It began as a wild police pursuit in the suburbs of the East Bay before heading into Oakland. The driver, Stanislav Petrov, slammed into two Alameda County sheriff's cruisers, injuring a deputy, before crossing the bay into San Francisco.
There, the chase ended in an alley in the city's Mission District, where Petrov ran out of gas and crashed the stolen car before making a run for it.
The deputies finally caught up with him. But instead of immediately taking the man into custody, they tackled and repeatedly pummeled him with fists and batons. Petrov, who suffered broken hands and a concussion, can be heard crying “I'm sorry. Oh my God, help me.”
What the deputies didn't know was that a motion-activated security camera in the alley captured the Nov. 12 incident. (Note: The video, above, is disturbing and contains several shouted obscenities).
On Tuesday, San Francisco prosecutors filed multiple felony charges against the deputies, saying their actions “undermine the moral authority of the entire criminal justice system.”
Criminal charges against law enforcement officers in use-of-force cases are rare. But this case has received widespread attention in Northern California, with some likening it to the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King by police in Los Angeles 25 years ago.
Both cases point to the struggles police agencies have in dealing with the strong emotions and violence that sometimes occur at the end of high-speed pursuits.
Criminal-justice experts have long said dangerous chases cause adrenaline spikes for officers and suspects, making the arrest process potentially problematic. Although most chases end without incident, there are others that end violently.
Last year, TV helicopter footage showed San Bernardino sheriff's deputies beating a man at the end of a bizarre pursuit on horseback. In 2014, Los Angeles agreed to pay $5 million to the family of an unarmed man, Brian Beaird, who was fatally shot at the end of a wild chase. The pursuit was televised live, and Beaird's horrified father watched as his son was shot to death.
“Officers [can] lose control — that's why we suggest someone other than the lead officer take a suspect into custody,” said University of South Carolina criminologist Geoff Alpert, who has researched police chases.
The Alameda County deputies, Luis Santamaria and Paul Wieber, are 14- and three-year veterans of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, respectively. They are charged with assault under the color of authority, battery with serious bodily injury and assault with a deadly weapon. They're expected to surrender by Wednesday and be held in lieu of $140,000 bail.
Santamaria's attorney said his client has never faced an excessive-force violation before and believes he will be exonerated in this case.
“I am very much aware that any use of force captured visually and audibly is graphic and ugly, even though it may be lawful in every aspect,” attorney Michael Rains said. “I am confident that a careful and objective analysis of available audio and video evidence will demonstrate unlawful and active resistance by Petrov, and the use of lawful force by the deputies to take him into custody.”
Wieber's attorney could not be reached for comment.
The deputies were placed on leave after the video emerged. A separate, internal investigation into the deputies' conduct is ongoing, Alameda County Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly said.
“These officers will have to answer for their actions and will be held accountable for everything they are alleged to have done,” Kelly said. “That being said, any time you have members of your agency arrested and charged with crimes, it's very shocking.”
San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascon said his office consulted an outside expert for the charges against the two deputies.
“Policing that violates our constitutional rights damages the reputation of every person that wears the uniform, and it damages
the public's perception of those that are sworn to serve,” Gascon said in a statement.
Several experts who reviewed the footage called it troubling.
“They were expecting a bloody confrontation and resistance and when that didn't occur these deputies had trouble making the transition to calmly handcuffing a person who has given up,” said Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor and a former police officer in Tampa, Fla.
“When they have trouble transitioning to a calm arrest that is when you see
officers completely get carried away and that is their fault.”
Charles “Sid” Heal, a former L.A. County sheriff's commander and force expert, said the video “does not look good.”
“In order to justify what happened here there has to be a level of defiance or a weapon,” Heal said. “I didn't have any problem with the first strike with the fist but even the first baton strike is hard to justify, but continuing one would probably be viewed as punishment.”
Petrov has filed a claim against the Sheriff's Office, seeking damages.
His attorneys allege one of the deputies stole Petrov's gold chain and gave it to a transient. The San Francisco Public Corruption Task Force is continuing to investigate those and other allegations, Gascon's office said.
Petrov, who authorities say is a career criminal with multiple felony and misdemeanor convictions, was not charged in the chase. But federal prosecutors later indicted him on drug and weapons charges in another case. He was arrested in April after he was found in a room with a gun and more than 120 grams of methamphetamine.
To experts who study police misconduct, the charges Tuesday show that police pursuits remain an area
that departments need to watch and provide training for.
“This video is one that most reminds me of the Rodney King beating,” said Ed Obayashi, an Inyo County deputy who teaches use of force.
For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna.