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Criminal assault trial against police officer kicks off in San Francisco

Prosecutors say a police officer broke the law when he beat a Black man suspected of domestic violence with a baton, but the officer’s lawyer told jurors that the use of force was measured, reasonable and lawful.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — In a case that has deepened a rift between the city’s police force and district attorney, a jury on Monday heard dueling arguments on whether the beating of a Black man by a baton-wielding police officer was a reasonable action or excessive force.

Police responding to reports of domestic violence tried to stop and question Dacari Spiers near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco on Oct. 6, 2019. Police say Spiers refused to comply with their commands and shoved officers away when they tried to stop him.

Officer Terrance Stangel repeatedly hit Spiers with a baton including after Spiers fell to the ground. Spiers suffered a broken wrist, broken leg and other injuries.

The District Attorney's Office filed four felony assault charges against Stangel, leading to the first known criminal trial against an officer for on-duty conduct in San Francisco. The charges were filed after Chesa Boudin, a former public defender who vowed to hold police accountable for misconduct, was elected district attorney in 2019.

In opening arguments Monday, prosecutors said officers had no basis to detain Spiers because they saw no evidence of a crime when they arrived on the scene. According to prosecutors, Spiers was embracing and consoling his girlfriend next to a parked car after she discovered her wallet was missing and became upset.

But Stangel’s lawyer Nicole Pifari told jurors that two witnesses will testify they called police for help after they saw Spiers “dragging his girlfriend by the neck." Pifari described Spiers as a violent felon with a history of domestic assault. She said Spiers was actively defying police commands and shoving officers when her client used “reasonable force” to subdue him.

“He used that baton because he and his partner were out-muscled, and they were going to lose without help,” she said. “He has the right to use force in defense of himself and others.”

The case has pushed an already tense relationship between the police and Boudin's office close to the brink. Last week, Police Chief Bill Scott said he would terminate an agreement that makes the DA’s office lead investigator for police shootings and use-of-force incidents. The announcement came after a DA’s office investigator testified that she was ordered to remove details from an arrest warrant affidavit for Stangel.

Scott accused the DA’s office of failing to share with the police department information on follow-up witness interviews as required under the terms of their cooperation agreement. Boudin said those lapses occurred before he assumed office in January 2020.

In court Monday, prosecutors played police body camera videos showing Stangel beating Spiers with a baton after Spiers fell to the ground. Spiers can be heard yelling “What the fuck did I do?"

Stangel’s attorney played jurors a different video in which shadows on the pavement appear to show Stangel trying to grab Spiers' feet as they kick toward Stangel from the ground.

“You see Officer Stangel able to grab that foot, grab it and push it to the ground,” Pifari said. “The moment he does that, the baton goes away."

Pifari told jurors that Spiers and his girlfriend Breonna Richard have a motive to lie about what happened that night because both have lawsuits pending against the city and are “hoping for a payout.” The city recently offered to settle Spiers’ lawsuit for $700,000, but it hasn’t been approved by the Board of Supervisors yet.

San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Hans Moore told jurors that this trial is not about Spiers, his girlfriend or what may have transpired before police arrived on the scene that night.

“This trial is only about Officer Stangel’s decision and actual use of force against Dacari Spiers," Moore said.

The assistant DA said jurors will hear a police use-of-force expert explain why Stangel’s actions were unreasonable. The expert will testify that Stangel failed to deescalate the situation, properly communicate with Spiers or give the suspect an adequate chance to comply with officers' commands, Moore said.

"Officer Stangel didn't just fail to deescalate the situation,” Moore said. “He also escalated it.”

Pifari told jurors her client had a duty to respond when a suspect was “violently attacking his partner.” She said Stangel didn’t use his baton until after lesser force failed to work against a suspect who was larger and more powerful than her client and his partner.

“The force he used was calculated, measured, reasonable and it was lawful,” Pifari said. “We feel confidence that when you hear everything, you’ll know beyond a reasonable doubt he was not guilty.”

The trial is expected to continue for about two weeks.

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