By Alex Jimenez
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Despite resulting in an acquittal, the trial of a San Francisco Police Officer for excessive use of force may be a victory in pursuing police accountability and reform, according to police reform activists and prosecutors.
Earlier this month a jury found officer Terrance Stangel not guilty of charges, including assault and battery, for beating an unarmed Black man with his police-issued baton in 2019.
The case is the first time in the modern era that the district attorney’s office has tried a San Francisco Police Officer for excessive use of force.
According to Kentucky assistant attorney Barbara Whaley, “The Stangel case and others like it send a message to law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
Whaley recently prosecuted a police officer for firing his gun at Breonna Taylor’s Louisville home in 2020; the bullets would hit the apartment next door. The officer was charged with wanton endangerment but was acquitted by a jury.
“The law is the law, and it applies no matter who you are,” Whaley said. “Prosecutors have a responsibility to seek justice for victims, no matter who the perpetrator is.”
John Crew is a retired ACLU attorney and police practice expert who says that “Stangel’s trial shone a light on SFPD’s accountability-averse culture.”
According to Crew, the police are rarely challenged, so any charges brought up by a prosecutor will bring in a strong reaction from police departments and unions.
Writer for the Mission Local, Eleni Balakrishnan, reports that shortly before the trial began, the San Francisco Police Chief withdrew from an agreement that would make the DA’s office the lead investigator in police use of force cases.
Critics said that the move, which was supported by the union, was carefully timed to “derail the trial and cast doubt on its legitimacy.” The California Attorney General’s Office stepped in and negotiated an extension on the agreement until May 20.
This attempt illustrates the contention between District Attorney Chesa Boudin and SFPD, but the backlash against prosecuting police officers began even before Boudin took office .
Boudin, as part of his 2019 campaign, promised to hold police accountable, which ignited a union-backed effort to defeat him. Just days after a slim victory, a recall effort in January 2020 began which failed, but a better financed recall campaign has initiated a recall vote in June.
Alabama prosecutor Tim Gann received a similar backlash from the police department when, in 2021, he prosecuted a police officer for killing a suicidal man. This was the first time in Madison County that a law enforcement officer was prosecuted for murder.
The local police department determined that the officer was acting within department policy when he pushed through two colleagues and shot the man who was holding a gun to his own head.
Gann’s office brought charges against the officer, which was met with “significant negativity and backlash” in a conservative state where support for law enforcement is strong.
“The police department disagreed openly, in the press, that what we were doing was not right, and even the mayor chimed in” to criticize the prosecution as a “political” move, Gann said. “We just trusted that the truth would come out.”
The officer in that case was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Gann warns that prosecutors must prepare for backlash and be “unafraid to remove bad apples.”
According to retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, these trials can change perceptions and make it easier for prosecutors to file charges.
“Hopefully, that attitude and that belief will change as more district attorneys have courage to bring charges when they think it’s appropriate,” said Cordell.
Balakrishnan notes that trials can expose issues in police department policies and serve as opportunities for reform if departments are inclined to do so.
The trial certainly exposed training issues within SFPD, said reform advocates. Stangel and his partner admitted that they had devised no plan and his partner rushed ahead despite the fact that officers are advised to have a plan of action before arriving at the scene.
Stangel had begun swinging his baton within seconds of arriving, even though the suspect, Dacari Spiers, was unarmed and with his girlfriend. Spiers had reportedly fit the description of a man assaulting a woman but he and his girlfriend were not involved in the altercation, it was shown.
A physical confrontation ensued between Stangel and Spiers because Spiers did not understand why officers approached him. Training officer Patrick Woods testified that the actions were within policy and that Spiers asked, “What did I do?” could be taken as a form of resistance.
“Asking questions for clarification doesn’t fit the definition of active resistance, according to SFPD policy,” said ACLU police practice expert Crew.
The jury consisted of seven white residents and no Black jurors on the 12 person jury, highlighting the ongoing issue in San Francisco courts of finding a diverse jury pool.
San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe notes prosecuting police officers are rare because jurors are encouraged to believe and respect law enforcement.
“Such prosecutions alone can send a message of accountability. “Cop or criminal, everybody gets treated the same in the criminal justice system — should be,” said Wagstaffe.
The article by Balakrishnan notes publicity surrounding trials can keep the public informed on police conduct, which is traditionally held behind closed doors.
“No prosecutor wins 100 percent of cases,” said a Boudin spokesperson. “Fear of losing a case that we have the evidence to support, and that we believe is a righteous prosecution, isn’t a reason to avoid going to trial.”