The city’s decision to release portions of recordings of an officer beating a suspect with a baton undercut its arguments for keeping the rest of the videos sealed, a judge said.
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The city of San Francisco cannot withhold videos of a police officer beating a Black man with a baton after it “cherry pick[ed]” which portions it chose to release publicly, a federal judge ruled from the bench Thursday.
“If you allow the police department to cherry pick which portions of which videos they want to make public, then you actually have the risk of biasing a jury pool,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley said during a virtual court hearing.
In a civil rights suit filed last year, Dacari Spiers claims he was consoling his girlfriend near Pier 39 on Oct. 6, 2019, after she realized her wallet was missing. That’s when police officers approached the couple and started questioning Spiers. Spiers matched the description of a suspect who had reportedly choked and dragged a woman by her neck in the area, according to police and audio from a 911 call released in December.
SFPD officer Cuahtemoc Martinez ordered Spiers to turn around and did not respond when Spiers and his girlfriend asked why he was being stopped. Martinez tried to grab Spiers, who resisted. Approaching Spiers from behind, officer Terrance Stangel started beating the suspect with a baton as Spiers yelled “What the fuck you hit me for? I didn’t do nothing,” according to body camera footage released in December.
Spiers suffered a broken wrist and leg, which required surgery to repair, along with several lacerations that required stitches. He was forced to use a wheelchair during his recovery.
He also claims officers visited him at St. Francis Hospital on Oct. 9, 2019, and attempted to threaten him to remain silent about the assault and to coerce him into not seeking legal representation over the beating.
Spiers’ lawyers filed a motion on Dec. 10 challenging the city’s decision to keep videos of the beating and hospital visit sealed. They argued the public interest in police accountability outweighs the city’s interest in keeping the videos private.
Four days later, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin charged Stangel with assault with a deadly weapon, assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury, assault under color of authority, and battery with serious bodily injury. The district attorney’s office says the alleged beating occurred on Oct. 7, 2019, but the civil lawsuit claims the beating occurred on Oct. 6, 2019. Stangel was the third police officer criminally charged by Boudin’s office for shooting or assaulting a suspect.
The following day, Dec. 15, the police department released a 13-minute video including portions of footage from three officers’ body cameras on the night Spiers was beaten with a baton.
In court Thursday, Corley said the decision to release those videos undercuts the city’s argument that unsealing them would “compromise the integrity” of the criminal case against Stangel.
“All the arguments you made were eviscerated by the police department making public those other videos,” Corley said.
The judge ordered the city to release videos from the night Spiers was beaten and from when officers visited Spiers in the hospital three days later.
She also rejected the city’s request to stay discovery pending the outcome of Stangel’s criminal case, but the plaintiffs agreed to vacate the trial date and not seek testimony from Spiers at this time.
Spiers’ attorney Michael Seville said he and his client are pleased with the judge’s decision to reject the city’s legal positions on sealing the video and staying discovery.
“We feel very strongly that selectively releasing tapes, the way the SFPD did in this case, goes against everything we stand for in terms of receiving fair trials,” Seville said.
Seville also alleged that officers used false information to obtain an emergency restraining order directing Spiers to stay away from his girlfriend, who was by Spiers’ side at the hospital when officers came to visit him. Seville said the officers used the emergency order as a “pretext” to visit Spiers and intimidate him into keeping quiet.
“They had four armed officers to deliver an [emergency restraining order], which is not typical of what you usually see,” Seville said. “It was very heated. Officers had to remove one of their fellow officers because he was becoming so aggressive.”
Seville said he expects video footage of the beating and hospital visit to be released Monday or early next week.
The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the judge’s decision.
Stangel is still working as a police officer but was assigned to a “non-public contact position,” according to Sgt. Michael Andraychak, an SFPD spokesperson.
Stangel is scheduled to appear in San Francisco Superior Court on Feb. 16 for a pretrial conference and Feb. 23 for a preliminary hearing.
His attorney Nicole Pifari said in an emailed statement that her client’s prosecution is a “blatantly political move” by Boudin, who vowed to more aggressively prosecute officers for excessive force when he ran for district attorney in 2019.
She said a recording of the 911 call released in December depicts a “horrific and violent encounter” between Spiers and his girlfriend. She added that Spiers defied lawful orders to “get away from his victim” and chose to “shove an officer” instead.
“Officer Stangel acted well within the law and his department’s policy by choosing to use his baton, deemed an ‘intermediate use of force’ appropriate for use when dealing with assaultive subjects, to subdue Spiers and prevent injury to himself and his partner,” Pifari said. “Officer Stangel confidently maintains his innocence and looks forward to challenging these false charges in court.”