More than two years after a swarm of SFPD officers arrested a Mendocino couple at Dolores Park and sent their five young children to Child Protective Services, newly released bodycam footage contradicts the police narrative of what went down.
The video was filed with the California Northern District federal court this week, just weeks before a July 19 hearing in the suit filed by married couple Kirstin Johnson and Sam Martisius. The City Attorney is seeking a summary judgement on behalf of the six officers involved, arguing they had probable cause for the arrests. The family is suing the officers for various claims, including unlawful search and seizure, emotional distress, and false arrest and imprisonment. They are seeking more than $25,000 in damages.
Meanwhile, the police bodycam footage of the “vacation gone wrong” shows a cooperative mother who briefly ceases to comply with officers when her husband is arrested and her children are taken away.
You may remember the strange story: in January, 2019, Johnson and Martisius, their children, and their dog, Gandhi, came to the city from their farm up north, hoping to rehome the dog, who was aggressive to their farm animals. They went ice skating and shopping, then, at Dolores Park, Johnson and her children found someone interested in Gandhi. While they sat in the grass, Martisius, an emergency room doctor, played basketball at a nearby court.
Suddenly, they were surrounded by police. The parents were arrested on five felony counts each of willful child endangerment, resisting arrest, and public intoxication, and the children, including a 10-month-old baby, were hauled away to CPS in Mendocino. The dog, meanwhile, was sent to the pound.
The bodycam footage begins with two officers arriving and asking Johnson questions about her alcohol intake. They tell her they had received reports about Martisius being intoxicated.
They tell Johnson she smells of alcohol, and Johnson acknowledges having had a drink earlier in the day. No breathalyzer test is administered.
While she tells officers that her husband, Martisius, has been drinking, the camera footage shows Johnson is coherent and cooperative with the officers, answering questions about why she’s there and providing her identification. However, as more officers arrive, take her children out of view, and continue asking questions about her drinking, Johnson grows anxious.
“It’s not that I don’t know,” Johnson says in the video, still carrying one child in a harness on her back. “I don’t really feel … as though I should answer any of your questions, because I don’t feel like you are looking at me with eyes of love.” She questions aloud why her family ever came into the city.
Moments later, the officers charge toward the nearby basketball court and Martisius. The bodycam footage obtained by Mission Local mostly centers around Johnson, but the family’s lawsuit alleges that Martisius went to pick up his 10-month-old baby and an officer shoved him to the ground, resulting in a concussion.
The motion from the City Attorney’s office, however, says Martisius was sitting with his baby when officers approached, and refused to stand or cooperate with the officers.
The officer accused of pushing Martisius is Sgt. Flint Paul, who was also caught on video bumping a skateboarder in 2017 as the skater bombed down Dolores Street. This incident led to serious injuries for Anthony Economus, but Paul escaped discipline from the SFPD.
The footage shows Johnson looking on in disbelief as officers arrest Martisius and take the baby. Afterward, bodycam footage from another officer shows him joking that he doesn’t know how to hold a baby and passing the baby around to others, including a civilian onlooker. From the sidewalk, Johnson begs to hold and breastfeed her child.
According to John Coté, a spokesperson for the city attorney’s office, the recent motion filed by the city “lays out every reason why this case should be dropped, that the officers absolutely had probable cause to arrest these individuals, they were publicly intoxicated, they were endangering their children. Multiple people had called 911 to report them because they were concerned about the children.”
In another bodycam segment, an officer visits the nearby Woods Cervecería, where the family had stopped in earlier for pizza. The man behind the counter expressed his concern about the father’s intoxication, but noted he was not worried once he saw Johnson, mentioning that she seemed “even-keeled.”
And, for much of the incident caught on film, the officers seem to agree — they don’t take the child off Johnson’s back for several minutes and it doesn’t appear as though she will be arrested.
That is, until she walks to the back of her van to get some coconut water. The officers don’t stop her, but as she begins to question the legality of the officers’ actions, they quickly decide this is the last straw: Sgt. Paul confiscates the coconut water and he and another officer handcuff Johnson.
While then-District Attorney George Gascón did not pursue the charges against Johnson and Martisius, the couple said that being separated was a traumatic experience for their family.
According to their attorney, Ben Rosenfeld, the family was reunited within 28 hours — but only because they had the means to pay $40,000 to get out of jail, get their family van out of the impound, and drive back north immediately. The parents’ bail was set at $250,000 each, but Rosenfeld said, “the bail bonds company looked at this case and they thought it was so outrageous that they actually voluntarily offered to take less than [the standard] 10 percent.”
“I certainly believe in some significant degree of intervention on behalf of children for their protection and safety,” Rosenfeld said. “But I mean, this is just through the looking glass, and the police inflicted the very terror they’re pretending to try to prevent.”
As for the dog, Gandhi, the family returned to the city and paid to get him back from Animal Control, and eventually were able to rehome him in Mendocino.