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Training officer calls police baton beating in San Francisco justified

Countering the testimony of a use-of-force expert who labeled the baton beating excessive force, a San Francisco training officer told jurors that an officer’s use of a baton to take down an unarmed suspect was reasonable and warranted.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A San Francisco police officer complied with his training and department policies when he struck an unarmed Black man with a baton seven to eight times, causing severe injuries, a training officer testified in court Tuesday.

Patrick Woods, who teaches law enforcement recruits in San Francisco, told jurors that officer Terrance Stangel acted appropriately when he used his baton to take down Dacari Spiers, a domestic violence suspect, in October 2019.

Woods said Stangel needed to deploy his night stick to end a physical altercation with Spiers more quickly and prevent or minimize potential injuries to himself and his partner.

“These prolonged physical struggles, it’s how a lot of our officers get hurt,” Woods said. “The longer you struggle, the more likely you are to get hurt.”

Responding to reports of domestic violence, officer Stangel and his partner Cuauhtémoc Martinez 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 pushing the officers in previous testimony.

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.

Last week, a use-of-force expert hired by prosecutors testified that Martinez and Stangel disregarded their training when they failed to identify themselves as officers or tell Spiers why he was being detained, when Martinez rushed and grabbed Spiers while leaving his partner behind and when Stangel started beating Spiers with a baton without giving Spiers a chance to comply with officers' demands.

On Tuesday, Woods told jurors that he strongly disagreed with that assessment. According to Woods, the officers had to act quickly to separate Spiers from his then-girlfriend Breonna Richard because a 911 caller told police that Spiers had been choking her.

“That is a life-threatening crime of violence that qualifies as serious bodily injury or death,” Woods said.

Although no crime was in progress when officers arrived and saw Spiers merely standing close to his girlfriend and talking, Woods said the officers still had a duty to separate Spiers from his alleged victim as their first priority.

“Efforts to isolate or detain the subject are considered attempts to deescalate,” Woods said. “Trying to separate him from her, that fulfilled the beginning requirements of deescalation.”

"What did he do?" Richard can be heard shouting in body camera footage as Martinez grabs Spiers and pulls him away from her. 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?"

The prosecution’s use-of-force expert, Richard A. Clark, told jurors last week that officer Martinez used a "hey you, come here" approach — precisely what state training guidelines warn officers not to do. Martinez and Stangel never identified themselves as officers or explained why they were detaining Spiers, he said.

Woods told jurors that while it might be inappropriate to say "come here" to a jaywalker, it’s reasonable to address a violent crime suspect that way, especially when officers are concerned for a victim's safety. Woods added that officers don’t always have to identify themselves as police if doing so might cause a suspect to flee or fight.

Responding to claims that Stangel kept beating Spiers with a baton after the suspect fell to the ground and no longer posed a threat, Woods insisted that shadows on the pavement in a body camera video suggest that Spiers was kicking at Officer Stangel from the ground. Spiers previously testified that he was simply moving his legs to avoid getting hit by the baton.

“You can see the shadow of Spiers kicking out at least twice,” Woods said. “You could make the argument that one is a voluntary response, but not two, and human reaction is usually to retract.”

On cross examination, Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Young asked Woods if it was okay for Stangel to strike Spiers with the baton without giving a command or telling Spiers how to avoid getting hit.

“You’re not trained to just keep hitting and hitting without giving commands, right,” Young asked.

“No,” Woods replied.

The prosecutor played a body camera video in which Spiers can be heard yelling “what did I do” as Stangel beat him with a baton. Young asked if the officers ever answered Spiers’ question.

Woods acknowledged that the question was not answered.

The training officer is expected to continue testifying tomorrow.

The trial, which has widened an already deep chasm of mistrust between the police department and district attorney’s office, is expected to wrap up with closing arguments on Thursday.

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