Jury find SF officer used excessive force in beating a restrained arrestee

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A jury last week unanimously convicted a San Francisco police officer of using excessive and unnecessary force, although the San Francisco Police Department cleared the officer in an internal investigation and kept him on the streets.

In Magistrate Maria-Elena James' courtroom, the jury voted 8-0 that Police Officer Matthew Sullivan used excessive force against plaintiff Eduardo Alegrett on February 7, 2012.  Alegrett’s lawyer, Panos Lagos, told the Guardian that Alegrett was suffering a “mental crisis” when he allegedly battered a woman at 88 Perry Place.

Police arrived to arrest him and called for backup when Alegrett pretended to have a gun, a bust that Lago said was appropriate, although he disagrees with what happened next. Sullivan arrived at the scene, ordered Alegrett to get on his stomach, then repeatedly hit him in the head while Alegrett was already restrained by two officers. Lagos told us that Sullivan acted too quickly for the other officers to stop him—administering “10 strikes within two seconds.”

A SFPD spokesperson told us that Sullivan is still on street duty. When we asked if they were imposing any disciplinary actions, we were told the information was not available to the public, although the spokesperson did say the SFPD’s “investigation revealed there were no wrongdoing...and there’s no reason to penalize someone that didn’t do anything wrong.”

According to Lagos, the Bane Act and Alegrett’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated in the incident. The Bane Act, one of California’s civil and criminal laws related to hate crimes, “provides protection from interference by threats, intimidation, or coercion or for attempts to interfere with someone's state or federal statutory or constitutional rights.”   

Alegrett was awarded $3,200 compensation for his injuries, and his legal fees will be covered. Sullivan will also be required to pay a fine, which will be determined at a later trial.

“It’s very unusual to have this trial decision,” said Lagos.

Quantitative information regarding police brutality cases is limited. A 2013 San Francisco Office of Citizen Complaints report shows that out of 727 complaints, only 43 were sustained. Out of the 43 sustained, over half were for neglect of duty, 24 percent for unwarranted action, 10 percent for "conduct reflecting discredit represented,” and 7 percent for unnecessary force.

The National Institute of Justice says “police officers should use only the amount of force necessary to control an incident, effect an arrest, or protect themselves or others from harm or death.” However, there are no universal rules regulating the amount of force allowed, and officers must refer to their specific agency for force guidelines. The NIJ’s website also says that “excessive use of force is rare.”

Lagos said that the OCC  told Alegrett, when he first filed his complaint, that the case wouldn’t go to court because they saw no evidence of excessive force. We asked Lagos why this incident report managed to do what others didn’t.

“Video evidence is what made this trial different.” Two tenants, unknown to the police officers, filmed the incident on their phones.

Lagos said that the outcome of the trial should encourage police to enforce the established rules on officers’ use of force, specifically rules regarding mental breakdowns: “The SFPD has a practice of failing to train officers to recognize citizens with mental or emotional breakdowns.”