Thursday, December 22, 2016

Is This Criminal Assault?

Posted By on Thu, Dec 22, 2016 at 4:40 PM

It’s been almost four years since the Eureka Police Department and the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office held a rare joint press conference on April 17, 2013 to announce they’d arrest an EPD sergeant on suspicion of assaulting a 14-year-old during an arrest.

Four months earlier, shortly before midnight on Dec. 6, 2012, EPD received a report of a gang fight near Twenty-Thirty Park on Summer Street. The first officer on scene reported no fight but saw a male and a female walking, and noted the male — later identified as a 5-foot-6-inch, 130-pound 14-year-old — was carrying a golf club.

The boy — who later told police he had been drunk at the time, having drank two Four Lokos (a caffeinated malt liquor beverage) — fled when he saw the officer and a foot pursuit ensued. At some point, former EPD Sgt. Adam Laird joined the fray as backup as the kid fled through a backyard and ultimately wound up on California Street. There, the juvenile abruptly stopped running — later telling investigators he didn’t want police to shoot him — and gave up. He was then pushed to the ground by officers.

Once on the ground, an officer went to the boy’s head area and began working to cuff him, repeatedly telling the boy to “stop resisting.” As the officer got one of the teenager’s hands cuffed, Laird ran up and twice stomped down on the juvenile’s lower back, after which the other officer pulled the boy's other hand free and cuffed him. In the aftermath of the arrest, Laird’s stomps have been described as everything from an attempt to “shove” the suspect to the ground to kicks. A video of the arrest from the dash camera of Sgt. Rodrigo Reyna-Sanchez’s patrol car captured the entire incident and quickly became the central piece of evidence in the case.

Laird’s arrest was huge news at the time, as it’s rare for officers to arrest one of their own and even rarer for them to do it based on an excessive force allegation. The DA’s office would go on to charge Laird with a pair of misdemeanors — assault under the color of authority and writing a false report.

The case got strange in a hurry. A total of five independent use of force experts — one hired by EPD, two hired by prosecutors and two by the defense — reviewed the video of the arrest, which was ultimately enhanced and dissected, edited into a frame-by-frame sequence. All concluded that Laird’s use of force was “reasonable and justified” when faced with a dangerous, noncompliant suspect.

Laird’s defense quickly went on the offensive, arguing in a series of court motions that Laird was being unfairly singled out and targeted for prosecution due to his political views, support of former City Councilmember Larry Glass and staunch allegiance to controversial former Police Chief Garr Nielsen, under whom Laird was quickly promoted up the ranks of EPD. Laird’s attorney Patrik Griego claimed in court filings that he couldn’t find any record of EPD ever having pursued criminal charges stemming from an excessive force complaint, and that such cases were handled internally.

Additionally, Griego alleged that EPD withheld evidence showing Laird’s innocence from prosecutors when they were deciding whether to charge Laird criminally in the case; this included one of the expert reports, several witness statements and records that showed the juvenile was a member of a violent local gang that had recently threatened to ambush a Eureka cop.

Griego submitted a pair of sworn declarations to the court questioning EPD’s credibility in the case: one from former EPD Sgt. Mike Quigley saying he believed Laird was “being targeted” by his fellow officers and another from Nielsen, who said he believed some officers “wouldn’t hesitate to frame Laird for a crime in order to force him out of EPD.” Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Marilyn Miles found the declarations and Griego’s arguments compelling and granted a request to order EPD to turn over a host of documents, including complaint records, internal affairs investigation reports and correspondences between EPD commanders and city officials.

A couple of weeks later, on Jan. 3, 2014, prosecutors dropped the case. Deputy District Attorney Roger Rees appeared in court to explain the decision: “Based on new evidence the people have discovered, we don’t believe we can prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The city had been in the process of trying to fire Laird for months at that point but the firing never came. Ultimately, Laird retired from EPD on July 31, 2014. The retirement appears to have come as part of the settlement of a claim Laird brought against the city, alleging it had improperly turned his confidential personnel file over to prosecutors. While the particulars remain somewhat cloudy, the city gave Laird a lump-sum settlement of $40,000 and he receives about $39,000 annually in CalPERS payments. He worked as a police officer for 10 years.

Almost immediately following the dismissal of Laird’s case and the resolution of his claim against the city, the Journal sought the video of him arresting the 14-year-old. First, we submitted California Public Records Act requests to both the city of Eureka and the DA’s office. Both were denied, with the city arguing that the video was exempt from disclosure because it was part of a police investigative file and because it was confidential police officer personnel record. The Journal then sought the video’s release through the juvenile court system, realizing it would have been a part of the 14-year-old’s case file. The city again objected to the video’s release, arguing that the Journal was essentially conducting an end-around to access a confidential police officer personnel record.

In May of 2015, Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Christopher Wilson granted the Journal’s request, finding the video didn’t qualify as a personnel record and the public interest in disclosing it outweighed any privacy concerns. The city appealed Wilson’s ruling, first unsuccessfully seeking an emergency order finding Wilson had abused his discretion, and then through a simple appeal. In denying the city’s appeal, the California First District Court of Appeals issued a published opinion — setting new legal precedent in California — stating explicitly that videos of an arrest can’t be considered confidential personnel records. The city then unsuccessfully petitioned the California Supreme Court to depublish that decision, which would have kept the case from setting a binding statewide precedent on the issue.

Yesterday, at a brief hearing in the case, Wilson handed over to the Journal a DVD containing the arrest video. Then in a surprising move today, current EPD Chief Andrew Mills announced at a press conference called to discuss a Dec. 6 officer-involved shooting that the city will be posting the arrest video to a new EPD “transparency portal” website.

So here we are. We’re working on a more thorough write up about Laird’s case, the video and our fight to access it that you’ll be able to read in the coming weeks, but we didn’t want the city to scoop us on a story that it has been fighting our ability to report for two years now, so we’ve fast tracked this thing.

In anticipation of the video’s release to the Journal, Griego issued a statement on Laird’s behalf that we’ve copied in its entirety below. We also caught up with Mills after today’s press conference to ask him about the video’s contents.

Mills said he feels Laird’s use of force was excessive largely for two reasons. First, he said it doesn’t appear to him from the video that the juvenile was resisting. And even if he was resisting, Mills said Laird — who had 7 inches and 35 pounds on the suspect — should have used other techniques, like hand controls or his body weight, to gain the teenager’s compliance. Second, Mills said he believes Laird’s foot strikes hit the juvenile’s kidney area, which he said is one of five areas on the body considered off limits unless an officer is using lethal force.

Here is Laird’s full statement:

Retired EPD Sergeant Adam Laird is supportive and thankful for the release of the video depicting his arrest of a dangerous gang member who was resisting arrest.  The evidence showing that Sgt. Laird was innocent is overwhelming.  The experts that were hired by EPD said that the suspect was rising up from the ground when Sgt. Laird pushed him back down.  The two experts that the DA’s office hired said that the force was reasonable and appropriate.  The defensive tactics instructor who trained Sgt. Laird said that he acted consistently with his training in apprehending a high risk suspect in a dangerous situation.  In total, five separate police practice experts reviewed the case and unanimously said Sgt. Laird acted appropriately.

Members of the internal investigation at EPD had been told by their own experts that Sgt. Laird acted appropriately but they didn’t relay that information to the District Attorney.  The case against Sgt. Laird both internally at EPD and externally through the District Attorney’s investigation,  spearheaded by former Chief Investigator Mike Hislop, was brought about because of Sgt. Laird’s perceived endorsements of progressive city council candidates, especially Larry Glass and his support of the popular former Chief of Police, Garr Nielsen.

Even though this case was a hardship for Adam and his family, he is encouraged by the California Appellate decision about the release of these videos.  Sgt. Laird is hopeful that the release of these types of videos may bring about more transparency and a better understanding of police work to the public.

Since Adam retired from The Eureka Police Department he has continued serving the public, including representing incarcerated indigent clients in his capacity as a professional investigator and expert witness.

We've now heard all the argument, all the reasoning. But what do you think? Is this assault? Is it criminal? Did Adam Laird get treated unfairly? Did he act as any reasonable officer would under the circumstances?

Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure, the author of this article personally filed the petition seeking release of this video and represented the Journal before the superior court.
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About The Author

Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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