Video of Deputy Striking Suspect Sparks Outrage : Law enforcement: Santa Cruz County authorities say it was legitimate use of force. Man’s family plans suit.


Sparking a local furor over police brutality, a Santa Cruz County sheriff’s deputy was videotaped striking and kicking a suspect who was later found to be wrongly accused of child molestation.

The videotape, taken by a member of suspect George Nichol’s family, shows the deputy hitting Nichols three times with his baton and kicking him once as he lay on the ground.

Aired on national television, the video immediately brought comparisons with the violent beating of Rodney G. King by a group of Los Angeles police officers last year.


As in the King case, the deputy was attempting to subdue a suspect who later was not charged with a crime. And, as in the King case, the videotape captured only a portion of the incident.

The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department insisted Wednesday that the lone deputy’s actions constituted a legitimate use of force in dealing with an uncooperative suspect. No disciplinary action has been taken by Sheriff Alfred F. Noren, and the district attorney’s office has declined to press charges against the deputy.

“This is not the Rodney King situation,” Sgt. Craig Little said. “The officer was by himself and had a bad situation. Even though the media is trying to make this a ‘Rodney King II,’ the only similarity is the videotape and the use of the baton.”

Nichols, a 44-year-old Tucson man, has vowed to sue the Sheriff’s Department for as much as $15 million. A claim for damages filed with the county was denied last month.

The incident occurred in July when Deputy Todd Liberty went to the home of Nichols’ relatives in Scotts Valley, just north of Santa Cruz, to investigate accusations that he was a child molester.

According to the Sheriff’s Department, Nichols refused Liberty’s command to remain by the squad car while the deputy went into the house to interview family members. After an exchange of angry words, Liberty attempted to handcuff Nichols, but the 5-foot 9-inch, 255-pound man would not cooperate, authorities said.

About this time, Nichols’ wife began videotaping the episode. With a child crying and family members shouting in the background, Liberty pulled out his baton and hit Nichols on the arm.

The deputy waited a moment for Nichols to comply with his order to lie face-down on the ground, and then, as Nichols knelt, struck him a second time. When Nichols still refused to lie down, the officer hit him on the legs.

Finally, when Nichols was lying on the ground, Liberty kicked him in what appears to be the shoulder and placed the handcuffs on him. Nichols was arrested on a charge of obstructing an investigation.

After reviewing the tape and reports of the incident, Santa Cruz County Dist. Atty. Arthur Danner dropped the charge against Nichols but also concluded that the force used by the deputy was justified.

Danner noted in an interview Wednesday that the tape does not show earlier aggressive actions by Nichols, including charging toward a county social worker who had accompanied the deputy. When Nichols’ wife began shooting the videotape, Nichols quickly became more subdued, Danner said.

In his view, the prosecutor said, Liberty’s kicking of Nichols was not a serious blow and was intended to determine whether the suspect’s resistance had ended.

“The officer thought he was protecting children from a child molester and attempted to get control of Mr. Nichols,” the district attorney said. “The totality of the conduct by the officer did not bring him within the jurisdiction of any criminal offense.”

Liberty has been transferred to the county courthouse and assigned to court security, but Sgt. Little said the change was a routine shift in his duties and had nothing to do with the incident.

Nichols could not be reached for comment Wednesday. The police report listed his position as manager of Westward Look Resort in Tucson, but the receptionist there had never heard of him. His home answering machine offered “psychological stimulants specializing in skin care and motivation.”