Footage re­veals take­down by po­lice

Experts saw no cause for con­cern; cop drew sus­pen­sion

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Metro - By Em­i­lie Ea­ton STAFF WRITER

David Ramirez was lis­ten­ing to mu­sic on head­phones while walk­ing in the mid­dle of a res­i­den­tial street on the near South­west Side.

A po­lice car, in the neigh­bor­hood for an un­re­lated call for ser­vice, pulled up be­hind him and honked once.

Within min­utes, Ramirez, then 18, and two of­fi­cers were wran­gling on the ground as Ramirez pleaded with them to stop and they tried to pin his arms back and sub­due him.

Po­lice body-cam­era video of the al­ter­ca­tion, which the San An­to­nio Ex­press-News ob­tained re­cently through an open records re­quest, shows how a stop for a seem­ingly mi­nor in­frac­tion can es­ca­late quickly into a phys­i­cal clash.

The strug­gle lasted about five min­utes and ended when the two of­fi­cers lifted Ramirez, by then hand­cuffed, from the ground and one force­fully pushed him onto the hood of the pa­trol car.

Po­lice Chief Wil­liam McManus later con­cluded one of­fi­cer used ex­ces­sive force — a de­ter­mi­na­tion that hap­pens rarely in the depart­ment. But to oth­ers who watched the video, in­clud­ing two pro­fes­sors with ex­per­tise in of­fi­cers’ use of force, the in­ci­dent re­veals the dif­fi­cult na­ture of po­lice work and the way of­fi­cers are trained to han­dle it.

“I didn’t see any­thing that was re­ally con­cern­ing to me from a use-of-force per­spec­tive,” said Michael Smith, chair of the crim­i­nal jus­tice depart­ment at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas at San An­to­nio. “If they didn’t have a law­ful rea­son to stop him, then you have a prob­lem.”

McManus sus­pended Of­fi­cer Arnoldo Sanchez for two days in Au­gust 2017, about six months af­ter the in­ci­dent. The sus­pen­sion was specif­i­cally for “un­nec­es­sary phys­i­cal force” in slam­ming Ramirez onto the hood of the car while he was hand­cuffed, not for Sanchez’s other ac­tions dur­ing the al­ter­ca­tion, ac­cord­ing to depart­ment records.

Such a sus­pen­sion is un­usual. For ex­am­ple, of the roughly 80 sus­pen­sions of San An­to­nio po­lice of­fi­cers last year, only three — in­clud­ing Sanchez’s — were for ex­ces­sive force.

It was not the first time Sanchez, an of­fi­cer for four years, had been in the pub­lic eye. In 2015, he and another of­fi­cer re­sponded to a call about a fam­ily dis­tur­bance. Nor­man Cooper’s brother had called po­lice about Nor­man’s er­ratic be­hav­ior. The of­fi­cers ended up us­ing their Tasers nine times on Cooper, ac­cord­ing to court records. Cooper, 33, be­came un­re­spon­sive and was pro­nounced dead at the scene.

Cooper’s fam­ily is su­ing Sanchez and another of­fi­cer, claim­ing they wrong­fully caused his death.

The fam­ily’s lawyer, Matthew Gossen, said the al­ter­ca­tion be­tween the of­fi­cers and Ramirez caught his at­ten­tion.

“They were just stop­ping some­one for walk­ing on the street. I

didn’t un­der­stand why force was used at all,” he said.

He does not claim to have the ex­per­tise to know whether Sanchez’s ac­tions were ap­pro­pri­ate in that sit­u­a­tion. “It’s hard to say,” Gossen said. “Does it raise ques­tions? Yes, of course.”

Af­ter the al­ter­ca­tion, po­lice of­fi­cers found a small amount of mar­i­juana on Ramirez and ar­rested him. The charge was dis­missed last year be­cause of in­suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence. Ramirez could not be reached for com­ment.

Sanchez agreed to the sus­pen­sion and waived any right to an ap­peal. The sus­pen­sion was held in abeyance for a year, mean­ing it would be erased from his record if, dur­ing that year, he didn’t break any sim­i­lar rules. Sanchez didn’t, and the sus­pen­sion was re­moved from his record.

Mike Helle, pres­i­dent of the San An­to­nio Po­lice Of­fi­cers As­so­ci­a­tion, said he dis­agreed with McManus’ choice to is­sue Sanchez a two-day sus­pen­sion and the abeyance. Both could in­ad­ver­tently dis­cour­age an of­fi­cer from ap­proach­ing some­one on the street, he said.

“What will the of­fi­cer do?” Helle asked. “Hold back and not do his job. That’s not the po­lice force peo­ple want.”

McManus stands by his de­ci­sion.

“Of­fi­cer Sanchez im­me­di­ately self-re­ported his own ac­tions to his su­per­vi­sor af­ter strug­gling with a sus­pect who was hid­ing nar­cotics in his waist­band area,” ac­cord­ing to a re­cent state­ment from the depart­ment. “Af­ter an In­ter­nal Af­fairs in­ves­ti­ga­tion and a meet­ing with the chief, the chief de­ter­mined that a two-day sus­pen­sion was the most ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion.”

‘A lot of re­straint’

Video of the Feb. 19, 2017, in­ci­dent showed Ramirez walk­ing on Fern­dale Street while wear­ing head­phones and car­ry­ing a bas­ket­ball. He glanced be­hind him and saw the po­lice car. He moved to­ward the side­walk and con­tin­ued walk­ing with his head­phones on.

“Hey, come here!” said Sanchez, who was driving alone in one of the pa­trol cars. He parked in front of the other pa­trol ve­hi­cle and walked to­ward Ramirez.

“Hey! I’m talking to you!” he said, rais­ing his voice.

Ramirez looked over his shoul­der and saw Sanchez ap­proach­ing. He started tak­ing his head­phones out. “I’m sorry, sir,” he re­sponded, act­ing sur­prised.

Sanchez grabbed Ramirez by the arm and started pulling him to­ward his po­lice car, parked a few feet away. Ramirez pulled back slightly.

“Sorry, sir!” Ramirez said again. “Can you let me go please?”

Sanchez placed his sec­ond hand on Ramirez’s arm and con­tin­ued to push him for­ward. Ramirez jerked his arm back.

“No, chill!” Sanchez re­sponded.

At one point, Sanchez in­di­cated he would use his Taser, but he didn’t.

The two of­fi­cers pinned Ramirez to the ground with their knees and tried to force his hands be­hind his back. Ramirez screamed. He could be heard ask­ing the of­fi­cers re­peat­edly what he did or if he could call his fa­ther. At sev­eral points, he said he couldn’t breathe.

Helle said some peo­ple could view the footage and as­sume the of­fi­cer mis­han­dled the sit­u­a­tion, but that’s not the case.

“The kid was walk­ing in the mid­dle of the street. He saw the cops and said, ‘Eh, who cares?’ ” Helle said. “If he would have com­plied, it prob­a­bly wouldn’t have es­ca­lated. ... I think the of­fi­cers used a lot of re­straint.”

Helle said as­pir­ing of­fi­cers at the San An­to­nio Po­lice Train­ing Academy are taught to al­ways, if pos­si­ble, stay near their pa­trol ve­hi­cle, which of­fers some pro­tec­tion. It’s also eas­ier to do their work near their ve­hi­cle, such as tap­ping into a com­puter sys­tem to search for war­rants.

He said that’s prob­a­bly why Sanchez wanted to bring Ramirez to­ward his ve­hi­cle. Af­ter Sanchez placed his hand on Ramirez’s arm, Ramirez be­gan to im­me­di­ately pull away.

“He prob­a­bly felt the guy was get­ting jit­tery al­ready,” Helle said. “For a po­lice­man, you don’t want to put your­self in a po­si­tion where you might have to get into a foot chase with some­one. You want to put your­self in a de­fen­sive po­si­tion.”

Us­ing the pa­trol car

Wal­ter Sig­norelli, a for­mer New York City po­lice in­spec­tor who works at the John Jay Col­lege of Crim­i­nal Jus­tice, was asked by the Ex­press-News to re­view the video.

He said Sanchez was ag­gres­sive in his ini­tial ap­proach but that was un­der­stand­able given the sit­u­a­tion.

“You are deal­ing with some­one who is be­hav­ing very ag­gres­sively or pas­sive ag­gres­sively,” Sig­norelli said. “(The of­fi­cer) might have sensed the dan­ger. The kid was act­ing ir­ra­tionally. He was walk­ing down the mid­dle of the street.”

Smith, the UTSA pro­fes­sor, said po­lice of­fi­cers are com­monly taught to use their ve­hi­cle as a lever­age point. It’s the best al­ter­na­tive to tak­ing some­one to the ground.

“It’s a point to push some­one against if need be,” Smith said. “If you don’t have a solid ob­ject, then you end up on the ground. No one wants to be on the ground, in­clud­ing the of­fi­cer.”

Sig­norelli said that once Ramirez be­gan to re­sist, the of­fi­cer could have taken a step back and tried to rea­son with him, but that’s not a com­mon tac­tic.

“It’s hard to talk to them,” Sig­norelli said. “You can try to ra­tio­nal­ize with some­one. But some­times if they are not re­spond­ing — maybe some­thing is go­ing on with this kid — then you have a fear for your own safety.”

Sig­norelli and Smith said they were sur­prised the scuf­fle lasted so long. They said of­fi­cers are trained to use “pres­sure points,” or pres­sure-sen­si­tive ar­eas on the body that can cause pain when trig­gered, to get a sus­pect to com­ply.

“It looks to me that through sheer brute force that they were able to get his hands be­hind his back,” Smith said. “None of that, as­sum­ing that the stop it­self was law­ful, caused me con­cern.”

“From a de­fen­sive tac­tic stand­point, they prob­a­bly should have tried some other things,” he said. “Used pain com­pli­ance tac­tics to get him to put his hands be­hind his back.”

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