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Officer acquitted in baton beating case

A jury found a San Francisco police officer not guilty of three assault charges but deadlocked on a count of assault under color of authority.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A jury on Monday acquitted a San Francisco police officer of assault in a baton beating case that has heightened tensions between the city’s police department and district attorney’s office.

After deliberating nearly four full days, a 12-member jury found officer Terrance Stangel not guilty of three felony assault charges — battery with serious bodily injury, assault with a deadly weapon, assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury — but deadlocked on a misdemeanor charge of assault under color of authority charge.

The verdict ends the first criminal case against a San Francisco police officer brought to trial under the leadership of progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a former public defender who vowed to hold police accountable for misconduct.

Prosecutors argued Stangel used unnecessarily excessive force when he hit Dacari Spiers, a Black man suspected of domestic violence, with his baton seven to eight times, breaking Spiers' wrist and leg and causing other injuries.

Stangel’s lawyer and defense witnesses said the officer had to use his baton to subdue a suspect who was refusing to comply with officers' commands and pushing and grappling with officers when they tried to detain him.

Speaking outside the courtroom after the verdict was read, Stangel’s attorney accused the DA's office of using the case against her client to score political points.

“At the end of the day I think San Franciscans should be very concerned about what’s going on here and what our district attorney is doing to further his political agenda through this prosecution,” Stangel’s lawyer Nicole Pifari said.

In a statement Monday, the district attorney acknowledged his dissatisfaction with the outcome but thanked the jury for their service and careful consideration of the case.

“We respect the jury process, although we remain disappointed that police accountability remains so elusive and difficult to achieve,” Boudin said.

The charges stem from an Oct. 6, 2019, incident when a 911 caller reported seeing a man assaulting his girlfriend on a sidewalk near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.

Responding to the call, Stangel and his partner Cuauhtémoc Martinez tried to stop and question Dacari Spiers near the intersection of Beach and Powell Streets. The officers say Spiers refused to comply with their commands and shoved them when they tried to detain him. The prosecution said Spiers was merely trying to avoid being grabbed without explanation and never balled up his fists or attacked the officers.

Jurors heard testimony from Spiers and his former girlfriend Breonna Richard, who denied that Spiers physically harmed her. The prosecution argued a 911 caller and her aunt misinterpreted what they saw between the couple that night. Spiers said he was consoling his girlfriend and trying to calm her down after she got upset that her wallet was missing.

Jurors were asked to resolve a long list of disputed facts, including whether Officer Stangel followed his training and whether Spiers’ actions were assaultive behavior, which could have justified the use of force against him.

The prosecution’s policing expert said Stangel and Martinez should have formed a plan in advance, approached Spiers together, announced themselves as officers and explained why they were there.

Defense witnesses said the officers had to move quickly to separate Spiers from his girlfriend, even if the couple was just standing close together when police arrived, because Spiers may have posed a danger to the woman. Two 911 callers had reported seeing Spiers dragging his girlfriend by the neck and putting her in a headlock.

The prosecution’s policing expert told jurors that Stangel’s use of the baton was unnecessary because Spiers was unarmed and did not pose a threat to the officers. Defense experts said the baton strikes were an appropriate response to stop Spiers from pushing and grappling with Stangel’s partner.

Stangel’s lawyer also told jurors that her client kept hitting Spiers with a baton after he fell down because Spiers was kicking at the officer from the ground. Spiers testified that he was simply moving his legs to avoid getting hit with the baton. Stangel’s lawyer pointed to moving shadows on the pavement in a body camera video that appear to show Spiers's legs kicking in the air.

After the verdict was read, Stangel’s lawyer welcomed the outcome as a vindication for her client. She said criminal charges never should have been filed in this case.

“When a police officer goes out and does exactly what he was trained to do when he’s been trained to do it and protect himself, really the DA shouldn’t be coming in and charging him with a bunch of felonies,” Pifari said.

Boudin said his office will continue to prosecute those who commit violent crimes and hurt others, even if the perpetrators are police officers.

“I am committed to continuing to hold those who commit harm accountable — regardless of the uniform they may wear or the badge they may carry,” Boudin said. “No one should be above the law, and my office will continue to fight to ensure that all communities are safe.”

The case inflamed preexisting tensions between Boudin’s office and the police department. During a pretrial hearing in January, a DA’s office investigator testified that she was ordered to remove details from an arrest warrant affidavit for Stangel. Police Chief Bill Scott accused the DA’s office of withholding evidence and moved to terminate an agreement that makes the DA’s office lead investigator for police shooting and use-of-force cases. State and city officials are working with both sides to renegotiate the deal. A temporary extension of the pact that allows for independent investigations of officer conduct is set to expire in late April.

The police department has also been accused of withholding evidence in a case related to the baton incident.

Last week, a federal judge overseeing Spiers’ civil lawsuit against the city found the police department "engaged in conduct tantamount to bad faith" by failing to disclose interviews with police officers to Stangel’s lawyers. U.S. Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley sanctioned the city and ordered it to pay $2,300 in legal fees. The city has agreed to settle Spiers’ civil lawsuit for $700,000.

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