Ray Samuels: A Police Chief and Leader Who Championed Rights For All

Editor’s Note: Ray Samuels, former Newark Police Chief, passed away recently at the age of 58. Aram James, a civil rights organizer and former public defender, found a friend and trusted ally in Samuels through their common campaign against the Tasers, and shares his memories of the man he calls both a friend and inspiration.

First and foremost Ray Samuels was my dear friend—his sudden and unexpected passing has saddened me to the core (Ray died on February 17, 2012.) I think what stands-out most for me about Ray Samuels are his humble qualities – his decency as a human being, his lust for life and learning and his insatiable curiosity about other human beings. Ray always had a desire to be a problem solver, and he had no arrogance or pretense. His routine instinct was always to look out for the other guy first.

When Ray retired as the Police Chief of Newark California in August of 2008, we had only known each other for a little more than a year and half, but our friendship already seemed strong and special. When Ray announced his retirement as police chief, he invited me to attend his retirement party at a small restaurant overlooking the water/bay in his hometown, the historic and charming Benicia, California.

As soon as Ray spotted me he seemed slightly surprised that I was attending the event by myself.  Ray then took me from table to table introducing me to a mostly law enforcement crowd.  At each table he went out of his way to let the folks know that I was a retired public defender—and he seemed proud of this fact. When we finished the introductions Ray quickly decided that I should sit right across from him at the head table.  In Ray’s own way he decided it was important to take care of me first, to make me feel comfortable at this mostly law enforcement event. Needless to say, I had a great evening.

Even though Ray Samuels never stepped through the doors of De-Bug/ACJP (Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project) — he was a friend and inspiration for our organizing efforts, particularly in our campaign/battle to ban Tasers. His words and wise counsel over the years that I knew him extended well beyond our battle against Tasers, and became an overall understanding of how to best work towards ensuring police accountability and a more equitable criminal justice system.  I wasn’t the only one at De-Bug/ACJP touched by Ray’s wisdom and commitment to justice. In a letter to Ray while trying to learn more about use of force issues, Raj Jayadev wrote, “Please know your very honorable stance against Tasers, and the intelligent arguments against their use has helped tremendously as we try to carry the torch here in San Jose.”

Ray Samuels’ words and concept development regarding the risks posed by Tasers were frequently reflected back to the community by the ACJP team in numerous community talks and presentations, press conferences, TV interviews, radio call ins, in addition to articles written jointly and separately by Raj Jayadev and Aram James i.e., Did Court Deal Fatal Blow to Tasers for Police? (New America Media—posted Jan 7, 2010).

Yes, our friend Ray Samuels defied — across the board — the often negative and frequently legitimately held stereotypes maintained by those in the community who must interact with our police in a less than mutually respectful environment.

Ray inspired by his words, his credibility, and his courage to speak the truth as he saw it — even if it ran contrary to the strongly held views and conventions of his colleagues in his profession (policing). Ray embodied and nurtured a wider angle view of policing and police practices then not just most police officers — but of the majority of institutional participants in the criminal justice system.  His wisdom and articulation of the issues was not just supported by theory but by decades of practice in the hardscrabble of law enforcement.  Ray sought out the facts, not to support his world view but as an investigator seeking to discover the bigger truth.   And Ray had the writing skills of an artist and a poet to back up his points.

Case in point, in the beginning of 2007 I contacted –cold called– then chief of the Newark California Police Department, Ray Samuel after reading his comments regarding the controversial weapon Tasers. Here are his words:

“What scared me about the weapon is that you can deploy it absolutely within the manufacturer’s recommendations and there is still the possibility of an unintended reaction. I can’t imagine a worse circumstance than to have a death attributed to a Taser in a situation that didn’t justify lethal force.”

At the time I read Ray’s words in the press I was preparing to speak to the Palo Alto Taser Task Force assembled to make a recommendation to the Palo Alto City Council regarding whether to purchase Tasers for all members of the Palo Alto Police Department.  I thought, why not take a chance and try to contact him? Maybe a conversation with Ray Samuels would give me a fuller understanding of the Taser issue.

After my initial phone conversation it became clear that Ray Samuels had a gold mine of information on the Taser controversy at the tip of his tongue. As we talked, it was evident to me that anything he had to say regarding the risks that Tasers posed to the health and safety of the community would be seen as 10 times, if not 100 times, more credible on the subject then anything I — a retired former public defender, whose public perception was one of a radical police critic activist — might offer.

Prior to my presentation to the Taser Task force on March 27, 2007 there had been at least three prior task force meetings, with all of the formal presenters being strongly pro-Taser, and mostly speakers from either the Palo Alto Police department or other local police agencies.

At those meetings I  spoke during the oral communications portion of the meeting re Ray Samuels’ view that Tasers were dangerous and constituted too high a risk to justify their introduction into the already weapon heavy arsenal of the PAPD.

On the date of the March 13, 2007 Taser Task Force meeting, then Palo Alto Police Chief Lynne Johnson commented that she had talked to Ray Samuels at a recent statewide police chief’s conference, and that Ray Samuels was now leaning towards introducing Tasers in the city of Newark, California. Having discussed the issue on the phone with Ray on several recent occasions, I was in a state of disbelief regarding Lynne Johnson’s statement. My distinct impression was that Ray would not so quickly have changed his view.

Shortly after the March 13,2007 meeting I contacted Ray Samuels by phone and he assured me he had not changed his position—and the he was not in fact “leaning towards Tasers,” as Police Chief Lynne Johnson had represented.

I asked Ray if he would write a letter outlining his current position on Tasers, so I could present his letter as part of my presentation to the Taser Task Force. Given chief Johnson’s misrepresentation of Ray’s position, I felt it was important that I have a written statement of Ray’s current position to avoid any possible ambiguity.

Ray’s letter, it turns out, was my David against the City’s Goliath.

When I finally had my opportunity to give my presentation to the Taser Task Force, I used Ray’s late arriving letter (the day before the presentation), as the centerpiece of my quickly reorganized presentation. (Read Ray’s letter here: http://truthnottasers.blogspot.com/2007/07/anti-taser-letter-from-newark-police.html)

Once I read the letter to the Taser Task Force, the reaction was one of disbelief and denial –after weeks of pro-Taser propaganda Ray’s fact based letter simply turned the Task Force member’s world view upside down– they were in a state of shock, unwilling and unable to absorb the straight talk outlined in his letter. Rather than ask substantive questions re his positions, they attempted to attack both my and Ray’s credibility. Did I have Ray’s permission to read the letter to the Taser force? Was the letter really prepared for the Taser Task Force? Why wasn’t Ray at the meeting to answer questions about his letter?

In the end, the Taser Task Force voted 7-2 in favor of recommending to the city council that the Palo Alto Police be allowed to purchase Tasers. The two individuals who voted in opposition to Tasers did so in large part — if not exclusively — on the basis of the letter Ray had written. In fact, one member of the Taser Task Force actually drove to Newark to consult personally with Ray.

On May 7, 2007 the city council ultimately voted 5-4 in favor of bringing Tasers to Palo Alto. Ray made himself available to any member of the city council who wanted to discuss his letter and his views on Tasers. The then mayor of Palo Alto called Ray on the day of the vote and had a discussion about Tasers. The mayor was ultimately one of the 4 votes in opposition to Tasers.  Ray’s amazing and precise articulation of the dangers of Tasers, outlined in his letter, almost single handedly prevented the introduction of Tasers into the city of Palo Alto.

Reflecting back, at my friendship with Ray, his words may best express why I feel so honored to have had Ray Samuels for a friend and why I will so dearly miss him. Here is what he wrote in an e-mail exchange with Raj Jayadev after I had introduced them to each other in September of 2010.

“With regard to Aram, the two of us have developed a relationship over the last four years that I cherish. We often disagree on issues, but we have the utmost respect for one another and acknowledge that surrounding ourselves with people that agree does nothing toward our goal of being lifelong learners. Nor does it do anything to validate the causes we believe in.”

Ray’s friendship will be with me forever. His advocacy for human rights such as through the opposition to the death penalty and the opposition to Tasers, his call for openness in police misconduct proceedings, and all of his other causes, will continue to be moved forward by others as part of his legacy. He broke barriers with his extraordinary articulation of the issues and his willingness to so freely share his views with others.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s