A Laguna Beach police officer will be fired but faces no criminal charges for allegedly kicking an unruly homeless man during an arrest captured on videotape last summer, officials announced Wednesday.
The videotape showed Officer Keith Knotek kicking at Kevin A. Dunbar while officers tried to subdue and arrest him on a sidewalk just off Coast Highway in South Laguna.
Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi said that a lengthy investigation, reviewed by the Orange County Grand Jury, found insufficient evidence to charge Knotek with police brutality. But the Laguna Beach police chief criticized the officer's conduct as "totally inappropriate" and said he plans to fire him.
Knotek's attorney said the officer "without a doubt" will fight any dismissal, adding: "It's our position on this that there's a lot more to this than meets the eye."
Deputy Dist. Atty. James Mulgrew, who advised the grand jury, said investigators were certain that Knotek kicked Dunbar during the arrest. But jurors concluded that the kicking was not criminal because of the circumstances surrounding the arrest.
Police were trying to take Dunbar into custody on arrest warrants outside a wild party at which cans and bottles were being thrown at officers, Mulgrew said, adding that Dunbar also was intoxicated.
Dunbar "was not anxious to be taken into custody," Mulgrew said. "Given that, an officer is allowed to use reasonable force in taking him into custody."
The Orange County Grand Jury, which last month reviewed the district attorney's evidence in the case during five days of testimony from 17 witnesses, chose not to return a criminal indictment against the officer.
Even though Knotek's actions weren't criminal, kicking Dunbar during the misdemeanor arrest "was totally inappropriate" and violated department policy, Laguna Beach Police Chief Neil J. Purcell said Wednesday, adding:
"As it stands now, I do propose to terminate Officer Knotek."
Evidence from the videotape and statements from other officers present during the arrest made it clear the Knotek used excessive force by kicking Dunbar twice while arresting him, Purcell said. Knotek has been informed that he will be fired and has 10 days to respond, Purcell said.
Knotek, 26, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. He has been a Laguna Beach police officer for three years.
But his attorney, Gregory Petersen, said Knotek's actions were proper.
"In this case, Officer Knotek did what he was told," Petersen said. "He did what he was trained to do. . . . The force used at the scene was force they were taught to use."
Although Knotek won't face criminal charges, he is still named in a federal lawsuit Dunbar filed in February, alleging that police violated his civil rights. The city and other officers are also named in the pending lawsuit. Knotek and the other officers are countersuing the city and two are suing Dunbar, alleging he swung his fist at them during the arrest.
Dunbar's attorney, Christopher B. Mears, said Knotek was not charged because Dunbar is neither wealthy nor prominent. Dunbar, 25, was homeless and living on and around Laguna's Main Beach last summer.
"If you or I had been kicked like Kevin Dunbar, the district attorney's office would have filed criminal charges months ago," Mears contended.
"It sends a very cynical message that there are two forms of justice," he said, "one applying to the haves of society and the other applying to the Kevin Dunbars of the world, homeless people, transients, people who are living a very fringe existence. I defy anyone to look at this videotape with any objectivity and conclude that what we see is not an unprovoked attack from a police officer on a citizen."
The videotape surfaced in December, six months after Dunbar's arrest in South Laguna. The two-minute videotape, taken from a second-story window of a nearby home, begins with Knotek kicking three times at an unseen person on the ground. On the video, the blows and the person are obscured by a police car parked in the foreground.
Knotek can be heard shouting, "Get your hands back there, you (expletive)!" as several other officers attempt to handcuff the man, who is later lifted to his feet and comes into view with a bloody bruise on his right cheek. Immediately after Knotek's kicks, one officer who is bending over Dunbar pushes Knotek away.
Dunbar filed a $10-million police brutality claim against the city in December, and Purcell took Knotek off patrol duties pending an investigation of the incident. The City Council rejected that claim, and Dunbar subsequently filed the federal lawsuit.
Last month, the chief placed the officer on mutually agreed-upon paid leave, he said, because working at the station during the inquiry became "stressful" to Knotek.
Two other officers present during Dunbar's arrest last June will also face disciplinary action stemming from the Police Department's internal investigation into the matter, Purcell said. Those officers are out of town and haven't been notified of the disciplinary action, he said, so their names and the action will remain confidential until they return.
Dunbar was arrested after police were called to a South Laguna home on Coast Highway after receiving a complaint about a loud party and a report of vandalism to a truck parked next to the home. Three officers initially were at the scene, but Knotek and two other officers were called to assist on a "Code 3" emergency basis after the crowd at the party threatened the officers and began throwing beer bottles and cans at them, according to an arrest report filed by Officer Michael Donohue.
Dunbar was one of 10 persons attending the party who was questioned by police and one of four arrested. Police took Dunbar into custody after discovering several outstanding warrants for failing to appear in court on misdemeanor charges, mostly related to drinking in public.
While being arrested, Dunbar allegedly resisted and swung a fist at Donohue. The officer's report said that Dunbar struggled while on the ground with him, along with Knotek and another officer, but does not mention that Dunbar was injured in the scuffle.
A doctor who treated Dunbar shortly afterward noted cuts and bruises on his right cheek and a scratched right cornea. Purcell said his investigation showed that Dunbar's injuries probably occurred during the scuffle with police and not from the kicking.
"The officers that we interviewed seemed to definitely indicate that there were three kicks: two of them struck Mr. Dunbar in the right side and the shoulder area, and one missed him," Purcell said.