Fired Alameda County Deputies Will Stand Trial for S.F. Alley Beating
Frame from video showing Alameda County sheriff's deputies beating car theft suspect Stanislav Petrov on Nov. 12, 2015. (San Francisco Public Defender's Office)
There is sufficient evidence for two former Alameda County Sheriff's deputies to stand trial for felony assault and battery with deadly weapons after they beat an apparently surrendering suspect two years ago in a San Francisco alley for almost a minute with steel batons, a superior court judge ruled Friday.
The case began in San Leandro after midnight on Nov. 12, 2015, when other Alameda County deputies noticed Petrov driving a car that had been reported stolen. When they tried to stop him, he rammed a sheriff's cruiser, injuring a deputy, then led a high-speed chase across the Bay Bridge.
Petrov bailed from his still-rolling car after he ran out of gas. Only former deputies Paul Wieber and Luis Santamaria were still with him. They chased him on foot into the view of a surveillance camera on a Mission district side street.
Petrov appears on that video to slow down and turn to his left with Wieber in pursuit. District Attorney's Inspector Eric Tejada testified this week that he believed Petrov was trying to give up at that point.
"He sort of turns to his left and starts to put his hands up," Tejada testified. "I think he says, 'Alright, fuck.'"
Wieber tackled Petrov and started hitting him in the head with his fist. Santamaria then caught up and started hitting Petrov with an expandable baton. Tejada said up to that point, both deputies had used reasonable force on a fleeing felony suspect.
But then they crossed a line, Tejada said, either disregarding or failing to recognize Petrov was trying to give up.
"They are giving him commands: 'Get on the ground, show me your hands,'" Tejada said. "But it's kind of a non-sequitur because Petrov is on the ground and they can see his hands."
Because of the way the camera works, the surveillance video stops recording for about nine seconds approximately every 10 seconds, so there are gaps in the surveillance video. But Tejada said he could get an idea of what was going on during those gaps by listening to the audio from Wieber's body camera, which was accidentally switched on when he tackled Petrov. That body camera footage was shown in court but is otherwise not public.
Later in the surveillance video, Petrov can be seen on his knees with his hands behind his head. Tejada said it looked like Petrov had been arrested before (he had), because that's a handcuffing technique officers are taught known as a "high-risk kneeling position."
"That is the ultimate position of compliance," Tejada testified. "It's a position of surrender that I believe they should have recognized."
Not so, say the deputies' defense attorneys.
"At no point did he attempt to surrender," said Michael Rains, defense counsel for Santamaria. "He was either attempting to resist or attempting to flee."
Rains argued that Santamaria and Wieber reasonably believed Petrov was armed, because he was driving a stolen vehicle in a high-speed chase, because the deputies noted in their police reports that they saw Petrov reaching toward his passenger seat during the pursuit, because a loaded handgun was discovered in the car he abandoned. And because, again in their police reports, the deputies said Petrov was reaching for his waist as he ran from them.
"I believe they wrote self-serving police reports," Tejada testified, adding that Wieber was consistently on the radio during the car chase, but didn't mention at the time that he thought Petrov may be reaching for a gun. He said the video doesn't appear to show Petrov reaching for his waist.
Rains argued in court that Tejada presented a "flawed analysis and flawed opinions." He also noted that Tejada was far from the first person to render an opinion in the case.
"The DA's office by all accounts was shopping for an opinion that would show the force is unreasonable," Rains said.
He cited the initial district attorney's investigator on the case -- a man named Steve Harris -- who no longer works for the DA.
Rains read from internal district attorney's office communication: "Steve seemed to me to suffer from an insurmountable pro-police bias," it said, according to Rains.
Tejada said on the witness stand that Harris had made statements about never wanting to pursue a case against a police officer, and he acknowledged he was "removed" from the DA's office shortly after he was taken off the Petrov beating case in February 2016.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco Police Department's investigation included an analysis from UC Berkeley Police Lt. Joey Williams, according to preliminary hearing testimony, which initially concluded on March 8, 2016 that beating Petrov was "reasonable."
But within a month, Williams emailed an SFPD inspector asking if he could change his conclusions. He also emailed Tejada about it, according to a document Rains read in court.
"My supplement details how I missed it," Rains said Williams wrote to Tejada. "Sorry you got this case, man. I know it's got to suck."
Rains and Wieber's defense attorney William Rapoport repeatedly referenced force used by other responding peace officers once they joined Santamaria and Wieber.
SFPD Officer Patrick Cummins wrote in a police report that he kneed Petrov, then punched him in the face when he first arrived on the scene because he thought Petrov was trying to kick Santamaria.
Another Alameda County Sheriff's Deputy also hit Petrov with a baton -- once.
Tejada said both examples made sense -- it would be reasonable for officers just coming to a scene and seeing Santamaria and Wieber hitting Petrov to assume the suspect was resisting. The key, Tejada said, was that both Cummins and the other deputy stopped using force when they realized Petrov had given up.
Rains said the deputies told Petrov to show his hands eight times and to get on the ground five times. He said they never ordered Petrov to get on his knees.
But their orders weren't always clear. Tejada referenced two points in the Wieber's body camera video where Santamaria appears to taunt Petrov, telling him to "get up."
The second instance occurs just after other officers arrive on the scene.
"I believe he says, 'Get up, bitch,'" Tejada said, but he acknowledged both statements aren't totally clear.
In her closing argument, prosecutor Kelly Burke said the defense had completely ignored statements from three civilian witnesses who said Petrov was not resisting.
"The injuries in this case are grievous," she said. "He literally had been beaten to pieces."
Petrov had multiple surgeries to repair severely fractured arms and hands. He also had symptoms of a concussion and head wounds, Burke said.
She said that Petrov was obviously a threat, at times, but "the question is to whom and when."
"To say we should have expected him to just lie there and take it because that's what compliance looks like, I disagree with that," she said. "The people disagree with that."