Colleagues of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David S. Cunningham III, who has filed a complaint against UCLA police for excessive force, said they are shocked by the incident and don’t believe the mild-mannered former police commissioner would have provoked authorities.
“Calm and thoughtful are two words that come to mind with David,” said Andrea Ordin, a former U.S. attorney, Los Angeles County counsel and L.A. police commissioner. “I have known him as a judge, a lawyer and from his work with the police commission. He is devoted to public service and the community.”
UCLA police pulled Cunningham over in his Mercedes on Saturday morning in Westwood as he was leaving L.A. Fitness. He was not wearing a seat belt.
Cunningham, 60, said the officers shoved him against his car, handcuffed him, locked him in the back of their police cruiser and told him he was being detained for resisting arrest.
Although Cunningham did not accuse the campus police of racial discrimination, his attorney Carl Douglas said, “Do you think this would have happened if he was a white judge?”
Former Los Angeles Police Commission Vice President Alan Skobin said he was shocked at the incident, especially because Cunningham is a devoted supporter of law enforcement and spent much time trying to improve local policing.
“He is a very even-keeled guy,” Skobins aid. “I have seen him under pressure and he is a guy who keeps his calm and wits about him.”
Skobin said on many occasions during police commission meetings, Cunningham would refuse to react to speakers.
UCLA said it is investigating the incident.
Cunningham said in his complaint that he was in the process of buckling his belt after paying a parking attendant when a UCLA police cruiser stopped his Mercedes at 1050 Gayley Avenue.
Officer Kevin Dodd asked to see his driver’s license. Cunningham handed them his wallet, then the officers requested registration and insurance.
When Cunningham reached for his glove box to retrieve the documents, an officer “yelled at me not to move,” he said in the complaint. “I became irritated and told him that I need to look for the paper.”
A prescription pill bottle rolled out of the glove compartment, prompting the officer to ask if he was carrying drugs. Douglas said the medicine was for high blood pressure.
Cunningham couldn’t find his registration and insurance paperwork in the glove compartment and told officers he thought it was in the trunk.
“When I got out of the car to search my trunk, Officer Dodd shoved me against my car, told me I was under arrest for resisting and locked me in the back seat,” Cunningham wrote in the complaint.
The judge, who as an L.A. police commissioner had reviewed hundreds of potential police misconduct matters, began to fear for his safety, Douglas said.
“He lost his cool,” Douglas said. “He began yelling about police brutality and about being a 60-year-old man slapped in handcuffs in the back of a patrol car for not wearing a seat belt. A crowd was gathering and he demanded they call a watch commander.”
After about 10 minutes, a UCLA police sergeant arrived and released Cunningham, who was appointed to the bench in 2009 by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Ed Obayashi, a legal adviser to several California sheriff’s departments and a use-of-force expert, said the UCLA officers had probable cause to stop Cunningham if he was driving without a seat belt -- a clear violation of state law.
“Based on their training and experience the officers may have been erring on the side of officer safety when they saw him reach for his glove compartment. There may be a gun. So he has the right to say, ‘Don’t move,’” Obayashi said.
Officers have “absolute power” to order people to stay in their car or get out of their car.
“If an individual disobeys an officer’s commands, you have an other violation,” Obayashi said.
It is unclear whether UCLA police ordered him to stay in his car.
Cunningham is the son of former Los Angeles Councilman David S. Cunningham Jr., who served on the council for 14 years after being elected in 1973.
Cunningham III was appointed to the police commission, LA’s five-member civilian oversight panel of the LAPD, in 2001 by then-Mayor James K. Hahn and became president of the body in 2003.
Cunningham, who was often seen publicly with former LAPD Chief William J. Bratton, helped usher in an era of reform-oriented community policing.