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Witness’ video shows San Diego police officers tackle, punch homeless man in La Jolla

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Nicole Bansal captured footage Wednesday morning in La Jolla showing San Diego police officers tackling and punching a man who she said is homeless.

San Diego police officers repeatedly punched a man in the face, head and leg after tackling him to the ground Wednesday morning in La Jolla, according to a witness who recorded the incident and posted it on Instagram.

Nicole Bansal said it happened about 9 a.m. at La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road. She recognized the man being pummeled by officers as someone she believes to be homeless who frequents the area.

“It’s so excessive and unnecessary,” Bansal said of what she witnessed and recorded on her cellphone.

San Diego Police Department spokesman Lt. Shawn Takeuchi wrote in a statement late Wednesday that the incident began over the 34-year-old man ignoring officers who contacted him about urinating in public. Takeuchi said department officials are aware of the cellphone video and the internal affairs unit is investigating the incident, including reviewing body-worn camera footage.

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Francine Maxwell, president of the NAACP San Diego branch, emailed a letter Wednesday afternoon to Police Chief David Nisleit that demanded an immediate investigation. The letter read in part: “We are deeply saddened and angered to see the San Diego Police Department act with such violence against someone who presented no apparent risk to anyone.”

Bansal’s video starts with one officer holding one of the man’s arms and the other pointing what appears to be a stun gun at him. The man, who is Black, is shoeless and wearing a faded orange life preserver around his neck.

Takeuchi said the officers witnessed the man urinating in public.

“From a distance, the officers tried to talk to the man. The officers decided to approach the man because urinating in public violates the law,” Takeuchi wrote. “The man would not stop to speak with officers therefore an officer held the man to detain him.”

Bansal said by phone Wednesday afternoon that she and her husband often see the man walking in that area and around Black’s Beach. Bansal said that she often passes the man while walking her dog and that he usually talks to himself. She said he has never made her feel threatened.

Bansal did not know why officers had made contact with the man Wednesday morning, but said she was driving on La Jolla Village Drive preparing to turn onto Torrey Pines Road when police vehicles raced past her. She began recording when she realized who they were approaching.

“There was no movement made to de-escalate,” Bansal said. “The immediate movement was to take him down. I don’t understand.”

The video shows the officer holstering his stun gun and then wrapping his arms around the man’s chest. The two officers and the man then struggle on their feet for several seconds before the officers wrestle him to the ground.

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Once on the ground, the officer who had earlier holstered his stun gun pushes the man’s face, then punches his face twice.

Bansal, who was parked across the street, can be heard gasping and yelling, “Stop!”

For the next 2½ minutes, the officers stay over the man trying to pin him to the ground, with one officer holding the man’s lower body and the other holding his upper body. They shout commands for him to stop resisting. Early in the incident, the man yanks a radio off one officer’s belt and throws it into the street, then punches or swipes at the face of the officer who punched him.

During the time the trio is on the ground, one of the officers slams his forearm on the man’s head and face several times. The other officer punches the back of the man’s left leg several times. At several points, vehicles pass between the trio and Bansal, obscuring what is happening. As sirens from backup officers are heard approaching, the two officers strike the man several more times just as two more officers run up.

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The video shows those four officers continuing to struggle with the man for 35 seconds more before a police SUV stops near the group, blocking Bansal’s view. Several more police vehicles and an ambulance arrive before Bansal’s recording ends.

Takeuchi wrote that the man would not comply despite the commands that he stop resisting. The lieutenant said the man was taken to a hospital before being released from medical care and booked into county jail. Records showed he remained in custody Thursday in lieu of $20,000 bail. He was booked on suspicion of three felony counts of resisting an officer, three misdemeanor counts of battery on a police officer and a misdemeanor count related to throwing the radio.

Deacon Jim Vargas, president and CEO at Father Joe’s Villages, which provides services for the homeless, wrote in a statement Thursday: “We at Father Joe’s Villages are deeply troubled by this video. It is a clear illustration of several broken systems and a stark and distressing reminder of the insufficient resources available to those on our streets.”

Vargas called for a thorough investigation and said the city “can and must do better.” He said the video illustrates the “failure to provide the basic dignity of public restrooms [and] the urgent need for a more compassionate, effective and comprehensive response to those suffering from mental illness.”

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Amie Zamudio, a homelessness advocate who works to house unsheltered people in the La Jolla and Pacific Beach areas, said she was working Thursday to post bail for the man. She said she had worked with him previously to find temporary shelter.

Zamudio called the incident a double dose of “police harassment ... to be Black and profiled, and to be homeless and profiled.”

Tiara Nourishad, a student at nearby UC San Diego, called the man “a vital member of our UCSD and La Jolla community” whom she and her friends see almost daily on campus.

“He’s always just walking or reading a book,” Nourishad said. “We all know him, he’s very friendly and waves to us a lot.”

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Nourishad said she was helping lead an effort by a group of students to post the man’s bail.

Maxwell wrote in her letter to the police chief that the NAACP “will not accept unnecessary violence against our citizens ... To yell ‘stop resisting’ and to continually punch and slap this man was clearly not conducive to calming the situation.”

She cited the Police Department’s de-escalation policy, which was implemented last June amid the nationwide social and racial justice protests following George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. The policy is the strongest among San Diego County law enforcement agencies and requires that officers attempt to de-escalate situations.

Part of the policy mandates that officers “shall try to establish an effective line of communication with (a) subject” and take into account the person’s age, possible medical or physical conditions and “any known or perceived disabilities, including mental illness.”

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It also requires officers to “take into consideration that a subject with a diminished capacity may not have the ability to understand or communicate effectively.”

“This man posed no obvious threat, had no apparent weapons and no one else was near,” Maxwell wrote. “We want to know that this incident of violence will be properly investigated, and be assured that these officers will not be exonerated for this assault on an unarmed Black man.”

Riggins writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Updates

8:54 PM, May. 13, 2021: This story was updated with additional information.


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