By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
STOCKTON – Police practices expert witnesses Robert Clark and R.K. Miller – both former cops and both paid thousands of dollar each to opine for clients – disagree on many things.
Just three months ago, they clashed in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by a Stockton mother who was suing the city of Stockton police who shot and killed her unarmed 16-year old son. Stockton paid a substantial settlement, although the trial resulted in a hung jury.
Last week, Clark and Miller were asked to give their expert opinions on whether city of Stockton police officers Robert Johnson and Robert Wong violated the civil rights of Joseph Green on a rainy February day in 2011, nearly nine years ago.
And, they saw things differently this time, too.
Again, they were paid by opposing sides – Clark by the Plaintiff Green and Miller by the Defendant City of Stockton and the officers– as the civil rights lawsuit against the city of Stockton and the two officers drew to close after nearly two weeks.
Green, who is Black, was a 16-year-old teen when he attempted to buy “Gummy Bear” candy for his four-year-old sister at the California Stop gas station/convenience store. The clerk wouldn’t accept one of the dollar bills that Green offered – it was burned on the edge – as his mother pumped $60 worth gas outside.
Johnson, in plain clothes, intervened after a few seconds – he and Wong wanted to gets some water and go back to work – and eventually pulled Green into the store when the teen was leaving. In the end, Green’s two front teeth were knocked out, and he wound up on the ground in a pool of his own blood in the back of the store.
Green – beaten and bloody – was charged with trespassing and obstructing an arrest and taken to jail. Charges were never filed by the county District Attorney, although Johnson was disciplined for his actions – but that was overturned by an arbitrator. That information was never presented to the jury.
Green is suing for unspecified damages on a number of damage claims, including assault, retaliation and violation of his 1st, 4th and 14th Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.
Clark, a longtime police practices expert and former lieutenant in the LA Sheriff’s Dept., station commander and police instructor, was not at all complimentary of the officers’ procedures.
The mistakes the officers made, said Clark, began when Green was grabbed and then arrested for trespassing.
“Officers are trained that they must have lawful authority – it must be a crime. The public is free to come and go – unless ordered to leave by owner or agent of owner and asked to make an arrest,” said Clark, adding that Johnson did not have that authority.
Johnson argued the clerk “made eye contact” like he wanted Green arrested for trespassing, although the clerk later said he never told Johnson to do so.
In fact, although Johnson claimed otherwise, Clark said Officer Johnson acted without a “credible threat” to arrest the young Green, who allegedly using the “F-word” to Johnson when he intervened. Johnson hadn’t yet, in plain clothes, even identified himself as a police officer.
“People have the right to express themselves. Officers are trained how to use verbal skills…to remain mature, level-headed when people are cranky. De-escalation is trained early on. If they engage (the suspect) it increases anxiety,.” said Clark, who was critical of Johnson’s actions against a young teen.
He was also critical of the force used to pull Green back into the store he was leaving – throwing him to the ground, punching him in the face several times, causing injuries that led to Green being admitted to a hospital.
“That type or degree of force is not necessary,” said Clark, who also suggested that Wong was “required to intervene, despite rank, under federal law if use of force is used wrongly.”
Wong did not intervene and claimed during the trial he didn’t see much – video evidence does show Wong watching as the much larger Johnson punched Green.
Clark said, “There was compliance (by Green), and no legal authority to use force…it was a violation of professional standards and not appropriate,” said Clark, adding that Johnson’s “blows to the head can lead to fractures, strokes and brain bleeds…(an officer should not) hit kidneys, neck, or head unless fighting for life.”
Clark also said Johnson – twice the weight of Green – made it difficult for Green to breathe when he sat on top of him for an extended period.
Finally, Clark said Johnson, by moving evidence around – rearranging the hand baskets to make it look like they blocked the aisle and caused Green to trip to the ground rather than being pushed there by Johnson – “doesn’t meet the standard.”
And Wong and Johnson violated training and policy by not fully documenting use of force, or taking witness statements, said Clark.
Miller, a SWAT team leader who worked for the Downey police and teaches a SWAT class, didn’t see anything wrong with the use of force on a teen for an alleged minor crime.
“Officer Johnson acted in a reasonable manner including use of force…acted within the guidelines,” said Miller, noting that he believed Johnson’s use of force was “limited.”
Miller insisted that the “use of personal body weapons” are acceptable when necessary, even the use on a teen of ”distraction strikes.” He explained the “strikes” are designed to injure the suspect, but were not as strong as a regular punch, “which can cause injury to officer and do more damage” to a suspect.
Miller also defended Johnson’s use of putting weight on Green, that it was not enough to cause “positional asphyxiation” (suffocation).
Likewise, he said since Green’s injuries – two missing teeth and a severely cut lip that left a large pool of blood on the floor – were not “life threatening,” it was “tactically sound” that Green was first taken to the police dept. and not the hospital.
As to suggestions by Green’s lawyer that Johnson planted evidence by “staging” hand baskets for a photograph inserted into his official report – and not stating the photo was staged, Miller, unlike Clark, said a “picture is worth a thousand words.”
As for not taking witness statements, Miller said “witnesses are often not accurate. They had video.”
Miller did admit under questioning by Tony Piccuta, Green’s lawyer, that if the store clerk didn’t tell Green to leave the store – which he later said he did not – then it would not be the trespassing that Johnson alleged.
And, Piccuta managed to get Miller to agree that an officer can’t arrest someone – as Johnson would have done if there was no trespassing – for saying “F*** you.”