Though it resulted in an acquittal, the trial of a San Francisco police officer for excessive use of force represents an important step towards greater accountability, according to police reform advocates and prosecutors who have charged law enforcement officers in high-profile cases.
Last week, a jury found Officer Terrance Stangel not guilty of three felonies, including assault, when he beat an unarmed black man with his police-issued baton in 2019. The case marked the first time in the modern era that the District Attorney’s office has tried a San Francisco Police officer for excessive use of force.
The Stangel case and others like it send a message to law enforcement and the communities they serve, according to Barbara Whaley, an assistant Attorney General in Kentucky. Whaley recently prosecuted a police officer who fired his gun at Breonna Taylor’s Louisville home in 2020, sending several bullets into an adjacent apartment. A jury acquitted the officer, who was charged with wanton endangerment.
“The law is the law, and it applies no matter who you are,” Whaley said. “Prosecutors have a responsibility to seek justice for victims, no matter who the perpetrator is.”
Prosecuting officers engaged in misconduct can challenge perceptions of police impunity, bring greater public awareness of disparities in policing, and deter police misconduct, experts on police reform say. But prosecutors often face intense opposition from law enforcement.
So unaccustomed are police to being challenged, that any prosecutions charges bring a strong reaction from police departments and unions, according to John Crew, a retired ACLU attorney and police practices expert. He said Stangel’s trial shone a light on SFPD’s “accountability-averse culture.”
On the eve of that trial, the union furor over prosecutions stirred again as San Francisco Police Chief suddenly withdrew from an agreement, brokered over years of negotiations, to make the DA’s office the lead investigator in police use-of-force cases. Critics have said the move, supported by the union, was carefully timed to derail the trial and cast doubt on its legitimacy. (The state Attorney General’s office intervened, negotiating a deal to extend the agreement until May 20.)
The backlash against police prosecutions began long before the actual trial, when Chesa Boudin ran for District Attorney in 2019. During the campaign, he promised to hold police accountable, sparking a fierce union-backed effort to defeat him. Boudin won by a slim margin, but days after he took office in January, 2020, a recall effort began. When that failed, another, better-financed recall campaign succeeded; residents will vote on Boudin’s recall in June.
The reaction of San Francisco’s police department was not unlike the reaction that Tim Gann, a prosecutor in Madison County, Alabama, got in the conservative deep south when he prosecuted a police officer for killing a suicidal man. The 2021 case marked the first time a law enforcement officer in the county was prosecuted for murder.
Gann, the chief deputy district attorney and a former law enforcement officer himself, said the local police department had determined the officer acted within policy when he pushed past two colleagues and shot a man who was holding a gun to his own head.
Gann’s office disagreed, and brought charges against the officer, but not without significant “negativity” and “backlash,” Gann said, noting strong support for law enforcement in conservative Alabama.
“The police department disagreed openly, in the press, that what we were doing was not right, and even the mayor chimed in” to criticize the prosecution as a “political” move, Gann said. “We just trusted that the truth would come out.”
The jury found the officer guilty of murder, and he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Gann said that prosecutors must be prepared for backlash and unafraid to remove bad apples. “It’s really crazy. Who believes that a law enforcement officer can’t break the law?” he asked. The community eventually came around, Gann said, but a police union is still fighting to overturn the conviction.
Retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell said that such trials can change perceptions, making it easier for prosecutors to file charges in the future. “Hopefully, that attitude and that belief will change as more district attorneys have courage to bring charges when they think it’s appropriate,” said Cordell.
“DAs don’t want to have an antagonistic relationship with law enforcement,” Cordell said. “It’s just a fact of life.” But “with progressive district attorneys, generally, their relationship with law enforcement is not a good one,” Cordell explained, because they can’t “rely on each other to cover each other’s backs.”
What a trial can reveal
In addition to holding police officers accountable, trials can expose issues that point to opportunities for reform, if police departments are willing to act on them.
Expert witness testimony in the Stangel case conflicted on two key issues: whether Stangel acted according to department policy, and how he interpreted the reaction of the man he beat with his baton.
Stangel began swinging his baton within seconds of arriving at the scene where Dacari Spiers, who was unarmed, was standing with his girlfriend in 2019. Stangel and his partner were responding to a report that a man fitting Spiers’ description was assaulting a woman. When the officers arrived, the couple was not involved in an altercation. But within seconds, Stangel and his partner were engaged in a physical battle with Spiers, who did not understand why officers had approached him.
SFPD training officer Patrick Woods testified that Stangel’s actions were within policy. He also suggested that Dacari Spiers’ asking, “what did I do?” could be interpreted as a form of resistance.
ACLU police practices expert Crew disagreed with Woods’ assessment, and said that, at the very least, the trial “sheds a light” on deeper problems within the SFPD. Asking questions for clarification doesn’t fit the definition of active resistance according to SFPD policy, Crew said: “We’ve done all of this policy reform, and then the policies don’t mean anything.”
“Have [they] really been training people this is the right way to use a baton?” Crew asked. Either Woods was attempting to protect Stangel, or he truly believes police can beat someone who asks a question, scenarios that Crew called “danger signs” that require greater scrutiny from the Police Commission, the Department of Police Accountability, and the SFPD.
The trial also exposed training issues. Officers are advised to have a plan of action before arriving together on the scene of an incident. Stangel and his partner acknowledged that they had devised no plan, and his partner rushed ahead, instead of waiting to approach Spiers with Stangel.
Some of the conflicting testimony clearly had an impact on the jurors, who deliberated for four days, according to Rachel Marshall, the DA’s spokesperson. “We heard from jurors that this was not an easy decision,” she said. The jury hung 9-3 on the final charge against Stangel, which related to his role as an on-duty police officer. That charge was dismissed on Monday.
The trial also revealed an ongoing problem in San Francisco: the difficulty of finding a diverse jury pool. There were no Black people on the 12-person jury, which was comprised of of seven white residents. Eight of the jurors were men.
The DA’s office is one of the sponsors of San Francisco’s new “Be the Jury” program, which hopes to increase diversity on juries by compensating low-income jurors for their time and service.
A message of accountability
Successful prosecutions of police officers are rare, because juries “every single day of the week” are encouraged to believe and respect law enforcement, according to San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, who most recently charged a San Bruno police officer who beat a handcuffed man.
Such prosecutions alone can send a message of accountability. “Cop or criminal, everybody gets treated the same in the criminal justice system — should be,” said Wagstaffe.
Wagstaffe said his office focuses on making the right charging decisions, not necessarily guaranteeing wins.
The publicity around a trial can also serve to keep the public informed on police discipline cases, which are typically conducted behind closed doors by SFPD’s Internal Affairs Division or during private Police Commission meetings.
The DA’s office has no plans to change course. Prosecutors are already preparing to try cases against two Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies for assault, an SFPD officer for shooting a suspect, and another SFPD officer for homicide.
“No prosecutor wins 100 percent of cases,” said Marshall, Boudin’s spokesperson. “Fear of losing a case that we have the evidence to support, and that we believe is a righteous prosecution, isn’t a reason to avoid going to trial.