That’s the most generous assessment from half a dozen veteran cops regarding the October, 2019, interaction that put unarmed Black man Dacari Spiers in the hospital and led to the ongoing criminal trial of Officer Terrance Stangel for striking Spiers eight times with a metal baton.
The current and former San Francisco cops, with cumulative experience of well over a century and a half, reviewed the now-public body-worn camera footage of the incident at Mission Local’s behest. Their assessments came prior to today’s testimony from prosecution witness Roger Clark, a use-of-force expert.
The officers and Clark did not agree on every point. But most of them did concur with the prosecution’s expert in describing the SFPD interaction with Spiers as a poorly planned and mishandled affair, which started out badly and then rapidly grew worse.
“That was a shitty response. It really was. There is no way of trying to dress that up. That was bad,” replies a veteran active officer after listening to the 911 call alleging domestic violence that brought officers to Dacari Spiers in 2019, and viewing three different officers’ body-worn camera footage of the resultant interaction and beating.
“This was fucked from the start.”
The officers, like use-of-force expert Clark, were perplexed by the behavior of the cop who is not on trial for excessive force: Stangel’s young partner, Officer Cuauhtémoc Martínez. After Stangel and Martínez received a 911 call alleging domestic violence, they pulled up on Spiers and his then-girlfriend Breonna Richard near Fisherman’s Wharf.
While much is disputed in this case, this much is not: Spiers and Richard were not, at that moment, engaged in domestic violence, or even touching one another.
But Martínez, first out of the police cruiser, rapidly approached Spiers, told him, “come over here,” and “face the wall,” and then immediately put his hands on Spiers. Spiers pushed the officer’s hand off, and a tussle ensued. Within 10 seconds, Stangel had unfurled his telescoping metal baton and began beating Spiers.
The officers were mystified why Martínez and Stangel did not formulate a plan beforehand, and why Martínez would so rapidly go “hands-on” with a minimum of verbal interaction with Spiers or Richard.
“Where is the conversation?” asks one former longtime officer. “In de-escalation, one of the strongest tools for an officer is your ability to have a conversation.”
Separate and apart from the buzzword of “de-escalation,” another former 30-year cop says Martínez and Stangel flunked “basic empathy and human interaction. You don’t go to Starbucks and yell at the barista, ‘Make me my fucking latte!’ You start cordially and civilly. You see these two cops jump out and run toward an incident that, by all reports, nothing was happening at that point. They run up and immediately go hands-on. Everything stemming from that, procedurally, is wrong.”
“Cops control the clock,” he continues. “They really do. These guys, they jumped out of the car, but it was on them to slow things down.”
But that didn’t happen. In fact, it was quite the opposite: As noted earlier, Martínez initiated a physical interaction almost immediately, and it turned violent within seconds.
A more by-the-book police approach to a situation like this one, in which domestic violence allegations have been leveled but there is no violence occurring when cops arrive, would be to monitor the situation, engage verbally, possibly wait until more police arrive and then separate the parties and have discussions with them.
“If they had talked to this guy, if they had done the typical separation of the two parties — Christ almighty, you really do want to know what happened here!” says a former longtime cop who had responded to numerous domestic violence calls as both a patrolman and an inspector.
“I am very troubled by what took place at the beginning. It ultimately precipitated a very violent encounter,” he continues. “Maybe that would’ve happened no matter what, but we don’t know, because it doesn’t seem like there was any fact-gathering at the beginning.”
“Police officers will be called to all sorts of domestic violence incidents. You cannot go in with a hammer. You need to go in with a scalpel.”
Martínez’s decision to rapidly initiate physical contact was “shaky at best,” says one veteran active officer, “and, at worst, constituted an illegal detention.” The young officer “put Stangel in a shitty situation … the only way this could’ve been prevented is if Stangel ran up to his partner quick and pulled him back.”
But, at that moment, Stangel chose a different approach.
The ongoing trial is the first criminal prosecution of a San Francisco police officer for an on-the-job beating. And the ensuing political circus — allegations of investigatory malfeasance, open warfare between the police and district attorney; supervisors pandering and grandstanding regarding Spiers’ $700,000 civil settlement — has, in many ways, obscured the singular, fundamental question: Did Stangel’s decision to beat Spiers rise to a criminal offense, or is it a reasonable use of force?
This is a difficult question to answer, and predicting how a jury will behave requires more than parsing the laws on the book. And even those laws aren’t exactly clear, here.
While the sloppy and misbegotten police response that precipitated this beating obviously factored into Spiers’ civil settlement, it’s not clear it will result in a criminal conviction. Police are legally granted fairly broad leeway to use force, even deadly force — even in response to a bad situation of their own making. Even officers revolted by what they saw said they could also foresee an acquittal.
“I’m not saying what Stangel did was justified or lawful. The court will tell us. But I get why he did it,” says a veteran active officer. “If I was in that situation? I don’t know if I’d have hit him with my baton. But I might have. I might have.”
Other officers didn’t see it that way at all.
“The beatdown was at a level of savagery I just can’t wrap my brain around,” says a retired 30-year officer. “I suggest you look at the Department General Orders governing use of force. Stangel’s job should’ve been to help restrain Spiers and give very clear instructions: ‘Police! Stop resisting!’ He could’ve physically intervened and assisted his partner by restraining this person. There’s a world of difference between restraining and aggressively beating the guy.”
“It couldn’t be any clearer that these officers just decided to go hands on and then beat the crap out of the guy.”
Or could it? Another officer pointed out that, in the midst of the encounter, Stangel blurted out “I got a 148!” That is: I have someone who is resisting arrest here. Among police, a statement like this in the midst of an encounter is an implicit call for assistance.
“He’s scared, he’s excited, he’s breathing hard. He’s asking for help,” says the longtime cop. “To me, it’s clear he felt justified in doing this. He’s not just beating someone down for not bowing to his omnipotence. I don’t know to what degree the jury will give him points for his authentic state of mind.”
Predicting the jury’s behavior is a dangerous game. It’s not clear if they will conclude that Stangel felt he needed to do what he did in order to save his partner, or instead decide that Stangel needlessly escalated a situation to the point that the only option he left himself was a criminal level of violence.
It’s also unclear if the jury will buy the defense line that Stangel kept striking at Spiers’ legs because he interpreted Spiers’ movements as resistance and kicking, or merely conclude that Spiers was writhing around because he was being struck repeatedly with a metal club.
Both of these things can be true. Those are questions for the jury to answer. Hard questions.
Stangel’s trial is the city’s first. Surely it won’t be the last.