SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Two police officers disregarded their training when they bolted out of a squad car and rushed to grab a domestic violence suspect who was brutally beaten with a baton seconds later, a policing expert testified Thursday.
“That is the moment this thing starts to go south,” policing expert Roger A. Clark said, referring to the instant that officer Cuahtemoc Martinez dashed out of a police car to confront Dacari Spiers.
Clark, a former Los Angeles County sheriff and police procedures consultant, was the final prosecution witness to testify in a rare criminal trial against a San Francisco police officer — Terrance Stangel — accused of on-duty assault and excessive force.
Stangel’s case is the first prosecution of a police officer brought to trial under the leadership of progressive San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a former public defender who has vowed to hold police accountable for misconduct.
Responding to reports of domestic violence, officers Martinez and Stangel tried to stop and question Spiers near Pier 39 in San Francisco on Oct. 6, 2019. The officers say Spiers refused to comply with their commands and shoved them away when they tried to detain him. Spiers denied having pushed the officers when he testified last week.
Clark told jurors Thursday that Officer Martinez made the first misstep in a series of blunders when he darted out of his squad car to confront Spiers, leaving his partner, Stangel, behind.
“Stangel has a dilemma from the start — how he’s going to handle Officer Martinez rushing away from him,” Clark said.
Had they followed their training, Clark said, the officers would have formed a plan first, decided who would talk to Spiers and approached the suspect together. Instead, Martinez rushed at Spiers, shouting “come here,” and grabbed the suspect's shoulder.
California’s police training guidelines specifically tell officers to avoid a “Hey you, come here” approach when making contact with a suspect, Clark told the jury.
According to Clark, Stangel should have told Martinez to wait for him or physically pulled Martinez away from Spiers and told him to go cool off while he spoke to the suspect.
A 911 caller reported that she saw someone matching Spiers’ description choking his girlfriend and dragging her by the neck. Spiers and his then-girlfriend Breonna Richard both denied that Spiers ever harmed her in testimony last week.
In body camera footage, Richard can be heard shouting “What did he do” as Martinez grabs Spiers and pulls him away from his girlfriend. Seconds later, Stangel catches up to his partner and starts beating Spiers with a baton. Spiers can be heard yelling “What the fuck you hit me for” in the video.
In opening arguments last week, Stangel’s lawyer told jurors that her client continued hitting Spiers with a baton after he fell down because Spiers was kicking at Stangel from the ground. Spiers told jurors last week he was simply moving his legs to avoid getting hit by the baton.
“You cannot use the reaction to the pain as a justification for inflicting more pain,” Clark told jurors Thursday.
In cross examination, Stangel’s lawyer Nicole Pifari argued that by jerking his body away from officers, Spiers was actively resisting arrest, something that gives officers the right to use reasonable force to subdue him.
Clark replied that it's instinctive for all living creatures to resist being grabbed suddenly with no explanation.
“You’re aware that Officer Martinez asked Mr. Spiers to face the wall and that Mr. Spiers said 'I ain’t facing no wall,'” Pifari inquired. “The fact that he responded to the command means he heard the command, correct?”
Clark acknowledged that Spiers heard the officer's words but said his defiant response didn't justify using a baton against him.
“The subject has a constitutional right to say things,” Clark explained.
Pifari also asked if Clark expected officer Martinez to wait patiently for his partner when responding to a 911 call about a man choking his girlfriend.
“You agree that choking is a life-threatening emergency, right,” Pifari asked.
“Yes,” Clark replied.
When Martinez saw Spiers merely standing next to his girlfriend, he should have realized there was no crime in progress and talked to Spiers instead of grabbing him, Clark said.
But Pifari suggested Spiers may have still posed a threat to his then-girlfriend.
“He doesn’t have his hands on her neck, but you don’t know if he’s threatening her,” Pifari said. “You don’t know what he’s whispering to her or if he’s holding her hostage, do you?”
The fact that Richard yelled “What did he do” when officer Martinez grabbed Spiers indicates that she was in no immediate danger, Clark told the jury.
The policing expert concluded the baton beating was excessive force because Spiers possessed no weapon, had been grabbed suddenly by Martinez and was twisting and turning to break away, not actively fighting officers.
“I do not think he followed the [police] training,” Clark said of officer Stangel.
The trial, which has widened an already deep chasm of distrust between the police department and district attorney’s office, will continue next week. Final defense witnesses are slated to testify on Tuesday before both sides deliver closing arguments.