Nearly a year ago, after three plainclothes San Francisco police officers detained a man suspected to be casing the Castro neighborhood, news stories followed with police statements that the man “became combative,” resisted arrest, and stabbed an officer with an X-ACTO knife.
But after witness testimony described a “beatdown” by the officers, the District Attorney this week dropped multiple charges that had been brought against Sergio Lugo. The evidence was brought forward by the public defender’s office, and could not be confirmed independently.
District Attorney spokeswoman Rachel Marshall said her office dropped the charges after reviewing statements, surveillance footage and inconsistencies in police officer statements.
Other factors that played into their decision, she said, included the fact that police officers were not wearing body cameras, “the fact that Mr. Lugo was behaving lawfully when stopped by police, and the photos of the injuries of all parties—which depicted severe injuries to Mr. Lugo, whom police badly beat during this encounter.”
“It was clear,” she said, “that this was not a provable case.”
Marshall said the evidence “supported Mr. Lugo’s account that the injuries on the officers were accidental and we do not believe a jury would convict.”
Lugo, a man who had been wandering around the Castro in the early morning hours of Feb. 17, 2021, sustained a fractured cheekbone; subsequent photos of him at the hospital show his face red and swollen. The police officer who alleged he was stabbed had superficial cuts to a pinky finger and his knee, and went home with some bandages.
Nonetheless, the District Attorney’s office last year charged Lugo in attacking the officers who tried to arrest him: He faced charges of assault on an officer, exhibiting a deadly weapon to resist arrest, and three counts of resisting arrest by force.
Deputy Public Defender Alexandra Pray said there was “not very much dispute between the officers’ version of events and Mr. Lugo’s,” but there were some.
One item that was disputed was when the officers identified themselves as police. Pray said “all three witnesses stated that the police did not identify themselves until after the physical altercation had already started.” But during the preliminary hearing, one of the officers maintained that he identified himself as law enforcement before touching Lugo.
A department bulletin from late 2020 states that plainclothes officers are exempt from wearing body-worn cameras “with the exception of the execution of search and arrest warrants.” The SFPD confirmed this is their current policy, and Mission Local has asked the department whether the officers’ cameras should have been activated.
It is unclear whether the plainclothes officers involved in this incident had body-worn cameras, but footage was not captured. However, a nearby house’s Nest camera caught the audio of the incident , and multiple witnesses described hearing and witnessing a beating outside their homes.
The morning of the incident, Lugo was approached near 21st and Castro streets by Sgt. Alexander Lentz and Lt. Kevin Healy, who were not in uniform. The officers, thinking he was casing the neighborhood to commit a burglary, asked Lugo to sit down, and he complied.
Lugo was holding an X-ACTO knife in his hand, which officers mistook for a vape pen, Pray said, and thus they did not ask him to put it down.
“The officers then told Mr. Lugo that they were going to search him,” Pray said. “The officers told him that they were the police and they could detain him, and Mr. Lugo replied that he was going to leave because they did not have probable cause to detain him.”
When he tried to leave, the police officers grabbed Lugo’s hands and attempted to forcibly handcuff him without warning. The officers knocked Lugo’s legs out from under him, and at some point realized that the object in his hand was an X-ACTO knife, not a vape pen.
Lentz alleged that Lugo, who was on the ground, was stabbing him with the knife, and admitted to hitting Lugo in the face with his knee.
Court transcripts show that during the preliminary hearing in April, Officer Glennon Griffin, a third officer also not in uniform who joined in the altercation, admitted to punching Lugo in the face 15 to 20 times after hearing that Lentz had been stabbed, even though Lugo’s hand holding the knife was pinned to the ground.
Lugo maintained that he did not wield the knife at anyone, and that any wounds to the officers were accidental.
“I don’t think [the DA] could prove that this wasn’t an accident, especially given that it was universally agreed that Mr. Lugo was already holding the X-ACTO knife when he was approached,” Pray said.
Three neighbors heard the commotion outside and witnessed multiple people beating up one man, the public defender’s office said in their defense argument. One witness told the public defender that “it sounded like a beatdown. A fight sounds more fair, equal; this sounded one-sided, very dominant, the other was not.”
“All three witnesses expressed shock at the level of violence and the extent to which Mr. Lugo was outnumbered,” Pray said. Two people even called the police out of concern for what was happening, the public defender’s press release said today.
Pray said she believed the District Attorney’s office would not be able to prove officers had cause to detain Lugo, “and, even if they did, that the police used grossly excessive force in effecting the detention.”
The San Francisco Police Officers Association, upon learning that the charges against Lugo were to be dropped, took the opportunity to call out District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s “criminals-first agenda.”
The POA’s president Tony Montoya released a statement on Monday to its members, calling for a demonstration at the court yesterday in protest of the DA’s decision and to show the officers’ “collective disgust over Boudin’s continued refusal to prosecute criminals who assault and injure our officers.”
UPDATE: Police Chief Bill Scott said in a statement this evening that he was “disappointed” with the District Attorney’s decision to drop the charges, referring to Lugo’s actions as an “attack,” even though Sgt. Lentz said in court that he grabbed Lugo first and tripped him to the ground. Scott maintained that Lugo “resisted arrest and violently assaulted” the officers.
“These kinds of attacks are unacceptable and shouldn’t be tolerated by our criminal justice system,” Scott said. “When they are, it sends a dangerous message that emboldens criminals to use violence — and not just against police officers.”