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.
Meet me tonite at the Boudin reception at Manny’s 6:30 to 7:30pm.
Always good to put a face to the backstabber.
And, visit the construction site that is my revived Bulldog …
Thanks for letting me plug my space, Joe.
It may be the only platform in Town not subject to BAO pressures.
Wonder if anyone’s reading my stuff.
gotta say, my pics are getting better too
“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..”
This is not true when it come to Boudin. If a career criminal beat somebody in the street with a stick, they would more than likely not be charged and released. But if an officer uses a baton during the course of his duties to overcome a resisting suspect to arrest him, the officer is charged and the case goes to a jury trial.
How is this equal under the law?
Reform? I challenge anyone to find a more diverse, more trained, and better educated police Dept than the SFPD. Plenty of women and people of color in all ranks. All genders and sexual orientation are within the ranks. Cops in SF are from various backgrounds and speak many different languages. Most cops have a college degree, amongst them, cops who attained MS and PHDs.
CHP pulls a George Floyd and kept quiet till a judge ordered the video.
Same police culture hide the Fu-k Ups
I saw multiple postings of yours on the Standard that were explicitly offensive in which you used epithets and then claimed it was someone else posing as you or that your account had been hacked. That’s MAGA-t behavior if ever I saw it, and has no place on ANY SF news site, regardless of how clever or glib you think you sound. It comes off as less “bulldog of SF” and more “dog whistler”.
But I suppose a tiger (bulldog?) can’t change his stripes: https://sfbgarchive.48hills.org/sfbgarchive/2014/01/23/h-brown-goodbye-all-we-hope/
You post Caitlin’s piece attacking me from 8 years ago and won’t post this link to something written 6 days ago?
Seriously, the Examiner has tossed their own Editorial Page Editor under the bus and you won’t print what he wrote and someone more powerful than him erased it?
And, obviously, I didn’t write the garbage someone signed my name to at the Standard. That was just a ploy to ban anyone supporting Boudin.
What breaks my heart to this day was Debra Walker attacking me.
I never did anything but support her and her friends.
Very good point about bringing accountability to the forefront!
I’m banned from commenting on anything at all local sites except Mission Local.
Michael Moritz’s new, San Francisco Standard came in guns uh blazin’ and promising to be the new champ muck rakers.
Not so much.
When I posted comments on the Stangel trial to Michael Barba’s coverage they were posted readily as were comments on the new coverage of the BOS by Mike Ege and other writers.
Suddenly there was a loud noise in the night.
Not only did all of my comments supporting Boudin disappear, so did all of Barba’s coverage.
Same thing at Examiner just purchased by Clint Reilly, another erstwhile reformer.
However, when his own, Gil Duran wrote a column …
This one is only 3 days old and let’s see you find a trace of what Duran wrote for his own rag posted anywhere on that publication today.
Yeah, the local Press Oligarchs here are every bit as effective at disappearing an individual person or issue as Putin’s boys in Moscow.
OK, OK, maybe Moritz and Reilly aren’t quite that bad yet.
DA Wagstaffe in San Mateo County and his staff carefully assess evidence and they prosecute cases on their merits and not based ideology. The Stangel case was a far-reach for a DA to prosecute. The prosecution of Stangel almost bordered on the unethical. This case definitely sent a message to Stangel and other officers but it was the wrong forum to judge him on his actions. It was a civil matter and a SFPD policy matter. Was a DPA complaint made/sustained?
Thank you for your well researched intelligent report. It’s remarkable how many pro-recall writers are placed on the front page or other prominent locations in the Chronicle. It’s disappointing to see so many normally thoughtful voters fall for the Mayors rhetoric. This district attorney will probably never be able to do his job effectively with so much opposition from the police and the mayor. We definitely need law enforcement to work cooperatively with the DA if the city is to function safely. Unfortunately, this DA has been hobbled by the police and the mayor since his election. The Mayor will of course appoint a replacement for the current DA solidifying her enormous control. This recall election is a mistake.
At the end of the day, Boudin is not competent to run the DA’s office–he’s simply a terrible manager.
Exhibit 1: He hired David Campos as his Chief-of-Staff.
Additionally, he has zero charisma and comes across as aloof and dismissive — he’s simply unlikable.
Verdict: He’s toast.
it didnt work with Newsom!
Chesa Boudin’s recall is not just about prosecuting San Francisco Police Officers….it is so much more!
But whether you agree or not….Chesa Boudin has become so controversial that he is ineffective.
And the POA plays dirty look at the current and former presidents of the POA
And the rank and file approves!
Eleni Balakrishnan’s superb reporting on this trial has been meticulously detailed and I’m grateful for this post-acquittal piece that explains how the impact of the trial is significant, despite the jury’s verdict. It is a travesty that there were no Black jurors, and I wonder if any jurors had been abused or even harassed by the police. Still, as reported because of this trial, police who commit such violent crimes will know that they will be held accountable — at least if District Attorneys like Boudin can survive the right-wing backlash against him.
Hold police accountable and pay, something sf has never done..
Look at the Hampton case, unarmed black.
and shot by SFPD,.
This weekend SFPD accused of racism!
He used a glass bottle to break a bone in the officers face/head. But yeah “unarmed”
How diid he get that close time and distance!
He ran up to the police car, opened the door, and used the bottle to smash it against the officers face/head. Obviously, you do NOT know any facts of the case but you are so willing to comment. Please read and looks at the video of the attack and shooting. It would serve you well. Cheers.
Sir or madam —
Nobody deleted your message. These are monitored in real-time and, you’re not going to believe this, our staff has things to do on weekends other than wait for you to post.
I’ll try it a 3rd time. He ran to a cop car, opened the door, and hit the cop in the head with a glass bottle.
Time and distance. Well I guess that would be true. However, he opened the police car door, and violently attacked the office while he was still seated in the car. Hampton used a glass bottle to break the cops facial bone.
Does anyone in San Francisco feel safer since our district attorney started charging police officers and losing those cases? I while sincerely believe that everyone should be held accountable including police officers, the district attorney should hold drug dealers to the same standard. his catch and release policies are a ridiculous contradiction. if you’re for justice, you’re for justice for all.