders.
Sorry, chief. Not trying to be rude, but that has been the perception for my generation of Normanites. Ask around if you’re bewildered, or I can lay out some personal experiences:
- While studying at OU, I knew several students who were ticketed for public intoxication by Norman police when they chose to walk home from Campus Corner bars … instead of driving.
- A former colleague at The Norman Transcript was rousted out of the shower, thrown to the ground and badly bruised by Norman police who were searching for someone she knew. (He was not there.)
- A Norman police officer drew a gun and put it square in my face when I had the audacity as a reporter to walk up to a house that was being discussed as a crime scene on the police scanner.
- As an 18-year-old intern at the same paper, I was asked whether I would attempt to buy alcohol from various stores as an agent of the Norman police. Our veteran cops reporter told me only an idiot would work with them on stings.
- Most importantly, when people actually perpetrated crimes at or near my family home, Norman police did not responded to 9-1-1 calls on multiple occasions. I’ll be generous and say they showed up about 50 percent of the time.
So when you throw in the 13 bullets fired into Richard Lee Sanchez’s back, I’m sure you can understand why I wrote such a blunt, harsh screed 10 years ago.
I’d like to think I’m wiser and more tactful with my words these days, but my mission here is the same: A police department’s actions matter because they send messages to the public about what the department thinks matters.
Clearly, glass pipes for pot smoking are a high priority for Norman police and the district attorney.
Thinking back 10 years, I wish justice for Richard Lee Sanchez had been.
A glass pipe did not kill Richard Lee Sanchez.
A Norman police sergeant did, and I don’t plan on forgetting it any time soon.