Opening statements are scheduled today for the trial of Officer Terry Stangel, who is charged with multiple felonies following his October, 2019, beating of Dacari Spiers with a baton, which put Spiers into the hospital with broken bones.
There is no doubt that Stangel was responding to a 911 call alleging Spiers was abusing his girlfriend, Breonna Richard. There is no doubt that neither Stangel nor any officer witnessed any abuse. There is no doubt that Spiers, Richard and “tons of witnesses,” per Spiers’ attorney, will claim the 911 call was bogus and there was no domestic violence. There is no doubt that Officer Stangel beat Spiers; it was caught on body-worn cameras.
Police in November, 2019, did not cite Spiers for domestic violence charges, but only for resisting arrest. And the District Attorney’s office, at that time helmed by Suzy Loftus, declined to charge even that. Spiers has never been arrested nor charged with a crime related to the incident. His attorneys say he is homeless, and has still neither physically nor mentally recovered from the beating.
So, District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s case against Stangel will rise or fall based on what Stangel knew at the time he approached Spiers, what he witnessed Spiers doing, what an officer should be reasonably expected to do, and what Stangel did, which is documented on video.
Nobody disputes Stangel was dispatched on a 911 call claiming domestic violence; nobody disputes Spiers was the man that call was directed against; and nobody disputes what came next.
The facts are relatively straightforward.
And yet, this has become both complex and confusing of late. On Jan. 27, during a motion from Stangel’s lawyer to dismiss the case, District Attorney Investigator Megen Hayashi testified that she was pressured by superiors to “suppress” evidence in the Stangel case. The judge found that the evidence in question — re-interviews of subjects who’d already talked to police and summaries of material included elsewhere — was duplicative and already known to the defense. This stretches the definition of the term “suppressed.”
Police Chief Bill Scott was a more receptive audience; he abruptly and unilaterally severed the agreement between the police and DA’s office for the latter to serve as lead investigator in use-of-force claims.
Supervisor Catherine Stefani was also a more receptive audience; she convinced the Board to put the brakes on a $700,000 settlement for Spiers that had been finalized in August. And the police last week re-opened their 2019 domestic violence case against Spiers, whom they described in writing as a “violent malefactor” (of note, Richard has continued to deny she was abused, reacted with horror to Spiers’ beating, and had no visible injuries at the time of the incident).
At this point, it feels fair to describe Stefani as a thinly veiled aspirant for the DA position. By derailing this settlement, she helped heap further doubt upon the functionality of the DA’s office. So, mission accomplished there. But, warn Spiers’ attorneys, this may come with a cost — for the rest of us.
“The Board is pushing itself to the blackjack table with about $3 million of taxpayer money,” says Curtis Briggs, one of three lawyers who negotiated the stalled settlement with the City Attorney’s office. “We believe if we go to trial, we can get $2 million to $3 million. The beatings are on body camera. Dacari did not commit a crime. Tons of witnesses say the 911 calls are bogus. The reason this settled is that Dacari needs the money. The city would be stupid to wait until the officer is convicted to settle this case.”
The City Attorney’s office added that it continues to recommend the proposed $700,000 settlement “based on the governing law and the incident itself, which was largely captured on body-worn cameras.”
The statement from the City Attorney’s office is measured, as are most all statements from that office. But it would appear to be saying much the same things that Briggs is.
All of this, again — the Hayashi allegations, the supervisors’ decision to table the settlement and Scott’s unilateral decision to dump the DA as the primary investigator in police use-of-force incidents — happened on the eve of the trial of the officer facing felony charges for beating Spiers. This is believed to be the first trial of an officer for an on-the-job beating in city history.
And, on the cusp of opening statements, the office prosecuting Stangel was hit with bombshell allegations, casting it into disrepute, and the man he beat was suddenly re-upped for investigation and described in language befitting a 1930s newsreel.
Whatever you think about Spiers, he appears to have found himself in the crossfire of a political war between the SFPD and DA that has shifted from cold to hot. And, with the SPFD having “re-activated” his case, the Russia-like scenario of Spiers giving testimony against the police and then being arrested in the courthouse by police is now hardly implausible.
Meanwhile, in the days prior to Scott’s move, a retiring cop sent a scathing, reply-all email to every sworn SFPD officer lamenting the lack of support from leadership, and Scott specifically. Another retired officer subsequently went on Fox News to make the same complaint, again naming Scott specifically, and highlighting the Stangel case as a prime example of that lack of support.
One day after Scott cut ties with the DA, a police union special board meeting, during which members were set to bandy about the idea of a no-confidence vote on the chief, was abruptly canceled.
The timing of this — all of this — is simply fantastic.
The details that have come out in the past week have been very interesting. But, as Arte Johnson would put it: “Very interesting. But stupid.”
That’s because, despite the furor that followed the Jan. 27 hearing, Hayashi’s testimony has no bearing on the now-stalled civil case. And, at that hearing, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Teresa M. Caffese was adamant that the information Hayashi kept from her police counterparts and the evidence she claimed she was pressured to exclude was duplicative and irrelevant to the nascent criminal case.
While Hayashi’s broad statements about a dysfunctional, secretive culture among the DA investigators tasked with probing cops warrants follow-up, and certainly is of interest to Chief Scott, there are ways of fixing this that didn’t involve sending out a press release, unilaterally blowing up an agreement that took years to craft, and blindsiding your civilian partners and bosses. Assuming that fixing this was, indeed, the goal.
And, here’s more stuff that’s very interesting: Spiers’ initial February, 2020, lawsuit not only addressed the beating he received from Stangel, but also alleged that an unnamed DA investigator attempted to surreptitiously record Spiers and his girlfriend’s conversations by “leaving a recording device in the room after the investigator left.”
Briggs last week confirmed that the subject of this allegation was Hayashi, whom he accused of running interference for Stangel “very early on.” So, for him, it was, again, very interesting to see her re-emerge on the eve of the trial, and cast a wrench into the prosecution of this officer.
While the judge felt that the evidence Hayashi left out of a sworn affidavit was not vital, Hayashi clearly felt that it was, and she still signed that affidavit under penalty of perjury.
It is unclear why her attorney, a police union-affiliated lawyer, didn’t advise her to take the Fifth throughout the Jan. 27 hearing, instead of making such an admission on the stand.
As it is, Hayashi also admitted to failing to inform her police counterpart that, in 2019, she tracked down and had an in-person follow-up interview with the 911 caller who had claimed Spiers was engaging in domestic violence — a woman who had spoken to police months prior.
In part due to Hayashi’s omission, the police complain they could not conduct a line-up for Spiers.
Hayashi’s behavior requires an explanation, and, probably, an audit and/or investigation. But, in the end, the information her follow-up interview provided was immaterial; the witness only reiterated what she’d said before, and no additional evidence was either provided to or kept from the defense: “There’s nothing new in terms of the statement of [the 911 caller] that was different from what you already had,” summed up the judge.
The police fixation on holding a line-up and obtaining a positive identification of Spiers, which was reiterated in January, 2022, when the SFPD announced it was “re-activating” its case against this “violent malefactor,” remains mystifying. Nobody is disputing that Spiers was the intended recipient of a 911 call alleging domestic violence; there was not a second, distinctively dressed, dreadlocked Black man in the vicinity to confuse matters. Nobody is disputing that police confronted the man the 911 caller intended them to confront.
“Was ID an issue in this case?” the judge asked at one point. “It doesn’t seem like there’s any issue as to who the domestic violence suspect was. He matched the description of the 911 caller; right?”
Hayashi further testified that she was pressured to remove “exculpatory evidence” from the arrest warrant for Stangel — that is, evidence that could’ve cleared him. When asked just what this exculpatory evidence was, she said it was “an extensive summary” of interviews, including those of the woman who called 911 and reported domestic violence.
But the final version of the affidavit still contains summaries of the 911 call and witness statements regarding alleged domestic violence. And, again, there’s no dispute that Stangel was dispatched to Spiers based on a 911 call alleging domestic violence. And there’s no dispute that domestic violence was not going on when Stangel arrived, and also no dispute that he proceeded to beat Spiers with a baton.
It’s this on-film beating, not the other matters, that led to the probable cause described in the arrest warrant for the officer. What’s more, multiple judges at multiple hearings subsequently found that there was, indeed, probable cause to make this arrest.
Again and again, Caffese asked Hayashi at the Jan. 27 hearing what “exculpatory” evidence was excised, and again and again, the judge found this evidence wasn’t exculpatory. “I’m reading the same page,” she said at one point. “Am I crazy here?”
Hayashi’s claims that there was pervasive secrecy and rampant violations of the agreement between the SFPD and the DA remain just that: Claims. They warrant further investigation and Boudin would be well-advised to call for a third party to do just that.
The DA, however, has since told the media that the SFPD often violates its agreement with the DA, too, and the remedy has been to hash things out internally. Chief Scott could have dialed up Boudin on the phone and could’ve demanded fixes, and this matter could have been addressed — assuming, again, that the extremely public repudiation of the politically radioactive DA wasn’t the real goal here.
Boudin, of course, is facing a recall election in June. His polling numbers, we’re told, are in the toilet; it would appear to be politically advantageous for anyone so inclined to give him a kick. It was politically beneficial for Scott to act demonstratively here, as it was for Stefani.
Outside the courtroom, that was politically effective, in the short-term at least. But inside the courtroom, once opening statements commence, the politics should ostensibly be sidelined. Ostensibly.
“I think the important point is that this officer did what he was supposed to be doing, responding to a DV call,” Caffese said at the Jan. 27 hearing. “What happens afterward is going to be for the jury to determine.”