Footage reveals takedown by police
Experts saw no cause for concern; cop drew suspension
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.”