The prosecution and defense in the trial of San Francisco Police Officer Terrance Stangel on Monday focused their impassioned closing arguments, in large part, on the man he repeatedly beat with a baton, Dacari Spiers.
Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Young told jurors that Stangel not only ignored his training, but also failed to recognize Spiers’ humanity by repeatedly ignoring the unarmed Black man’s questions and pleas.
Stangel’s attorney, Nicole Pifari, told jurors that Spiers was a liar and a violent man who posed a threat to Stangel’s partner when the two officers confronted him on Oct. 6, 2019.
The officers were responding to a 911 report of a domestic violence incident near Fisherman’s Wharf, but when they arrived, Spiers and his then-girlfriend, Breonna Richards were not involved in an altercation.
After three weeks of a generally quiet courtroom, supporters and spectators Monday filled the seats, murmuring assent or disapproval as Young and Pifari tried to persuade jurors. At one point, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Teresa M. Caffese admonished spectators for chuckling, and threatened to remove disruptors from the courtroom.
‘The ones who lost control’
Prosecutor Young drew jurors’ attention to testimony and earlier statements indicating that Stangel and his partner failed to follow their police training even before getting out of the car on the night of the incident.
Stangel “recklessly disregarded his extensive training,” Young said, arguing the officers manufactured an urgent need for force where there was none. “They’re the ones who blew up, they’re the ones who lost control.”
Young highlighted the difference in the approach by Officer Joshua Cabillo, another officer responding to the scene in 2019. After arriving at the scene, later than the other officers, Cabillo took a moment to assess the situation and gave Spiers clear directions before helping to handcuff him.
Stangel and his partner, Cuauhtémoc Martínez, both said they felt it was unsafe for them to proceed more slowly when they approached Spiers and his then-girlfriend, even though no apparent crime was in progress when they arrived. They rushed to confront Spiers, never explained why they were there and, within seconds, were involved in a physical altercation.
Young reminded jurors that Officer Patrick Woods, who trains San Francisco police in using force, acknowledged in his initial 2019 statement that the officers had time to assess when they arrived on scene. Stangel’s attorney had called Woods to testify for the defense.
“[Spiers] is, yes, resistant. But he is never assaultive,” Young said. The police department’s general order governing use of force (DGO 5.01) allows officers to use their batons against “an assaultive subject who is actively resisting and poses a threat to the safety of officers or others.”
Even if first strikes were justified, Young said, “nothing justifies” the five additional times Stangel struck Spiers while he was pinned to the ground, without giving any clear commands.
Stangel has been charged with four felonies in the landmark prosecution of an on-duty San Francisco police officer for excessive force. He is charged with battery with serious bodily injury, assault with a deadly weapon, assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury, and assault under color of authority.
The 12-person jury is set to begin deliberating Tuesday morning to decide whether to convict Stangel on any or all of the charges.
Regardless of the “awesome power” police have, Young said, they must act judiciously and ensure every person their rights and freedoms. However, “it’s common knowledge that tall, dark Black men are often associated with menace,” Young told jurors.
Neither Stangel nor his partner “recognized Dacari Spiers as a human being who deserved acknowledgement” or a response, Young said.
Young also showed video of Spiers’ then-girlfriend Breonna Richard yanking her arm away from Officer Gonee Sepulveda, who also responded to the scene, in a manner similar to what Spiers did when Stangel and Martínez first confronted him. Young pointed out that Sepulveda did not react with force, and Richard was allowed to maintain her bodily autonomy; something Stangel and Martinez did not allow Spiers to do.
Young noted that officers also did not acknowledge Richard or her questions, although she was the alleged victim they were there to help.
The defense has framed the officers’ lack of response as “auditory exclusion,” owing to the high-stress interaction, saying they simply did not hear Spiers and Richard’s repeated questions.
Those questions are audible on video from both officers’ body-worn cameras, which has been played throughout the trial. Young suggested today that the officers’ hearing was “selective.”
‘Cut to the chase’
Defense attorney Pifari attempted to debunk the prosecution’s case against Stangel, in part by undermining its witnesses. Pifari called expert witness Roger Clark, a former lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, a “hack.” She told the jury that Spiers, Richard, and the prosecutors were dishonest.
“Let’s just cut to the chase: You cannot believe anything they told you,” Pifari said, referring to Spiers and Richard, who she accused of lying on the witness stand. She denied the prosecution’s claim that she was using Spiers’ previous encounters with law enforcement to justify the beating, and insisted that those encounters had no bearing on the case. Nonetheless, she referenced these incidents repeatedly.
In Pifari’s view, Spiers “has little to no control over his emotions,” and was acting in a rage when officers crossed paths with him. By contrast, Pifari said, Stangel is being prosecuted “for being a human being” faced with a “chaotic situation” created by Spiers.
Throughout the trial, the defense has maintained that Stangel, who was several steps behind Martínez when the officers arrived on scene, saw his partner in danger, “getting battered” by Spiers, and acted first to protect Martínez and then to overcome Spiers’ resistance. This case wasn’t like other sickening police brutality cases, Pifari said.
Pifari then reminded the jury of its legal obligation to be convinced “beyond a reasonable doubt” of Stangel’s guilt, and encouraged jurors to give Stangel the benefit of the doubt.
“Terry Stangel is not guilty of any crime,” Pifari said as she finished her arguments. “He did not intend to cause Dacari serious bodily harm, okay, he didn’t mean to do that.”
Stangel could serve up to seven years in prison, if convicted on all counts.