From early 1987 and for about the next 10 years I was employed at a small law office in downtown Oakland. The office consisted of two bright, hardworking attorneys and me. I was the office “Man-Friday,” legal assistant, janitor, and investigator. I did case intake and set-up, some basic litigation response, answered the phone, kept an eye on the legal calendar, and served as a communications conduit for our clients who were largely low-income black people. We handled a variety of cases but mostly criminal defense and personal injury. We were also no strangers to police brutality matters, carried out against a population that closely resembled our clientele.
As they lowered George Floyd to his final resting place last week, I thought a lot about one of our clients whose name was Dobson Cole, 36, originally from Jamaica. Some 30 years ago he suffered a horrific beating at the hands of Oakland police officers. They didn't quite kill him, though not from apparent lack of trying. Dobson may have preferred that they had, if indeed he was still able to consider such a thought. But the biggest difference between Dobson's case and that of George Floyd, was the lack of a video, conclusive and incontrovertible proof of what happened. Instead we had to rely on witness and expert testimony to establish our case. George Floyd, of course, lost his life and the entire world saw what happened to him. Dobson still breathed, but had been reduced to a shell of a man, no longer able to reason or to remember. Once he was able to walk again he roamed the streets, unwashed and homeless, tortured by delusions and hallucinations, incapable of meaningful human interaction. Both men were victims of the same systemic racism built into our country and prevalent throughout our departments of police.
Malik Khalifa, also Jamaican, was a close friend and witness to the beating, as well as a character witness for Dobson. In sworn testimony he described Dobson as: “…a brother of the highest order. He was highly sharp, this brother, like a military officer. He was respected by all the brothers. He dressed sharp, like a businessman. He was good looking, this brother, the sisters all like him. Now he looks bad, he smells bad, he talks devil talk. This brother… he just walk the streets now, unwashed and mumbling to himself.”
Dobson was all of these things described by Malik. I recall meeting him at our office prior to the beating, together with Malik who I believe we represented at the time in some case of minor consequence. Dobson was of a medium stature and slender, a handsome Jamaican man with a warm smile. He carried himself with a confident bearing, well groomed, well dressed, and immediately likable. I also recall meeting him on the street some years later, after his ordeal and release from medical care. He looked at me as though I was something to be avoided, shying away and walking off in the opposite direction with nothing to say to me.
The beating of Dobson Cole occurred in the early morning hours of December 30, 1990 after he allegedly attempted to elude pursuing officers of the OPD while driving a stolen vehicle. Malik Khalifa, witness and passenger, added the following in sworn deposition: “Dobson don't steal that car. Another brother brought that car to our house from San Diego. We just use that car, but Dobson, he probably know all is not right with that car.”
The police report prepared by officers at the scene states that Cole abandoned the vehicle on 76th Avenue while it was still moving at approximately 8 miles per hour and that the open door came into contact with a telephone pole, slamming the door back into Cole's head as he tripped and fell backward toward the moving car. The report indicates structural damage to the left front door where it allegedly came into contact with the telephone pole, however, no photos of the vehicle were taken. The vehicle was put into storage by the OPD where it was vandalized and then sold as scrap by the insurer that paid the original theft claim.
According to a stolen vehicle report prepared by police in San Diego months prior to the Cole incident, the vehicle was stolen from a body shop where it was taken for repair of the forward portion of the left front door, identical to the place where Oakland police say the door was damaged when it hit a telephone pole. I later went to the scene to look for evidence of a collision, a paint transfer or splintering of wood on the telephone pole, but found nothing. The car itself was gone before we had opportunity to inspect it.
Robert Liptai, Ph.D. an engineer and accident reconstruction expert hired by Cole's attorneys, reconstructed the incident based on the sequence of events as stated in sworn deposition by Officer M. Hardman, the lead officer in the pursuit of Cole.
“At 8 miles per hour, the vehicle is moving at 11.76 feet per second,” testified Liptai. “I conducted four separate tests, actually bailing out of a moving car at 8 miles per hour, standing up and looking back as Officer Hardman described Cole's movements before falling back into the closing door. My test times, moving as fast as I could, were between 3.11 and 2.32 seconds. Based on Hardman's testimony, the moving car had traveled from 27 to 36 feet farther down the road from Cole's position when the door supposedly closed on him.”
Hardman subsequently resigned from the department and moved out of state. He declined comment.
The lawsuit, filed on Cole's behalf by family members, alleged that his injuries were a result of an intentional beating by officers of the Oakland Police Department. Several witnesses at the scene testified in sworn deposition that Cole was surrounded by officers who repeatedly kicked and beat him with batons while he lay unconscious on the ground.
Norman Zucker, M.D., a forensic medical specialist hired by attorneys for Cole, testified that Cole suffered, “… not just a comminuted skull fracture, but a severe brain laceration and contusion leading to the death of a large amount of his left cerebral hemisphere, leaving him with major thinking and speech deficits” Zucker also points out the accompanying injuries: “…fractures of the 6th, 7th, 8th and perhaps 10th ribs on the right; fractured scapula on the left; multiple contusions with blood in the urine and the stool.”
“To do all that, at least four points of body impact would have been necessary,” continued Zucker, “And rather spread out. These injuries are consistent with blows to all those areas. The blow to the head splintered the skull inward. This injury was from a fast-moving club, perhaps 100 miles an hour or greater, with a shatter effect on impact, tremendous force waves extending into the brain.”
Malik Khalifa was a passenger in the car when the beating took place. In a sworn deposition he described officers surrounding Cole “…like hyenas on meat,” kicking and beating him while admitting that his view became obscured as the car moved down the street. He eluded apprehension by pursuing officers after fleeing from the car and making his way over fences and through neighborhood backyards. “I seen what they did to Dobson; I wasn't gonna stick around,” he said. Asked why police tried to stop them Malik explained, “We were two brothers, black men, driving in a dope neighborhood late at night. Do you think police believe we are there to sell insurance?”
After the beating, Cole was trundled off to the Oakland City jail, unconscious, and charged with vehicle theft before transfer to Highland General Hospital. According to court documents, Cole was rendered mentally incompetent to stand trial on criminal charges of vehicle theft. Examinations by court appointed psychiatrists alluded to Cole's auditory hallucinations and a fixed delusion that his cellmate is a vampire. “He does not have the capacity to assist counsel in the preparation of his defense,” concluded Didi G. Bailey, M.D. in a report to the court. “He was unable to give an explanation of why he was arrested or to give a coherent history.”
Joyce Ailsworth, a compelling witness to the alleged beating by police, said, “I know that boy for many years; he's gone now. Nothin' left. Those police did that to him.”
As the trial date approached, nearly six years following the incident, both sides were obviously nervous. The City Attorney was no doubt aware that police had concocted a less than believable scenario of the event, and the defense was married to their version of it. It was her job to present it, straight-faced, to a jury. Our office was concerned with missing witnesses, and a missing plaintiff. No one had seen Dobson in months, no one seemed to know where he was. Trial costs would be monumental. What would a jury do if they couldn't even see the injured party? Everyone wanted this case to go away. And it did.
A confidential settlement was worked out between the parties and approved by the court, the judge recognizing the difficulties the case would present for both sides at trial and satisfied with the role of the fiduciaries for Dobson. A lot of money was involved, but nothing near what would have been coming were the plaintiff blue-eyed and able to assist, however slightly, in the presentation of his own case.
Then it was time for me to move on. I had a new life waiting for me in Hawaii. I would figure out how to make a living after I got there. I knew one thing for sure: for me, the blunt drama of life in the Oakland ghettos had run its course. I never found out what eventually happened to Dobson, but similar to George Floyd, I know that his life was stolen from him and I know, without question, the identity of the thieves. Thirty years later, all the way to the killing of George Floyd, the same malignancy that Dobson and countless others have encountered still applied. Other than the proliferation of cameras in public pockets, nothing has changed. Is it any wonder that our streets and cities boiled over? When the protesters and the mourners for George Floyd cry out, “Say his Name!” I do, along with that of Dobson Cole.