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San Bernardino sheriff's beating video: Use-of-force experts weigh in

Use-of-force experts say deputies' action in San Bernardino County pursuit are indefensible

Several experts say a video showing San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies beating a man after a pursuit is hard to defend.

The video captured Thursday by a KNBC-TV news helicopter shows as many as 11 deputies kicking Francis Pusok, 30, about a dozen times and punching him more than two dozen times for about two minutes. 

Just before the beating, Pusok, a suspect in an identity theft case, led police on a three-hour chase through Apple Valley and Hesperia, the sheriff’s department said.

During the pursuit, he fled his vehicle and stole a horse from a group of people, a sheriff’s spokeswoman said.

Deputies used a Taser on Pusok, but it "was ineffective due to his loose clothing," according to the sheriff's department.

The video appears to show the deputies striking Pusok after he was on the ground with his hands behind his back.

Sheriff John McMahon has ordered an investigation into the incident, which he called "disturbing."

After reviewing the video, McMahon called for a separate criminal investigation into Pusok’s actions and those of the deputies who subdued him.

“It is disturbing and it appears on its face that there are violations of policy, but that will ultimately be determined in the investigation and to what degree,” he said.

The video has stirred public outrage over the deputies’ tactics and added fuel to the ongoing national debate on use of force by police.

Here’s what the experts have to say:

Greg Meyer, former Los Angeles Police Department captain and use-of-force expert

The suspect appeared to be compliant once he was cornered by deputies, Meyer said. But after the initial action, he said, it was difficult to see the man’s movements among the deputies’ blows.

“His hands are behind his back,” Meyer said. “He obviously surrendered, followed commands to keep his hands behind his back …. That would be the time for the deputies to drop the knees on him and get him handcuffed. But it didn’t happen and they will have to answer for the force they used on him instead of getting him handcuffed.”

Meyer, once head of LAPD training, testified as an expert witness for Johannes Mehserle, the former Bay Area Rapid Transit Police officer who was charged in the shooting death of Oscar Grant in 2009. [Mehserle was found not guilty of murder but guilty of involuntary manslaughter.]

The protocol in such arrests is for law enforrcement officers to catch up with a suspect and command him to lie face down to the ground and spread his legs, Meyer said. Then, like the man in the video, the suspect should place his hands behind his back.

At that point, one officer should guard and watch the suspect’s hands while another drops their knee behind the suspect’s shoulder and handcuffs one hand and then the other, Meyer said.

Assuming there is no further resistance, a deputy will then search a suspect and get the person up and ready to be moved.

“This is a highly concerning video,” Meyer said. “This is ugly.”

Ed Obayashi, Inyo County sheriff's deputy, attorney and use-of-force expert

“This seems to be a case of contagious force,” Obayashi said. “One deputy does it, so another deputy does the same … You have multiple continuous blows here. During any pursuit, everyone experiences adrenaline rush, but peace officers are trained to control themselves. You've got to keep your mind on the job and use your training and experience.”

He said the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department probably trained deputies in the proper techniques, but what was captured on video was outside the norm.

“San Bernardino Sheriff’s is a large agency with ongoing training, perhaps state-of-the-art training, on arrest techniques, so there are no excuses, ” he said.

The bottom line, he said, “It doesn’t  look good.”

“Any expert would be hard-pressed to come up with any justification beyond the first kick as a legitimate distraction strike,” Obayashi said.

Charles “Sid” Heal, retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s commander

Heal, who has testified in dozens of force trials, said that when the man “fell off the horse and lay flat, he is done …. I think I am pretty conservative, given I have been in so many situations that have been misread, but I cannot see any explanation for their conduct here.”

As to the tactics, he said, the deputies exhibit almost none.

“It was like a feeding frenzy. It was like blood in the water with sharks,” Heal said. “The only thing is they thought they could get away with it.”

Adrenaline could be an explanation for the first unnecessary blows, he said.

“But it went on way too long and involved deputies who weren’t there in the initial stage; they took what we call cheap shots,” he said. “They thought they could get away with it.”

Heal said cameras capture everything today, and these deputies seemed to have forgotten that.  

Public outrage over the video is shared by other law enforcement officers who believe such actions smear the badge, he said.

"Everybody I know is outraged,” he said. “This sets law enforcement back 20 years. All the things we have been saying basically get thrown out the window."

Times staff writer Veronica Rocha contributed to this report.

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