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Under the Color of Authority 

No matter what you see in this video, it's troubling

click to enlarge Still frames from a Dec. 6, 2012 Eureka police video.

Still frames from a Dec. 6, 2012 Eureka police video.

Adam Laird's career ended in less than three seconds. You can watch it happen in real time in the grainy video footage captured by the dash-mounted camera of a Eureka Police Department patrol car. You can see the 14-year-old suspect splayed out on the street near the curb on California Street, his baggy white sweatshirt gleaming in the darkness shortly before midnight on Dec. 6, 2012. You can watch as two uniformed figures rush toward him. And, just as the headlights of the approaching patrol car illuminate the scene, you can see Laird, then a 30-year-old sergeant, stomp down, his booted right foot hitting the teenager on the lower back. Then he does it again, harder.

The assault — as prosecutors would later call it — was over in two and a half seconds but it's taken years to unravel exactly what happened on California Street that night and why. To some extent, it remains mysterious. Assault, it appears, is in the eye of the beholder.

Richard Lichten is a former lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department who worked as a cop for 30 years before becoming an expert witness on police use of force, among other things. At the Journal's request, he reviewed the footage, the release of which the Journal won after a more than two-year legal battle with the city of Eureka.

"Obviously, the video is cause for concern and it looks horrible," Lichten says. "Any use of force looks horrible. But I would caution everyone to keep in mind that the video only shows one angle and tells only part of the story. But based on the video, nothing I saw warranted the stomping."

We then turned to Robert Feliciano, a former training sergeant with the LA Sheriff's Department who spent decades as an officer before becoming a qualified police use of force expert.

"There's not much there," Feliciano says. Sure, he continued, if you look at it by the book, the kicks seem unnecessary. They were excessive, he said, but virtually every cop has been there. You engage in a foot pursuit with a potentially dangerous suspect, your adrenaline is pumping and you're frustrated.

"When you get there, you just get pissed and do something you shouldn't have done," Feliciano says, quickly adding that Laird's stomps didn't look vicious, not like he wheeled back and kicked the kid with all he had. "If I was his supervisor, would I suspend him? No. Would I write him up? Yes. Would I require him to go to additional training courses on weaponless defense? Maybe, just to remind him you can't do that type of shit."

Feliciano is then told Laird was arrested and charged criminally with committing assault under the color of authority.

"Oh shit," he says. "You've got to be kidding me. That's insane."

It's hard to get to a place with Laird's case that provides closure, much less solace. If you watch the video and it makes your stomach turn and feels like assault, then you're going to have a hard time squaring the notion that five independent experts — two hired by Laird's defense, two by the district attorney's office and one by EPD — all said his use of force was reasonable and justified, in line with police standards and training, prompting prosecutors to drop the case against Laird nine months after it was filed. If, on the other hand, you see the stomps and agree with those experts, given that the teenager was allegedly a known gang member who'd just fled the scene of a gang fight, you're left to wonder how these three seconds could have ended an officer's career.

No matter which way you turn, questions are waiting to confront you.

Had Laird's case gone to trial, his defense would have told jurors that they had to understand two things to fully put those 2.5 seconds and their aftermath into proper context. The first is that EPD was on high alert at the time, fearing gang members were actively plotting to ambush one of its officers. The second is that Adam Laird was widely hated by the department's power brokers.

Born in Seattle and raised in Washington state, Laird moved to Humboldt County with his wife in the early 2000s and found himself working at Myrtle Avenue Market and Deli with his eyes set on becoming a cop. With the help of a couple local officers who frequented the market, Laird was hired as a correctional officer with the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office in 2003 and entered College of the Redwoods' Police Academy in January of 2006.

After graduating from the academy, Laird entered a department under considerable public scrutiny after a string of officer-involved shootings and soon found himself working under a new chief. In April of 2007, the city hired Garr Nielsen, an outsider brought in from Oregon's Multnomah County Sheriff's Office and tasked with reforming EPD and mending its ties to the local community.

Nielsen would soon prove a divisive figure within the department and face an insurrection the likes of which few police agencies have seen. Employees denounced him at a city council meeting hastily called with only 24 hours notice to renew his contract before the Eureka Police Officers Association could hold a no confidence vote. He was also put under surveillance by department employees as part of a very ugly and very public smear campaign.

Some attributed the turmoil to Nielsen's management style and said he ran the department in a vindictive manner, but others said it was simply the product of a bitter old guard opposed to changes the new chief was making. Whatever the reasons for the upheaval, Laird stood by the new chief and seemed to legitimately believe in the direction Nielsen was taking the EPD.

Laird also became outspoken within the department and was reportedly instrumental in the officers' union's endorsements of Larry Glass and Ron Kuhnel, both perceived as the more "progressive candidates" in their ward elections, in 2010. In May of 2011, Nielsen promoted Laird to sergeant, reportedly bypassing three more experienced candidates and taking an almost unheard of leap up the ladder for someone who had only worked in patrol in a mere five years on the force.

Laird's defense would argue that his support of Nielsen and Glass, especially, and his quick ascension up the ranks at EPD put a target on his back. And when Nielsen was controversially fired without cause in June of 2011, Laird found himself exposed.

Shortly after taking over as interim police chief, Murl Harpham launched an internal affairs investigation into allegations that Laird's political activities somehow violated departmental policies. Shortly after the allegations were found to be unsubstantiated, Harpham called Laird into his office on Aug. 31, 2011, according to an email Laird sent himself the same day to immortalize the meeting.

During the meeting, Harpham reportedly told Laird that he had been Nielsen's "right-hand" man, which was a "bad perception." Harpham also reportedly took issue with Laird's involvement with EPOA's endorsements. "We endorsed liberals," Laird wrote of Harpham's comments. "The only good thing about liberals is that they are labor friendly, so they'll give us raises quicker. Other than that, they aren't good for anything."

According to Laird's email, Harpham further admonished Laird that, in the eyes of his peers and supervisors, he "had a jacket as political and a kiss ass."

Laird was cleared in the internal affairs investigation and returned to work.

EPD was on edge at the time, according to Laird's defense, and it had nothing to do with Nielsen. Instead, the new turmoil stemmed from the officer-involved shooting of David Sequoia, a 25-year-old man who was shot in the head at point-blank range as he and an officer wrestled over a handgun. According to officer safety briefings released by Laird's defense, Sequoia had been affiliated with the 18th Street and Sureño gangs.

On July 17, 2012, officer Michael Stelzig emailed fellow officers to warn that the 18th Street gang was "reorganizing and resetting its priorities." "I've also had recent info that some of the members are still interested in getting vengeance for the Sequoia shooting. Just an FYI," Stelzig wrote. The next month, Stelzig again emailed his fellow officers, this time attaching pictures of two teens posing with blue bandanas, identifying both as "Sureno/18th ST associates/members." One posed holding a knife, the other a gun.

In October, detective Terry Liles sent out a more formal, two-page officer safety briefing that again referenced gang members possibly looking to avenge Sequoia's death.

"[An informant] told us 18th Street still talks, and has recently talked in detail about a retaliatory hit on law enforcement," Liles wrote. "He explained they would make a phone call to dispatch for help and set an ambush for the officer that responded. He told us they knew which officer worked which area at which time. ... Officers should continue to utilize extreme caution when contacting 18th Street gang members knowing they are actively carrying weapons and have made repeated threats to kill a cop from EPD."

It's unclear exactly how seriously Laird and his fellow officers took these threats. But meanwhile, it appears Laird was still experiencing friction within the department. On Nov. 4, 2012, he sent a complaint to his supervisor, Lt. Tony Zanotti, about another sergeant on the force who he felt had been hostile and unprofessional, explicitly noting six EPD policies he felt the sergeant had violated. It's unclear exactly what came of the complaint because, within five weeks of writing it, Laird would find himself again on administrative leave and under investigation.

It was after 11:30 pm on Dec. 6, 2012, when the call came into EPD dispatch reporting a gang fight at 20-30 park. Multiple units responded.

The first officer on scene found the park mostly empty, but saw a teenager — standing about 5 feet 6 inches tall, weighing 130 pounds — standing with his girlfriend. He was allegedly swinging a golf club over his head and yelling unintelligibly, and he was the same 14-year-old who'd been proudly displaying a blue bandana while holding a knife in that photo Stelzig sent to his fellow officers four months earlier, though it's unclear if responding officers recognized him.

The officer decided to detain the teen for questioning and yelled out to him. He dropped the golf club and fled out of the park and through a couple of backyards before popping out on California Street. At some point along the way, Laird spotted him and picked up the chase. The 14-year-old ultimately stopped when cut off by another officer's patrol car, at which point he and Laird collided, and the kid went sprawling onto the ground.

The teenager would later tell investigators that he stopped running because he "didn't want to get shot," and that he was drunk at the time, having consumed two Four Lokos (caffeinated malt liquors) prior to the incident.

With the teenager on the ground, those 2.5 seconds started ticking by. Laird's fellow officer ran to the kid's right side and worked to get his hand cuffed, as Laird came in with the stomps. When investigators asked him months later if he remembered being kicked, the teenager told them he recalled being kicked once in the back of the neck but that he wasn't really hurt.

Laird spent much of the next two weeks off work, dealing with a family medical situation and then attending an out-of-town funeral. When he returned to EPD headquarters on Dec. 19, 2012, he was escorted out of the building and placed on administrative leave.

Paul Gallegos, who served as Humboldt County's district attorney from 2002 through 2014, said recently that he remembers Laird's case very well. At first, when EPD investigators showed him the video of the arrest, Gallegos said he wasn't sure what to think. He said he deferred to the people around him, consulting with his chief investigator — Mike Hislop, a former EPD sergeant — and other local officers.

"I was told by people in the field that it met the definition of assault," Gallegos said. "The suspect was detained on the ground and appears to be stomped on. These people say this is excessive, that when the fight is in play, you fight, but when the fight is over, you stop."

Gallegos came to believe Laird had committed a crime and that, with the video of the incident — ironically pulled from one of the same dash cameras that Nielsen had rankled much of his department by deploying — Gallegos felt he could prove it.

But the former prosecutor said he was not naïve about the environment the case came out of.

"I will never tell you that the politics of EPD at that time were something I was blind to," Gallegos said. "But I don't look at motives, I look at the evidence. ... If they have evidence a crime was committed, the ulterior motive doesn't matter."

Gallegos was then asked if EPD had a reputation at the time for being heavy handed, more prone to use force to affect an arrest than its local counterparts.

"As much as I hate to say this, the answer is yes — without any reservation," Gallegos said. "I know a lot of good people who worked at the agency but there was a perception in the community that I heard about regularly that they were a lot more hands-on than other agencies."

The prosecutor was also familiar with Laird's name at that point, having cleared him and several other officers of any criminal liability in a violent altercation that left a homeless man, Martin Frederick Cotton II, dead of a subdural hematoma. By all accounts, the officers' altercation with Cotton out in front of the Eureka Rescue Mission on Aug. 9, 2007, was brutal, but Gallegos felt there wasn't evidence to provide any of them violated the law. A federal jury ultimately disagreed, finding that Laird and Justin Winkle used excessive force during the altercation and awarding Cotton's family $4.5 million.

When the video of Laird and the stomping came across his desk, Gallegos said he was glad to see EPD step forward with an excessive force case. "That's the way agencies should work, so I was glad to see that — I was happy to sign on to any department attempting to cleanse itself of bad players," he said.

But did it bother him that — in the words of Laird's defense —the officer was being treated differently and singled out for prosecution?

"It did stick in my craw that this was an application of a rule to someone who didn't fit within their group," Gallegos said. "That part, I had some distaste with. But even if we accept that as true, that still doesn't give him a pass."

Gallegos would ultimately drop the case against Laird nine months after filing it. During that span, a total of five experts had weighed in to say Laird's actions were justified when dealing with a noncompliant, dangerous suspect whose hands weren't visible. The case was also getting ugly in a hurry for EPD. Nielsen, the former chief, had filed a sworn declaration with the court stating that news of Laird's arrest was troubling, "but didn't surprise me given my belief that elements in the 'old guard' wouldn't hesitate to frame Laird for a crime in order to force him out of EPD." And Laird's attorney, Patrik Griego, had convinced a judge to order EPD to turn over a host of records to the defense, including internal communications about Laird and his case, historic internal affairs investigations dealing with excessive force complaints and correspondences between EPD brass and city hall.

Reluctantly, Gallegos said he saw the writing on the wall.

"It's not what you think — it's what you have the evidence to prove," he said. "I felt dismissal is what justice demanded."

One afternoon in December — a day after a local judge had turned the Laird video over to the Journal and nearly two years after prosecutors dropped the criminal case — current EPD Chief Andrew Mills sat behind his desk and unequivocally condemned what he saw in those 2.5 seconds.

"It's not a distraction blow," the chief says, pointing to the second of two stomps into the area of the juvenile's lower back. "That was, from what I see, appears to be a stomp into an area that's protected."

Mills explained that Laird's foot strikes hit the juvenile in the kidney area, which he said is one of five areas on the body considered off limits unless an officer is using lethal force, which clearly would not have been called for in this situation. But the larger problem, Mills said, is it doesn't appear to him that the juvenile is resisting in the video. Mills slowed the video down, pointing to the angle of the kid's feet, saying he couldn't have attempted to raise himself off the ground from that position. And even if he had, 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.

But what about the expert opinions saying this was in line with Laird's training?

"You can get an expert to say pretty much anything," Mills said dismissively. "They were never trained to deliver a stomp like that to the lower back of a teenager. (The experts) can say what they want but I still have the responsibility of running this police department. I want the message to be that this is not acceptable here."

It's worth noting that one of the experts in Laird's case, Don Cameron, was recently called to testify in the city's defense in a federal wrongful death suit, indicating the city still values his expert opinion. It's also worth noting that Mills has no obvious dog in Laird's fight. He took over EPD well after the officer's arrest and seems detached from the internal departmental politics that may have been at play. Yet Mills chose to move forward with the city's attempt to fire the officer — a firing that never came.

After being on paid administrative leave for more than a year and a half, Laird officially retired from EPD on July 31, 2014, apparently as part of the settlement of a claim he 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.

Laird, who's now working locally as a defense investigator, declined to be interviewed for this story but issued a brief statement indicating he's glad that video of the Dec. 6, 2012, arrest has been made public. He described evidence of his innocence as "overwhelming."

More than four years after it began, Adam Laird's legal saga has come to a close. And now we can all watch the video of him arresting that teenager on that December night and draw our own conclusions. The truth we're now left to confront is that no matter whether we think Laird criminally assaulted a kid or got unfairly persecuted, nothing that followed feels right.

To see a Use of Force expert's frame-by-frame analysis of the video, click here.

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor at the Journal. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

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

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