A case brought by Maurice Caldwell, who was incarcerated 20 years for murder before his conviction was overturned in 2010, is proceeding against the San Francisco police officer who allegedly railroaded him into prison.
Now, a jury will decide not only whether former SFPD Commander Kitt Crenshaw fabricated evidence against Caldwell — but whether the city was “indifferent” to prior misconduct complaints against Crenshaw before he became involved in Caldwell’s case.
In a recent decision, U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna M. Ryu ruled that a jury could find that the City of San Francisco was so lax toward the citizen complaints against Crenshaw — and SFPD officers writ large — that Crenshaw felt he could fabricate evidence against Caldwell without consequence.
During a Dec. 2 hearing, Ryu “tentatively” set the trial date for April 15.
In 2012, Caldwell sued Crenshaw and the SFPD, alleging that SFPD officers played an outsized role in securing a wrongful conviction against Caldwell in the killing of a man named Judy Acosta in June, 1990, during a botched drug buy in the Alemany projects.
In his lawsuit, Caldwell alleges that, following Acosta’s homicide, Crenshaw targeted him while investigating the incident, put Caldwell in handcuffs and took him to the home of a witness while she was being interviewed by another police officer about the killing. Caldwell alleges that Crenshaw did this intentionally to manipulate the witness into identifying Caldwell as one of the killers. Only weeks later, the witness identified Caldwell.
Caldwell’s lawsuit also alleges that Crenshaw was driven by animus for Caldwell. The two had encountered each other numerous times before the murder. Only five months before Acosta’s murder, Caldwell had filed a complaint against Crenshaw, then a narcotics sergeant, for allegedly choking and beating Caldwell and promising to “kill” him and “get the drop on” him.
Since Caldwell filed his lawsuit some eight years ago, the case has encountered various twists and turns.
In March 2016, a federal judge barred Caldwell’s lawsuit from going to trial. But Caldwell appealed that decision, and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in May, 2018, ruled that Caldwell could pursue his case against Crenshaw. It would be left for the lower courts to decide whether the City of San Francisco could also be held liable for Crenshaw’s alleged actions.
On Dec. 23, 2020, Ryu ruled that the city could indeed be held liable — that a jury could determine if the city acted with “deliberate indifference” to the 25 complaints filed against Crenshaw in the three years before he allegedly prompted a witness to identify Caldwell as one of Acosta’s killers.
“…a reasonable jury could consider the evidence described above and conclude that there was an obvious need for San Francisco to take different action to protect the constitutional rights of its citizens,” Ryu wrote in her order.
“This evidence includes the significant number of citizen complaints against Crenshaw in the three-year period before Caldwell’s arrest, including complaints about retaliation and threats of violence, fabrication of evidence, excessive force, and abusive behavior, none of which were sustained or resulted in any discipline,” she continued.
On top of broadening the scope of Caldwell’s case, the allegations also shed light on the foundations of the SFPD’s disciplinary system.
To support his allegations that the city should also be held liable along with Crenshaw, Caldwell submitted testimony from police practices expert Russell Fischer, a former chief of criminal investigations at the Miami-Dade Police Department.
After reviewing 66 complaints filed against Crenshaw with the Office of Citizen Complaints throughout his decadeslong career with the SFPD, Fischer concluded that “the internal investigation and disciplinary functions based on investigations for citizen complaints [were] virtually meaningless … as of 1990.”
Fischer added that from the years 1988 to 1990, discipline was imposed in, at most, 1.7 percent of cases investigated by Office of Citizen Complaints. The statistics “show a discipline system that is not effective,” Fischer wrote.
In 2016, the Office of Citizen Complaints was rebranded as the Department of Police Accountability. Although the watchdog presently finds wrongdoing more often than its predecessor did in the early ‘90s (it sustained 19 percent of cases in 2019), those findings often result in little or no discipline.
“The jury will realize that it’s not just this one officer on trial, but the city,” said Terry Gross, one of Caldwell’s lawyers. “We get to show … that [Crenshaw] did this because the city allowed him to — encouraged him to.”
John Coté, a spokesman for the City Attorney, felt differently. “There is no merit to this lawsuit,” he said in an email. “The vast majority of his case has already been thrown out. We will continue to defend taxpayers and the public funds from baseless lawsuits.”