In what is believed to be San Francisco’s first criminal trial of an on-duty police officer’s use of force, opening statements presented today before a jury offered two sharply different versions of what took place on the night of Oct. 6, 2019, when SFPD Officer Terrance Stangel beat Dacari Spiers with a baton, a beating captured by officers’ body-worn cameras.
Prosecutors said the police failed to de-escalate or follow department policies and guidelines, while the defense accused Spiers of being violent and uncontrollable. Both sides also questioned the first witness in the case, Stangel’s partner, Officer Cuauhtémoc Martínez, who testified today that he never actually saw Stangel beat the man they were both detaining.
Stangel and Martínez were responding to a 911 call around 9 p.m. reporting a man choking a woman near Fisherman’s Wharf. A chaotic interaction between the two officers and the couple ended with Spiers suffering a broken leg and wrist after Stangel struck the unarmed man with a baton eight times. Stangel faces four felony charges, including battery with serious bodily injury, assault with a deadly weapon, assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury, and assault by a public officer. District Attorney Chesa Boudin brought the charges in late 2020.
Throughout his opening statement, Assistant District Attorney Hans Moore argued that the police officers rushed at Spiers, a Black man, and his girlfriend without communicating effectively why they were there, responding to a 911 call alleging domestic abuse. Within seconds, the officers “put hands on” a confused Spiers. According to the prosecution, Spiers was consoling his girlfriend of 12 years, Breonna Richard, about her wallet, which had just been stolen.
The 911 caller said she saw a man choking a woman and dragging her across the street. When Martínez and Stangel arrived, body-worn camera footage shown today revealed that Spiers and Richard were leaning against the trunk of a car.
Both sides acknowledge that the couple were separated by a few inches, but Martínez today said that the “male was yelling at the female” when he got out of his car. “The situation was anything but relaxed,” Martínez said, though this yelling or tension was not apparent in the camera footage.
In a video shown today, Martínez quickly approaches the couple, issuing commands for Spiers to “come over here” and face the wall on the other side of the sidewalk. The officer makes his demands without providing any explanation. When Martínez then goes to grab Spiers’ arm, Spiers pulls it away, and appears to step back and out of the way.
Martínez appears to lunge at Spiers, then Spiers and the two officers begin to jostle each other. In the blurry and poorly-lit video, it is unclear who is pushing whom. The defense said Spiers was pushing both officers, while the prosecution said it was Spiers being shoved back and forth between Martínez and Stangel.
When Stangel and his partner Martínez approached the couple, Moore argued that the police had “ample opportunity” to convey why they were there. Officers’ body-worn camera footage shows Spiers and Richard repeatedly asking what was going on, to no avail.
Within 10 seconds of arriving at the scene, Stangel pulled out his metal baton and started swinging. Stangel “not just failed to de-escalate, he escalated” the situation, Moore said.
Throughout the entire interaction, Richard screams in protest, while Spiers continues to ask questions like, “The fuck did I do?”
The defense painted a picture of Spiers as a large, dominating man with a criminal history who “out-muscled” the two officers doing their duty to protect a victim of domestic violence. Stangel’s attorney Nicole Pifari argued that Spiers threw Martínez around like a “rag doll,” leaving Officer Stangel no choice but to pull out his baton. This was not clear from the footage shown in court.
Pifari said that the two officers had the right to detain Spiers from the moment they exited their vehicle and saw he matched the description they were given by dispatch. When the officers perceived Spiers as resisting, they had the right to use force to arrest him, Pifari argued.
Faced with a “250-pound man that you’re unable to control, that’s tossing your partner around like a rag doll … ” Stangel deployed his baton, Pifari said in her opening statement. This dynamic is not apparent in any of the police camera footage.
In addition to being the first of its kind in San Francisco, the case has been under additional scrutiny after a DA investigator in the case testified last month that she was pressured to withhold information regarding an additional witness interview from the SFPD. Police Chief Bill Scott said the DA’s office had violated a Memorandum of Understanding between the SFPD and the DA’s office and announced the termination of the MOU between the two organizations, although the judge decided that no pertinent information was withheld.
The prosecution today also accused the officers of issuing confusing commands and failing to speak with witnesses present. It’s not until after the incident is over that anyone speaks with Richard, Spiers’ girlfriend. Video footage shows she is visibly and audibly upset, and calls her father to tell him incredulously what’s happened.
When she finally learns from another officer that the police were responding to a domestic violence call, she denies any abuse took place, stating, “I would have called y’all.” She adds that she would have “beat his ass” herself had Spiers been putting hands on her.
“I’m just laughing to keep a positive energy,” Richards said at the time, “cuz y’all are really making me mad right now.”
Martínez, who was nearing one year as an SFPD officer at the time of the incident, said that when he got out of the car, witnesses he assumed were the 911 callers were “screaming bloody murder” and pointed him toward the couple. Due to the urgent nature of the “A Priority” call, he did not speak to them or hear what they saw. He also acknowledged that no plan was devised between himself and Stangel before they arrived, despite this being ideal protocol.
Another witness, questioned by police in the October, 2019, camera footage shown today, insisted that Spiers and Richard were just talking before the police ran up and aggressively confronted Spiers. “I wanted to stop [and watch], because that’s not right.” He trails off, repeating, “That’s not cool.” The investigating officer is then seen passing over other witnesses present and failing to get their information.
As predicted by the prosecution today, defense attorney Pifari went over Spiers’ criminal record before the solemn jury, to prove that “he’s a violent person, and he was acting in conformity” with his violent nature. PIfari also suggested that Richard and Spiers are simply seeking a payout from the city.
But as the prosecution reminded the jury today that at the time of the incident, and when deciding whether to use force, the officers knew nothing about Spiers or his history; they simply saw a man and a woman standing near each other, not committing any crime.
The jury is more than half white and, apparently, there are no Black jurors
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Teresa M. Caffese, who presided over the pretrial hearing in which the DA testified about evidence being withheld, has forbidden either the prosecution or defense to mention that Spiers was never charged with domestic violence in this case. While police, in 2019, presented the District Attorney with resisting arrest charges, then-DA Suzy Loftus’ office declined to charge him. Spiers has never been arrested nor charged in relation to this incident. The police have been unable to locate any footage of the alleged domestic abuse.
The trial will continue tomorrow.