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.
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.”