Body camera footage of Officer Terry Stangel beating Dacari Spiers in October 2019

The trial of Officer Terrance Stangel, who in 2019 severely beat unarmed Black man Dacari Spiers with a baton, rolls into its second week today. 

Politically, this has been something of an assasination-of-Archduke-Franz Ferdinand moment. San Francisco’s first prosecution of a police officer for an on-the-job beating has triggered open warfare between the District Attorney and police department, with politicians’ or community members’ political alliances to one entity or the other leading to cascading hostilities

It’s a complicated situation, but this much is not: On Oct. 6, 2019, San Francisco police officers received a 911 call alleging domestic violence near Fisherman’s Wharf by a man matching Spiers’ description. When they arrived, there was no domestic violence going on. Nonetheless, Officer Cuauhtémoc Martínez quickly put his hands on Spiers, and his partner, Stangel, followed with a baton. 

Those are the facts and, all things considered, they’re simple. In the criminal case, a jury will have to decide if this was a reasonable use of force by Stangel, or if it rises to a criminal offense. The Board of Supervisors last week voted 8-2 to settle a civil case, awarding Spiers $700,000.  

But this is where simplicity ends. Whatever you think about Spiers, he’s found himself in the crossfire of a political war, and has been rendered a pawn in other players’ chess games. 

The trial of Terrance Stangel is, again, the first time a San Francisco officer has been prosecuted for on-the-job use-of-force — and it shows. On the eve of his court date, San Francisco police officers had been excoriating both DA Chesa Boudin and their own department, taking to the airwaves to blast Police Chief Bill Scott for his “lack of support” — with the Stangel case being Exhibit A. 

Scott “doesn’t support us and doesn’t support victims,” retiring cop Mari Shepherd told Fox News on Jan. 31. “Officer Stangel’s case is a perfect example of that. You have an officer who is on trial right now for excessive use of force after responding to a domestic violence incident.”

And that line was echoed by Supervisor Catherine Stefani on Feb. 8. When she voted against the Spiers settlement, she brought up prior domestic violence allegations made against him and bemoaned the “tons” of evidence for the domestic violence he wasn’t committing when cops showed up.  

“You know this is a person who has been arrested for domestic violence before,” Stefani told her colleagues, “who has done the same thing and put his hands around the neck of a woman.” 

The contention here appears to be that past allegations of domestic violence that were never sustained, and a 911 call that has not yet been corroborated, somehow factor into a civil settlement for the police beating of Spiers. This was a beating he received after police did not observe him committing domestic violence. And, despite what you heard on Fox News — and reiterated in Board chambers — no “domestic violence incident” has ever been established. 

But here’s the reason the supes voted to dole out that $700,000: Even if Spiers had abused his girlfriend that night (and, again, there is no footage of this nor corroboration of the 911 call) he wasn’t doing it when the cops showed up. The police are not entitled to jump out and beat people who may have committed domestic violence at some prior point in time. 

This is why the City Attorney’s office succinctly explained its backing of the settlement “based on the governing law and the incident itself, which was largely captured on body-worn cameras.” This isn’t a value judgment about Spiers’ goodness as a human being, even if some in the city seem to think it is or should be.

Dacari Spiers’ October, 2019, beating by Officer Terrance Stangel left him in a wheelchair for for six weeks, according to his attorneys. He still ‘walks funny’ and has not been able to return to his previous work as a delivery driver. Photo courtesy of Spiers’ attorneys.

Because, per arguments being tossed around both in the courtroom and Board Chambers, Spiers is a bad man. He’s done bad things. And retribution came for him in the form of Officer Stangel’s baton.

The police, with badges and weapons and a great deal of impunity to use them, are saying that the system is actually stacked against them. And the cops and their adjunct politicians are saying that too much thought and compassion is spent coddling criminals, while victims are given short shrift. These criminals are manipulating our well-meaning but naively liberal system, but it’s the cops who are being scrutinized. 

Expect to see these sorts of complaints ramping up as we head into the June election to recall the DA. That’s San Francisco’s future. But it’s also our past: This worldview — cops are being persecuted for dealing with criminals prioritized over victims by misguided liberals — is straight out of this city’s real and cinematic past. In essence, it’s the thesis of the 1971 Clint Eastwood film Dirty Harry.  

Cops or politicians unable or unwilling to parse the “governing law” around the police beating of Spiers really do seem to be echoing Eastwood’s Harry Callahan: “Well, I’m all broken up about that man’s rights.” 

Now, I like Dirty Harry. I like watching men in boxy suits drive boxy cars up and down the hills of bygone San Francisco. I don’t much enjoy on-screen depictions of torture, but if I have to see it, at least it’s filmed in Niners-era Kezar Stadium. Procure a six-pack of Anchor and you’ve got yourself a proper San Francisco evening in. I do feel lucky. 

But I can like this film while also being cognizant of its profoundly reactionary political message. And this message caught on in greater society: As Joe Street wrote in his book Dirty Harry’s America: Clint Eastwood, Harry Callahan and the Conservative Backlash

Dirty Harry made an important contribution to the law-and-order debate by presenting liberal policies as a major cause of urban unrest and in proposing tough policing and reduced bureaucracy (both of which are central conservative tenets) as the solution. 

And here’s how Eastwood himself put it in 1977: 

People are sick and tired of seeing the criminal glorified and made into an object of sympathy … Basic men and women who work hard, bring up families, these people want order. They don’t want mayhem in their lives. They’re concerned about the law, and if a guy is let out on a technicality, the law was wrong. 

It would take a near-total lack of institutional memory, crass stupidity, or a healthy combination of both to compare the public safety situation in any big city of the 1970s — let alone San Francisco —  to today. Violent crime in the 1970s was at a level unthinkable by modern standards; in San Francisco alone not one, not two, but teams of serial killers preyed on the city and domestic terrorists were blowing up bombs and firing off weapons. 

But, then as now, San Francisco was held up by reactionaries with an agenda of their own as an exemplar of liberal governance gone awry. A place where bureaucracy and procedure get in the way of meaningful change. A place where people turn a blind eye to unspeakable conditions because of misplaced faith in crumbling progressive ideals. 

So the present day, complaints made by police that they’re not getting “support” in our decadent and deteriorating city —  when “support” would be reflexive approval of a disturbing and problematic beating — hark to the complaints underpinning Dirty Harry. As does the contention that liberal policies coddle criminals and hamstring officers from protecting victims.

In a Jan. 26 email sent by a retiring cop to every last sworn member of the department, she lamented Chief Scott’s lack of backbone and support for the workaday officers. She bemoaned the scrutiny that comes with wearing body-worn cameras and concluded by hoping that “the intelligent and courageous cops I know return SFPD to what it once was.” 

There’s a lot to glean from this email, especially on the eve of a criminal police beating trial and hefty civil settlement in which body-worn camera footage has been pivotal. One can only wonder how, in its absence, things would’ve went for Spiers — “a person who has been arrested for domestic violence before,” as Stefani reminded us — as he matched stories with multiple sworn officers of the law.

In this light, the desire to “return SFPD to what it once was” hits differently. 

“I am not someone with a clean background,” says the veteran cop. “There have been many complaints.” 

I have talked to this officer for more than a decade about San Francisco and its problems. Police in this and every big city, he says, have been a “band-aid” and “sent to respond to everything.” But that is changing. 

“We’ve been expected to do so much, that the public and our city bosses have allowed us more leeway, which is now being reined in,” he says. “And we can adapt to that, or we are free to leave. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong or bad. It’s just different than we’re used to.” 

In past decades, “I felt above the law because I was enforcing it. And if our DA’s office didn’t do their job? Fine. I will do it,” he recalled. “But that is bullshit. That is not my job.” That, in so many words, turned him into Dirty Harry — “and that is completely misguided and not my job, either.”

A man’s got to know his limitations. 

Dirty Harry debuted 51 years ago, and we, as a city, need to determine the role and expectations of a police officer in today’s San Francisco. There will be no progress until this is done, and our officers deserve the clarity. And, clearly, that role must be different than it was in the past. 

“It’s not the 1970s anymore,” concludes the veteran officer. “But a lot of cops wish it was.” 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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15 Comments

  1. “we, as a city, need to determine the role and expectations of a police officer in today’s San Francisco”. I think that’s missing the core of the problem. We are facing a bunch of petulant pr.ks setting the tone in the corps. You can talk about roles and expectations all day long, in the end, you still got a bunch. Sort out the braindead and the bad apples.

  2. I’m not saying this is what happened,

    But, bear with me a moment.

    What if it was a combination of peer pressure and performance enhancing drugs that made Stangel go off on Spiers?

    I know, I know, that’s crazy.

    But, consider.

    What if Stangel was hired by a panel that thinks that ‘Dirty Harry’ was the ideal prototype of the kind of person they wanted on the streets with a gun and a badge and an extremely narrow range of choices in his brain cause he’s not bright and inquisitive and, well, changeable.

    He’s hired cause he’s like Dirty Harry and get’s a reputation amongst his fellows as being a guy the uppers know they can bring in to give a suspect a taste of the old time religion.

    Is this cop, Stangel, a know head banger?

    Was he hired for that reason?

    Let’s not just look at the victim’s record, let’s look at the cop’s too.

    I got 3 minutes to be out the door to catch the start of today’s session but let me tell you one main thing I’m seeing.

    In the courtroom there is obviously a ban on other cops going in there.

    They don’t want to look like they’re trying to intimidate the jury and viewers.

    A few of the cops are violating that order.

    They are in the courtroom because they are saying, ‘Screw you’ to their bosses because these cops are just like Stangel only they’re mostly detectives.

    How does a dummy like me know this?

    I follow them into the hall when they leave and watch them hook up with other thug cops and listen to them bitch about not being allowed in there but they are in there anyway.

    These friggin’ cops basically think that they don’t have to listen to their own superiors.

    I’ll let you know how many of em are in there today.

    Hmmm, should I wear my black tie or my black tie.

    Tough decisions.

    Back in few hours.

    Go Niners … beat the Super Bowl Champs!!

    h.

  3. OK, back,

    Only 6 people in gallery.

    One reporter hacking on a laptop front row aisle.

    Me and Lyle (like me, he’s old and retired and likes to watch key trials) …

    3 secretary looking ladies of various agencies scattered and one guy in what I call the ‘Doc Holiday seat’ in furthest corner of courtroom back seat.

    Doc always sat thataway so’s no one could sneak up and shoot him in the back of the head which they did when he didn’t.

    Figured that one was only cop and there to record any others who violated their ‘in-house’ order.

    In a way that’s scarier than a courtroom full of em.

    Means they’re more closely organized and loyal to the POA than to the Chief.

    Or, the Mayor.

    Hey, what’s my evidence?

    They’re on a work stoppage is my first evidence.

    Every single publication in town with their eyes open is reporting cases of cops all over the City refusing to do their jobs.

    Cowboys and Cowgirls …

    That’s dangerous for us.

    By their actions they are telling the entire town that if they choose and they do so choose now, they can stop protecting us altogether.

    Over and over we’re reading and hearing of cases where the cops show up and look at the perp and ignore and refuse to record witnesses and drive away.

    That’s organized crap there and whomever is taking away our protection should be in prison as fast as we can get them there because it is they and not the DA who are allowing these criminals and crazies to continue their mayhem.

    The big question in my mind I want to shout out here is …

    Is the SFPD on strike!?!

    Well, call in the national guard and fire those friggin’ punks!!!

    Really?

    Go all Camden on them and give em all an application with their next checks.

    An application for their own jobs.

    The cops who walked away from the guy who tore up the poor restaurant woman’s outdoor seating in the paper yesterday.

    Fire em!

    The cops who walked away from the guy who assaulted the driver on Mission 14?

    Fire em!

    The POA leaders or whomever told two thousand cops to stop doing their jobs?

    Fire em!

    And, don’t you ever let the same butts who chose these fellow disrespectors of the law choose any more of the same.

    One cop did show up in the courtroom and gave dirty looks all around and moved seats twice in 10 minutes and I followed him when he left and he was sitting on a bench across from the courtroom and said he was a cop and the DA asked him to come in but not Boudin himself and I didn’t wait around.

    Let the reporter with the laptop on the front row record that.

    I’m not Joe Friday just here for the facts, m’am.

    I’m here for the intrigue behind what makes the facts.

    That make any sense?

    I’m hungry.

    Made big pot of beans and potatoes yesterday and I’d share a bowl with you but you’re not here are you?

    Just like the cops for Stangel’s trial.

    What’s up with that?

    Who gave those orders?

    Is it the same person who told them to stop arresting thugs?

    Lock em up!!!

    h.

  4. Joe,

    Whomever ordered this effective, ‘work slowdown or stoppage’ is the same person or persons who ordered the cops to not come to support Stangel.

    One of you lawyers out there please tell us what the penalty is for advising a soldier on the front lines to run away (literally, the cops are driving away from crime scenes) … what’s the penalty for a cop.

    Well, most of them can tell you cause most of them are ex-military.

    If you’re a soldier they shoot you.

    We’re civilians so we can’t do that.

    Can we fire them?

    Who investigates?

    The Chief just dropped out of an agreement that let’s the DA investigate cops accused of crime and here we have the entire justabout force off the reservation.

    And, cops want it illegal for DA to look at em while they’re trying to assassinate him professionally.

    How about the City Attorney?

    You’re kidding, right?

    Today is the first day for Matt Gonzalez to declare his candidacy for City Attorney.

    Tomorrow is the second.

    He’s the only one I can think of who is honest and could positively beat David at the polls.

    It would change everything.

    It would save Chesa Boudin and the national movement for Justice Reform.

    That’s just a start.

    He has until March 11th to file and if he doesn’t we’re lost.

    In the meantime I challenge any publication starting with Mission Local to publish the name/s of whomever ordered the cops and were listened to …

    ordered them to cut back on that fighting crime and criminals thing …

    and, ordered them not to show up at Stangel’s trial.

    It’s the same person/s you can bet.

    That person/s should be locked up immediately.

    There are 2,300 cops out there.

    There’s gotta be a bunch of them sick and tired this POA rogue operation.

    Ask Tony Montoya for starts.

    Maybe he can point you somewhere.

    He must be furious at how bad his people are looking.

    Go Giants!

    h.

  5. I really liked the comments by Daniel and h. brown. I attended the trial of the 4 officers who killed Alex Nieto, and they arrived joking among themselves all decked out like Wall Street types and made to look like choir boys. The real thugish attitudes come out when you overhear comments in the hall etc. like h. brown heard. Of course, some of these cops are going to go into the courtroom against orders. Why? Because they see themselves as above the law.

  6. A bunch of cops shouldn’t be in the courtroom. They should have been given an order to stay away. It’s hard enough for us families to attend court sessions when our loved ones are executed by these cops, and we have to endure reliving the violence perpetrated on our loved ones by these cops. Stangel had no business beating on Spiers with that baton until he broke bones. When are these cops going to be held accountable? I can just imagine what goes on that we don’t see.

    1. JP,

      If this were a murder trial I’d expect there to be relatives of the deceased there looking for justice.

      This isn’t a murder trial and the victim already got 700 large and I’m sure his lawyers worked pro bono.

      That takes the pressure off of everyone except the jury.

      Oh, yeah, the jury has to decide if the POA can twist the arms of the Mayor and the City Attorney enuff to make pay-outs like this just a price of doing business as usual.

      This goon brutality has to stop somewhere and I’ll bet you all the way up to a dollar that this jury is already tired of Stangel strutting into the courtroom and around the halls (which he did this morning before court started on the way to the can and back) …

      Guy’s got a thousand dollar minimum suit which is specially tailored tight to show off his massive back and bulging biceps.

      I don’t know about the jury but this guy is over 6 feet already and I sure as hell wouldn’t want to see him bearing down on me wearing full bullet-proof vest and all the other array of tools of the trade they have to carry.

      He must look like a freight train suddenly come blasting out of an alley you’re about to walk across.

      Yeah, I can believe the jury is not only probably already convinced he’s capable of the crime of which he’s accused; I’m betting that a majority of them are frightened of both him and the hundreds like him straining at the leash.

      Yes, Virginia, there is a POA!

      Peace and Love,

      h.

  7. Unfortunately the reactionaries may have had it right in the 70s if they did say that “bureaucracy and procedure get in the way of meaningful change.” Nothing could have been more bureaucratic and procedure oriented than the “reform” effort of 2015-2016 culminating in the impenetrable jargon-laden collaborative report between the SFPD and the Department of Justice entitled “Collaborative Reform Initiative: An Assessment of the San Francisco Police Department”. https://cops.usdoj.gov/ric/ric.php?page=detail&id=COPS-W0817 It lists 272 specific steps. Today, Chief Scott, citing a boxes checked assessment said “I am incredibly proud to lead a department whose members have been fearless in identifying areas for needed improvement and united in our drive to accomplish it”. Apparently no one identified savagely beating innocent citizens as an area that needed improvement. When it comes to “meaningful change” the Stangel trial, the power of the POA, the craven SFPD leadership, Stefani’s blatant lies and the silence of Mayor Breed show how meaningless a mountain of words said to signify “change” can be. It takes men and women with guts to make meaningful change. Thank you Chesa Boudin.

    1. Thanks Mark,

      I was starting to feel like the Lone Ranger around these forums.

      (and, I take that allusion back if it’s racist or otherwise shows my age)

      h.

    1. Jan,

      Had a friend with an ancient dog named, ‘Sam’.

      He introduced him as, ‘Samfromfrisco’.

      I’ve been repeating what Sheriff Michael Hennessey taught:

      Elect our Police Chief!!!

      Let the people look at the multi-planked (imagine what some of the planks will look like – like fill all current vacancies with Patrol Specials who do walk foot beats) …

      You’d be creating one of the most powerful offices in the City.

      Not a puppet to unions and politicians!

      Hell, who knows, Scott by himself could be great reformer but what he is now is a tool for a brutal phalanx of cops all across the country (oh yeah, don’t you doubt that Chesa Boudin is that important to the national Justice Reform movement and if you do you’re wrong cause he sure is) …

      It all begins with the Police Chief answering to the Voters of San Francisco.

      Go Giants!

      h.

      Does Aaron Peskin listen to any of you?

      Maybe Dean Preston is better cause he’s a lawyer.

      One of them should sponsor a Charter Amendment giving us a top cop who doesn’t get slammed all over the place like a volleyball.

  8. Yeah, even creepier than Dirty Harry, the SFPOA has incorporated itself into the Puritan misogynist backlash, further blaming women as sluts responsible for their own rapes by unconstitutionally using their rape kit DNA against them to solve other crimes.

    This is the part of the horror movie where the wiser are urging the villager with the shotgun to just shoot the monster for god’s sake, for the love of god just shoot it.

    https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/feb/14/san-francisco-police-woman-crime-dna-rape-kit

  9. This sure stuck out to me in the article: “And if our DA’s office didn’t do their job? Fine. I will do it,” And more from the article: “People are sick and tired of seeing the criminal glorified and made into an object of sympathy”.

    I’m picking bits and pieces – but we have a DA (or two?) that’s doing exactly what causes our cops to go all “Dirty Harry”.

  10. I agree with your comments, Mark. I was one of the people who was part of a working group who set about to create a new anti-bias policing “policy” per the recommendations of the DOJ overview of SFPD in which they recommended 272 areas that needed reform. As at least one anti-bias trainer discovered when he presented an anti-bias course to the cops, the mainstream cops didn’t want to hear it.

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