After weeks of sitting silently in the courtroom, San Francisco Police Officer Terrance Stangel took the witness stand Wednesday, portraying himself as a well-meaning police officer who was trying to protect his partner from a violent Dacari Spiers when he beat Spiers near Fisherman’s Wharf in 2019.
Stangel is the first SFPD officer to face a criminal trial for use-of-force violations while on duty.
He is charged with beating Spiers, an unarmed Black man, with a baton in 2019, and breaking two of Spiers’ bones. Body-worn camera footage shows the officer hitting Spiers with a metal baton eight times in quick succession. On the witness stand, Stangel testified that he “believed every single baton strike at the time was necessary” to protect Officer Cuauhtémoc Martínez, who reached Spiers first.
Guided by his attorney, Nicole Pifari, during three hours of testimony, Stangel described what happened after Stangel and Martínez responded to a 911 call from a bystander reporting a domestic violence incident. Stangel testified that when they arrived, Spiers and his then-girlfriend were not touching and not obviously involved in any violent altercation.
While recounting the events of Oct. 6, 2019, Stangel described what he said was “obvious” to him: that Spiers was “assaultive,” that Stangel couldn’t get ahold of him, and that Spiers would not surrender.
Stangel testified that Spiers “exploded” and “blew up,” and said the interaction between Martínez and Spiers quickly turned into a “melee.”
Stangel told jurors that the incident was different from what the body-worn camera footage shows. He said the first thing he saw when he arrived on the scene was Spiers assaulting Officer Martinez.
“As I tried to grab a hold of [Spiers], he just ripped me off,” Stangel said, jerking his body to demonstrate.
Unable to hold Spiers, whom Stangel described as resembling “a pissed-off NFL player,” Stangel said he called for backup and pulled out his baton. When the three men separated briefly, Stangel testified that Spiers reinitiated contact with Martínez.
Stangel said he then began swinging, hitting Spiers at least twice before Spiers and Martínez “flew to the ground” together. Stangel said he believed his partner was losing the fight with Spiers, which, he explained, was why he continued hitting Spiers’ legs with his baton.
While it is unclear from any camera footage whether Spiers pushed the officers or was being pushed, Stangel’s attorney has repeatedly claimed that Spiers was too big and strong for the officers to control without weapons.
Pifari compared Spiers to a hypothetical suspect with an “athletic build,” and Stangel said that Spiers “seemed like he was taller” than him.
Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Young challenged those claims in her cross-examination, pointing out that Spiers and Stangel are about the same height. She told jurors that Stangel, a former high school and junior college quarterback, was required to meet physical fitness standards as a police officer.
Young questioned Stangel about why he didn’t hear any of the questions that Spiers and his then-girlfriend repeatedly asked, including why officers had approached them.
“In the moment, you don’t hear a lot of things,” Stangel said. “I don’t know if it’s possible to train that out of you.”
Turning to face the jury near the end of his testimony, he explained, “I just don’t, you don’t hear things like that in real life.”
After Stangel finished testifying, his friend and former partner, Officer Davon Morgan, took the stand, telling the jury that Stangel does not have “a character trait for violence.” Although he couldn’t speak to the event in question, Morgan said he had seen Stangel in many public interactions where he kept his cool.
The last witness to take the stand Wednesday was Sean McCann, a professor with the Napa Valley College Administration of Justice and the second use-of-force expert to testify for the defense.
McCann called Stangel’s efforts to grab hold of Spiers first instead of using his baton “admirable,” considering that, in his view, a higher level of force was justifiable.
McCann said that officers are allowed to consider tone of voice as “pre-assaultive behavior” when deciding to use intermediate levels of force, such as batons and pepper spray.
Officer Patrick Woods, an in-house SFPD use-of-force expert, finished his testimony for the defense on Wednesday morning; he also said that questions like the ones Spiers was asking could be interpreted as resistance if they were conflicting with the police officers’ commands.
That’s what the SFPD in-house expert said on the stand. But the district’s own Departmental General Order 5.01 governing police use-of-force says otherwise. It states that batons can be used against assaultive subjects who actively resist and prevent officers from taking them into custody: Questions of confusion, like the ones posed by Spiers asking what he did, do not fall into these categories.
Earlier in the trial, the prosecution’s use-of-force expert, Roger Clark, testified that Stangel’s baton use was not justified.
McCann is scheduled to continue testifying on Thursday.