Former Mendocino County Correctional Sgt. Zohar Zaied was demoted to deputy after tasing a handcuffed inmate in 2017, a day after he had tased another restrained inmate who was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. (iStock/Getty Images)
A Mendocino County correctional sergeant tased a handcuffed, mentally-ill jail inmate in 2017, who witnesses said was not a threat at the time, which caused the man to stop breathing.
The sergeant didn’t lose his job and wasn’t charged with a crime, according to records released under the state’s new law-enforcement transparency law.
Instead, Zohar Zaied cut a deal with the Sheriff’s Office to accept a demotion to correctional deputy, documents show. The inmate, Travis Benevich, whose lawyer said almost died in the attack, accepted a settlement of $180,000 from the county instead of suing.
Three deputies who helped Zaied move Benevich to a padded cell on June 18, 2017 told investigators the inmate’s behavior didn’t warrant the tasing. Benevich, they said, resisted when approaching the cell he was being placed in, but wasn’t being violent.
One of the foremost experts in Taser litigation, Steve Martin, said of the incident, “of course, it’s disturbing.” The former counsel for the Texas Department of Corrections questioned the necessity of “such a high risk” use of force since Benevich was handcuffed behind his back and being escorted by guards.
The release of documents about Zaied’s use of force comes in a year of increased scrutiny of California law enforcement under the new law, Senate Bill 1421, which ended years of police secrecy about discipline and use of force. Records released by other agencies show jail guards fired for abusing inmates, and helping others cover up abuses.
“Hopefully there is some measure of accountability because the public knows what’s happening. That matters,” said Izaak Schwaiger, Benevich’s attorney.
The use of Tasers, especially in correctional facilities, has long been disputed by experts.
“There’s ways to de-escalate a situation without pulling out a Taser,” said Corene Kendrick, a staff attorney at the Prison Law Office in Berkeley.
Martin, who is currently the federal monitor of New York City’s Rikers Island, said the problem is people, not Tasers.
“(Tasers) can have a great deal of tactical utility when employed under strict conditions and limitations,” Martin said.
The problem isn’t the Tasers themselves, according to Martin, but misuse by law enforcement officers.
Benevich was arrested after a fight broke out at a music festival in Boonville on June 17, 2017. The 27-year-old says he was protecting his fiancé from a group of rowdy men when deputies arrested him for public intoxication and resisting arrest. He was taken to the Mendocino County Jail and, he said, he immediately felt panicked.
“I was just completely overwhelmed with how scared my kids must have been. What they must have been thinking,” said Benevich, who has an anxiety disorder.
Almost immediately Benevich asked Zaied, the jail supervisor at the time, to place him in a larger cell because small spaces increase his anxiety. He didn’t want to be in jail over the Father’s Day weekend and transcripts of jail audio show Benevich was adamant, he was “going to smash his head open to get the [expletive] out of this room.”
Zaied opted to move Benevich to a padded cell. Benevich was handcuffed with two deputies each holding one of his arms. All involved agree this part went smoothly until Benevich saw the small cell he was being transferred to. Benevich estimated the cell was “one-third the size” of the one he’d just left.
Benevich dug his heels into the ground and begged not to be put in the smaller cell, deputies told investigators. At some point, Benevich pulled to one side, and the guards pushed him into a wall. Then, Zaied tased him without warning. “I wasn’t even fighting you guys,” said Benevich while crying, according to a recording.
In an interview with reporters, Benevich said, “I remember my head hitting the wall. It’s a pain that is in every bone and muscle.”
Guards then put Benevich in the cell, where he fell to his knees. Forty-seconds after the first shock, Zaied tased him again. Benevich stopped breathing and went into a seizure while mucus dripped from his nose. He was rushed to a hospital.
“I don’t think [Zaied] decided to put him into renal failure and put him into a seizure. But he decided to use force, not knowing enough information to know if it was safe,” said Schwaiger, Benevich’s attorney.
Zaied did not return calls for comment. But documents show he told internal affairs investigators Benevich was fighting deputies and that he tased him because the inmate was “in danger.” He continued, “Staff was in danger ... it went from controlled to uncontrolled pretty fast.”
But the other deputies, including the two holding his arms, told investigators a different story. All thought the use of the Taser was unnecessary, documents show. A nurse who was present also described the tasing as excessive.
“It could have been avoided due to the fact that, you know, the four of us could have probably gained control,” Deputy Issac Sanchez told Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department investigators who did an independent investigation at the request of Mendocino County.
Zaied was eventually found to have violated several department and county policies, including using a Taser on a handcuffed inmate, according to findings by Mendocino County Undersheriff Randy Johnson. He recommended Zaied be demoted, but Zaied fought the findings, and through a settlement agreement, was able to remove some of the policy violations from his record. But his demotion to correctional deputy remained. Zaied now works as a background investigator for new hires at the jail, according to an online bio.
The day before he tased Benevich, Zaied had tased another inmate who was also handcuffed and described in documents as mentally ill. Fernando Martinez, a war veteren diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, was being put back into a padded cell when the incident occurred.
Zaied said use of force was necessary with Martinez, and that using the Taser minimized the risk of injury for everyone there, according to the report. Martinez told investigators he was “pretty out of it” and that he may have “tensed up.”
At the time of both tasings, records show Zaied’s taser certification had expired more than 10 years earlier. He completed Taser training in 2006. It expired in 2007.
Former Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman, who recently retired, did not return requests for comment on the training or the incident. But in the final Letter of Reprimand, he concluded that during the Benevich incident, while Zaied’s “intent was not malicious, [he] failed to appreciate other options available to [him] prior to the discharge of the Taser.”
Despite the demotion, Zaied’s salary remained roughly the same. According to an online website that tracks state salaries, Transparent California, he made roughly $149,000 in total pay and benefits in 2018 compared to about $142,000 in 2017.
The spokesperson for the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office, Mike Geniella, said District Attorney David Eyster planned to file criminal charges on Zaied, but changed his mind after the case was reviewed by an outside use of force expert who found no wrongdoing.
A consultant who did the investigation, Jeffery Martin, concluded that Zaied’s actions were reasonable.
In his report, Jeffrey Martin wrote that there is nothing to indicate that the Taser or actions of Zaied or the deputies contributed to Benevich’s medical event. Martin argued that Benevich appeared to have “perceived the pain during the event,” and that he was given sufficient time to comply with commands. Martin also wrote that Benevich actively tried to hook one of the deputy’s legs, which could have caused deputies to lose control of him.
Schwaiger, Benevich’s lawyer — who specializes in police brutality cases — disputes this account, saying there was no provocation, making the tasing particularly egregious. Schwaiger suspects that is part of the reason the county was quick to settle, offering an agreement even before a lawsuit was filed.
In exchange for $180,000, Benevich agreed to release the county of all liability and agreed to a confidentiality clause: Benevich couldn’t talk about the settlement.
“Of course, they didn’t want it to be public record,” said Schwaiger. “The only thing that municipalities hate worse than paying money is bad press.”
For two years, the incident remained secret. Schwaiger says that the incident between Benevich and Zaied is exactly what the new transparency law was designed to reveal. However, he worries the onslaught of news stories that have followed the passage of the law detract from the seriousness of each individual case.
This story was produced by the California Reporting Project, a coalition of 40 news organizations across the state. The project was formed to request and report on previously secret records of police misconduct and use of force in California.