Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
A 1996 investigative report by the San Francisco Examiner found that the city was paying large amounts in civil lawsuits following shootings but that the involved officers were not being disciplined by the department, or criminally prosecuted.5 In the past twenty years, the department has found only one intentional, on-duty shooting unjustified - out of a total of one hundred - according to attorneys and police officers. That is, officers have been found justified 99 percent of the time. During the same period, the district attorney's office had not prosecuted any officer for an on-duty shooting, according to current and former prosecutors.
Officer Daniel Yawczak: The killing of Michael Acosta was a case where an officer put himself in harm's way against departmental guidelines and successfully defended his use of a firearm on that basis. On November 2, 1991, Officer Daniel Yawczak shot and killed Acosta.6 With his gun drawn, Yawczak had chased two suspected purse-snatchers to an idling car in the Pacific Heights neighborhood, where he twice shot Acosta, who was sitting in the driver's seat; the men were unarmed. Yawczak claimed that he shot Acosta while standing in front of the car, ignoring police training by placing himself in harm's way; he initially claimed he jumped on the hood of the car and then shot at Acosta, but later reportedly recanted that part of his account.7 Yawczak also originally stated that he was bumped by the car and shot the second time while seated on the ground; when a medical examiner disputed that part of Yawczak's account, and a witness reported seeing Yawczak run alongside the car and shoot, Yawczak stated that it was possible he had not shot from a seated position.8 If these witnesses' accounts are to be believed, the second shot would have been an unjustified use of force.
A police department firearms board cleared Yawczak, and he told a reporter he was not punished by the department for the shooting. Acosta's family reportedly received $259,358 after a civil jury found in his favor and against the city and policedepartment.9 (Inspector Yawczak was removed from a murder-for-profit scam investigation in 1994 and was subsequently investigated for leaking information and for other misconduct in the high-profile case.10)
Sgt. John Haggett: In another case, the Police Commission apparently violated disciplinary guidelines after finding Sgt. John Haggett guilty of four offenses that should have led to dismissal, but instead giving him a six-month suspension.11 Prior to this case, Haggett has an extensive history of misconduct according to press reports and a local police abuse monitor.12 According to press reports, he had received two previous ninety-day suspensions for excessive force and was involved in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man, Edwin Sheehan, in 1995 which was being investigated by the FBI.13 He was reportedly named in six brutality-related complaints, with four settled by the city for about $75,000 as of late 1996.14 Haggett had also been the target of dozens of citizen complaints in his fourteen years on the force.15 In late October 1996, Sheehan's widow reportedly filed a $10 millionwrongful death suit against Haggett.16 As of late 1997, Sergeant Haggett remained on the force, according to the SFPD personnel office.17
Officer William Wohler: The shooting of Brian Sullivan exposed serious weaknesses in homicide investigations of police and in internal review of the use of firearms. On July 15, 1993, Brian Sullivan was shot and killed by Officer William Wohler, at Sullivan's parents' home in the Excelsior District.18 Sullivan had an unloaded shotgun on his bike when Wohler responded to an emergency call about him.19 He was riding on a bicycle, away from Wohler in his car, and rode into his parent's garage and closed the garage door. Wohler reportedly opened fire through the closed garage door. He then followed Sullivan to a side yard, and as Sullivan started up a ladder to the roof, unarmed, Wohler reportedly fired twice; one bullet entered Sullivan's buttocks and traveled to his heart, killing him.20 Although Wohler later stated he had never entered the side yard, his bullet casing was found near where a neighbor said she saw him stand and shoot up at Sullivan.21
The investigation by homicide detectives was seriously botched, and Wohler was allowed to remain at the crime scene as investigators collected evidence.22 A key statement by an eyewitness disputing Wohler's account was disregarded, as were ballistics tests that undermined the officer's version of what took place. Investigators were not persuaded even when Wohler was forced to change his story after a bullet casing was later found (not by investigators) that confirmed the key eyewitness's account. Wohler claimed that Sullivan was shot while he was in the garage. When Wohler was confronted with his own conflicting testimony, he told a homicide investigator, "You know, I'm not stupid. I've been around long enoughto know the way it works. And I mean, if I'm gonna leave a casing behind, I will cover myself, you know. I'm gonna say, `Hey the guy made a furtive move' or `Yeah, my gun accidentally discharged.' I mean, you know...."23
The internal weapons discharge review board determined that the shooting was justified, even though Wohler apparently had not followed administrative rules against endangering bystanders, nor had he exhausted all other reasonable means of apprehension before firing only in necessary defense.24 Because the weapons discharge review board's proceedings were conducted in private, the members' reasoning is not known.25 No criminal prosecution was pursued by the district attorney's office, which reportedly did not even interview Wohler.26 The city paid $295,000 in an out-of-court settlement, one of the largest in the city's history in a police abuse case.27 Wohler, who reportedly had been the subject of fourteen citizen complaints of misconduct during the five-year period preceding the Sullivan shooting, was not disciplined for his actions and was back on duty by January 1995. He retired with benefits in July 1996, days before a scheduled OCC hearing about the incident.28 Even after his departure, however, the city continue to pay for his actions while on the force; in July 1997, a $65,000 settlement was reached with a man who alleged Wohler had beaten, stomped, and pepper-sprayed him in 1995 - two weeks after the Sullivan case was settled.29
After the Sullivan case, and the press attention it generated, the department changed its procedures for reviewing shootings, giving the Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC) and the Police Commission a larger role in the process.
Sgt. Joseph Weatherman: The department took years to dismiss a highly decorated sergeant, Joseph Weatherman, despite his long history of citizen complaints. He was the focus of many citizen complaints and was sued for the use of excessive force six times.30 In 1992 he was suspended for sixty days for slapping and punching a suspect; on an earlier occasion, he had to perform community service for beating a youth during an off-duty incident.31 All along he was promoted.32 He was finally dismissed in August 1994 for harassing a woman officer who had ended a relationship with him.33
Case of Aaron Williams: Aaron Williams died in police custody on June 4, 1995 after officers subdued him and sprayed him with pepper spray in the Western Edition neighborhood. He had resisted arrest as a burglary suspect, was bound with wrist and ankle cuffs, and may have been hit and kicked after he was restrained. He was placed face down in a police van and taken to a police station; upon arrival he stopped breathing.34 Despite many deaths in custody following the use, and misuse, of pepper spray, police departments have resisted changing their policies guiding the use of the spray. When the spray is used in conjunction with the placement of the arrestee face down on his or her chest, as in the Williams case, positional asphyxia has occurred as the individual's breathing is restricted.35 The county coroner ruledthat Williams died of heart failure brought on by acute cocaine poisoning.36 An independent pathologist listed eighteen injuries that contributed to his death.37
Police acknowledged that department policy was violated by using spray twice (others say many more times) on Williams, and that officers did not monitor Williams's breathing as required. Furthermore, it was reported that officers placed a surgical mask over his face at some point during the incident, but the surgical mask was not found at the scene. Experts note that examination of the mask, which never should have been applied to someone who had been sprayed, would have provided key information about the sequence of events, depending upon whether spray was found on the inside or outside of the mask.
Three of the officers involved in the Williams case had been named in previous civil suits for using excessive force, and two of the cases had been settled out of court. One of the accused officers, Marc Andaya, reportedly had been the subject of more than thirty complaints while previously with the Oakland police force, with his supervisor urging desk duty for Andaya because of his "cowboy" behavior.38 It is not clear why the San Francisco police department hired Andaya in light of the complaints against him while he worked in Oakland.39
In October 1996, witnesses testified at Andaya's hearing before the Police Commission, with some stating that Andaya kicked Williams in the neck and head as others held him down. Officers claimed that Williams grabbed pepper spray from one of the officers. Andaya was accused of neglect of duty and using excessive force, but the Police Commission deadlocked on the charges (two for, two against, with one police commissioner absent), which was in effect an exoneration. The two commissioners who voted in favor of Andaya were criticized by the city's mayor and subsequently resigned. Andaya was subsequently fired by a newly constitutedPolice Commission for lying on his 1994 application to the department.40 Williams's family has filed two separate lawsuits against the city.
5 Rosenfeld, "S.F. pays big...," San Francisco Examiner; and Seth Rosenfeld, "Cops fail to police selves in shootings," San Francisco Examiner, December 30, 1996.
6 Seth Rosenfeld, "Cops fail to police...," San Francisco Examiner.
9 Ibid. The case was appealed and reached the U.S. Supreme Court which let the award stand. Jim Herron Zamora, "City will pay kin of man cop shot," San Francisco Examiner, March 4, 1997.
10 "Foxglove chronology," San Francisco Examiner, November 7, 1997.
11 Susan Sward, Bill Wallace, "Cop's Suspension May Violate Rules," San Francisco Chronicle, October 18, 1996. He was found guilty of arresting three people falsely, and using excessive force at a 1995 New Year's Day police raid on an AIDS benefit.
12 Ibid., and inquiry with John Crew, ACLU of Northern California, May 26, 1998.
13 "S.F. cop faces $10 million suit," San Francisco Examiner, October 30, 1996. There was no record of an indictment on federal criminal civil rights charges, according to a Human Rights Watch inquiry with the U.S. District Court clerk, October 28, 1997.
14 Sward and Wallace, "Cop's Suspension May...," San Francisco Chronicle. One of the lawsuits was dismissed and another was pending.
17 Telephone inquiry, SFPD personnel office, October 28, 1997.
18 Seth Rosenfeld, "Inside story of a killing," San Francisco Examiner, July 23-25, 1995, three-part series.
19 Rosenfeld, "Cop's shooting of young man cost City $295,000, raised troubling questions about the investigation," San Francisco Examiner, July 23, 1995.
24 Seth Rosenfeld, "Were proper police procedures followed that summer afternoon?" San Francisco Examiner, July 24, 1995.
26 Ibid. The district attorney's office claimed there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Wohler.
27 Ibid. In 1986, the city was ordered to pay $23,000 to a woman who alleged Wohler used excessive force during a 1981 incident.
28 Glen Martin, "Cop retires before inquiry into fatal shooting," San Francisco Chronicle, July 13, 1996.
29 "City settles lawsuit alleging police brutality," San Francisco Chronicle, August 1, 1997; Thaai Walker, "2 families want cop fired," San Francisco Chronicle, July 26, 1995; Jane Meredith Adams, "S.F. police under microscope," Sacramento Bee, August 3, 1995.
30 Bill Wallace, "S.F. police hero may be dismissed," San Francisco Chronicle, August 22, 1994, and Wallace, "S.F. police officer fired for misconduct," San Francisco Chronicle, August 25, 1994.
33 Ibid., and Bill Wallace, "Disturbing complaints of police misconduct," San Francisco Chronicle, September 12, 1994.
34 Eric Brazil, "Watchdog wants S.F. cop fired," San Francisco Examiner, January 20, 1997 and Curtius, "Despite progressive policies...," Los Angeles Times.
35 Arrestees suffering from asthma, high on drugs, or in psychiatric crisis are also at particular risk, according to an American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California report, Pepper Spray Update: More Fatalities, More Questions, June 1995.
36 Curtius, "Despite progressive policies...," Los Angeles Times..
37 Jim Herron Zamora, "Cop kicked suspect's head, say 3 witnesses," The San Francisco Examiner, October 8, 1996.
38 Rachel Gordon, "`Cowboy' cop at scene of violence," San Francisco Examiner, June 9, 1995; Susan Sward, "S.F. panel fires officer in Aaron Williams case," San Francisco Chronicle, June 28, 1997.
39 Zamora, "Cop kicked suspect's head...," The San Francisco Examiner; Jim Herron Zamora, "S.F. cop cleared of using excess force," The San Francisco Examiner, November 21, 1996.
40 Curtius, "Despite progressive policies...," Los Angeles Times.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch