On the fourth day of SFPD Officer Terrance Stangel’s trial for his 2019 beating of Dacari Spiers, police body camera footage showed an officer announcing that there are no witnesses to interview. Only moments earlier, the same footage revealed that two people offered to tell the officer what they had witnessed.
“Was your report complete and accurate?” prosecutor Rebecca Young asked Officer Gonee Sepulveda, who worked with Stangel at Central Station at the time of the incident.
“No,” Sepulveda said.
The officer had noted one witness interview in her report that evening. But when she reviewed her body camera footage prior to taking the witness stand Thursday, Sepulveda said she noticed something she hadn’t registered on the night of the incident. Not one, but two additional witnesses were present at the scene.
Instead of interviewing them, or taking down their information, Sepulveda is shown turning to Stangel and another responding officer, telling them that no other witnesses would talk.
“I didn’t notice him,” Sepulveda said Thursday, when asked why she seemed to disregard a Latino man who at one point appeared on her body-worn camera, trying to provide a witness statement. Sepulveda said that she had no memory of that happening.
At that point in the video, she is shown interviewing witness Dayton Denmark, who had gotten out of his car to watch what was happening. Denmark, a Dallas resident, tells Sepulveda that he saw a couple arguing, but the police beating came out of nowhere and seemed unwarranted, a view he repeated yesterday in court.
On video, Denmark told Sepulveda on Oct. 6, 2019, that his wife had also seen what happened, but Sepulveda doesn’t speak with her.
When asked about why she didn’t interview yet another available witness, Sepulveda said she was focused on speaking with Breonna Richard, Spiers’ then-girlfriend. Officers were responding to a 911 call that alleged someone with Spiers’ description was choking a woman.
Richard had already insisted that no physical altercation had transpired between herself and Spiers, but Sepulveda wasn’t convinced, knowing that victims of domestic violence are not always forthcoming about abuse.
“I was focused on wanting to speak with Ms. Richard. I wasn’t attempting to talk to anyone else,” Sepulveda told the court yesterday. She added that her duty was to investigate the domestic violence call, and the use of force was, per SFPD protocol, to be separately investigated by a sergeant.
But why did she tell Stangel that there were no other witnesses? Sepulveda couldn’t recall. It is unclear whether Denmark’s wife eventually provided her account of what happened to investigators.
The criminal trial against Stangel is believed to be San Francisco’s first against an on-duty police officer for use of excessive force.
As Stangel’s attorneys point to the alleged domestic violence as justification for Stangel beating Spiers and breaking two of his bones, witness testimony is of critical importance. While domestic violence is alleged on the 911 call, witnesses like Denmark disputed they saw anything out of the ordinary — and Spiers and Richard were not engaged in domestic violence when officers arrived.
“With paper in hand, pen in hand,” Sepulveda failed to get information from the witnesses that were right in front of her, said prosecutor Hans Moore in his opening statement on Monday.
Four days into the trial, no police officer or civilian has testified that they saw or heard any evidence of the violence between Spiers and Richard that was reported in the 911 call.
Denmark was in his car watching Spiers and Richard, whom he recalls were having a verbal argument on the sidewalk. “It wasn’t nothing out of the ordinary,” he said on the stand on Thursday. “Your neighbors argue, families argue.”
As far as he saw, the argument didn’t get physical, Denmark said. But when police suddenly arrived and he heard the metallic sound of Stangel’s baton being whipped out, he said things got “intense.”
“Something just was telling me, ‘this not right, I need to go say something,’” Denmark said, explaining why he went to talk to officers on the night of the beating. He had his wife park the car and he hopped out to keep watching. It was this same urge that brought him to court on Thursday, Denmark said. “I felt like I had to. Because, you know, like, it could be me.”
Trina Pittman, another witness presented by prosecutors yesterday, was a close friend of the 911 caller. That 911 call alleging that a man was choking a woman brought the police to the corner of Beach and Powell streets that evening in 2019.
Pittman confirmed she was subpoenaed to appear in court. She said she saw a couple being intimate that night as she hurried ahead of her group to the car to get warm. Pittman didn’t notice anything unusual, but later she heard a commotion involving a man being “loud and obnoxious” in the street, and telling someone to stop recording him.
Pittman couldn’t confirm whether the man in the street was Spiers, or whether the couple she saw was in fact Spiers and Richard.
The trial will continue on Monday, Feb. 14. The prosecution’s last witness is expected to take the stand on Thursday.