Even before the Templeton dust had settled around the lifeless body of Jay Anthony Vestal two weeks ago, San Luis Obispo County residents began to suspect big problems with policing.
Allegations of excessive force by sheriff’s deputies and city police officers were surfacing all too frequently, and news was leaking out of huge, out-of-court settlements with victims of local law enforcement’s over-enthusiasm.
But it has taken the questionable death of a quiet, well-liked postal carrier to enunciate the depth of the issue.
Instead of playing with his two young children this weekend, Vestal lies dead, the victim of something police call “restraint asphyxia,” which in this case was caused by four burly sheriff’s deputies sitting on Vestal while his hands were bound behind him by a plastic strap.
Almost every appropriate investigative branch of government has leaped into an inquiry into the Vestal case: the FBI, maybe the district attorney, the sheriff himself. The five deputies who took Vestal down for reasons that remain unclear are on paid administrative leave while the incident is probed.
Vestal’s death, coming right on the heels of a multi-million dollar settlement of another lawsuit against the county sheriff for excessive force and other notable instances of violence, finally kicked the matter of officer behavior squarely into the public consciousness. Who is policing the police?
Where is the fine line between control and bullying? Does law enforcement in San Luis Obispo County operate with complete autonomy? And did it take a choking death in the dust to finally push the awkward question into the consciousness of a reluctant public?
“Most times, when blood is spilled and lives are lost, investigators…find the killing to be justified,” wrote Sondra London in the foreword for her book, “Killer Cops.” “In cases where the suspect is unarmed, they speak of … threatening behavior on the part of the suspect.”
Such was the claim in the case of Vestal. Deputies, despite the presence of numerous eyewitnesses with contrary versions, insist that Vestal was resisting arrest and mention the presence of illegal drugs in the dead man’s system. Why four or five armed men wearing body armor sat on Vestal’s back while he gasped for air has yet to be explained by sheriff’s officials.
When sheriff’s detectives talked later to witnesses of Vestal’s death, one detective told them that several of the officers involved in the incident were already under investigation for apparent abuse of power. The Sheriff’s Department has not elaborated on this.
The deputies were identified last week by sheriff’s officials, who gave only the first name initials and last names of the men. They are Rex Reese, David Nottenkamper, Geoffrey Dayton, Mark Gunter, and Michael Murphy.
Some readers may remember Donal Schneider. The frequent critic of local government mysteriously died in Creston in 1997 after being shackled and held down by sheriff’s deputies after a routine contact turned into a wrestling match. That death was eventually declared “justifiable” by authorities, and the matter was quietly closed.
More recently, there was the case of Gerald Bernales, a 22-year-old Los Osos man who was hammered by two sheriff’s deputies until he suffered permanent brain damages. Rather than let the case get to a jury, county officials shelled out more than $2 million to settle the claim.
Local police agencies are getting into the act with alarming frequency, too.
A Paso Robles police officer recently fatally shot a young Latino man who—according to police—was walking toward the cop with a knife in his hand. The knife story is disputed by witnesses, and the district attorney is currently investigating. Many in the predominately Latino northern part of the community alleged following the incident that police activity in the area had become increasingly and unnecessarily strident and violent.
Also last week, a $3.48 million claim against the city of San Luis Obispo was filed by lawyers for a man who said two officers threw him to the ground for no reason, breaking his arm and requiring the surgical placement of supporting steel plates in a bone. Again, witnesses emerged with versions of the March incident that were markedly different from the one outlined by police supervisors of the uniformed pair.
In the big-money claim, upon which city officials have not yet acted, San Luis Obispo attorney James M. Duenow said the officer, Chad Pharr, attacked his client “without provocation or cause.”
More damning was the allegation that the San Luis Obispo Police Department “negligently supervised Pharr and other officers involved in the incident in that … said police department had numerous complaints that Pharr had utilized excessive force in carrying out his duties and regularly used aggressive, demeaning, and insulting language when dealing with the public in general,” according to the claim.
One of those complaints alleges Pharr and his partner, Gina Salazar, roughly threw several young women down on to the street after removing them from a popular Higuera Street saloon. Once again, witnesses decried the necessity of the police actions.
So, who is policing the police?
“No one,” said San Luis Obispo defense attorney Ron Crawford. “It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” he said of the rising incidence of alleged police brutality. “And I don’t know the answer. People are alienated by all this stuff, and a lot of people out there are more than a little paranoid about talking to a police officer.”
Crawford said he has “never known of a single case” where a county law enforcement officer was prosecuted for excessive use of force.
That doesn’t make San Luis Obispo particularly unique. A very high profile case in Los Angeles, in which the Ramparts Division was broadly scrutinized for nearly a decade after one officer claimed that corruption and brutality were commonplace, has faded into obscurity with no apparent results.
The Los Angeles Times reported last month that the investigation finally fizzled out, primarily because of an inability on the part of different agencies’ investigators to work cohesively.
Reasons for this seemingly rooted culture of violence and boorish behavior are wide ranging, from poor and inadequate training for officers, to limited personnel pools, to nonexistent and permissive internal controls.
At the base of the problem, as articulated by television actor Jack Webb on the popular vintage show, “Dragnet,” is that “there will always be a few bad apples on the force, because we have to recruit from the human race.”
SLO County Sheriff Pat Hedges disagrees.
“That’s not quite what I’d say. What I say is that we still hire humans and they are not going to be right 100 percent of the time. We all make mistakes, but I think we do a very aggressive background check [on candidates] before they become members of the department. Then there’s a 12-month probationary period with audits by supervisors in the field, and a final weeding out period.”
Private investigator Alan Bond, who served as a San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s deputy, recalls sitting on a hiring board for SLO police applicants.
One of the applicants, an eight-year veteran of a large Southern California police department, was hoping to make a lateral move; that is, to simply shift from one agency to another at the same rank. The job hopeful was asked what he would do if he was driving past the local theater and saw a man flipping him an obscene sign, a constitutionally protected action.
The officer said he would return and try to “contact” the perceived offender.
Asked what he would do if the man fled into the theater, the officer said he would “go in after him.”
Asked his response if the “suspect” tried to hide under a theater seat, the officer said he would “drag his ass out of there.”
At least several of the examining panel thought the officer would be a “great hire,” said Bond, who dissented, along with the department psychiatrist, who labeled the applicant officer “psychotic.”
“That just shows who some of these people are,” said Bond.
Some county law enforcement officers actually live outside the county, said Bond, commuting in for three 12-hour shifts before returning to distant homes for a four-day weekend.
“And there is no way to tell how many, or who they are” because departments are not forthcoming with home addresses and home towns of their officers, added Bond.
“There are only about half a dozen deputies who live outside the county,” countered Hedges, adding that the department has access to internal affairs files from other departments on the officers it wants to hire. “We don’t get a lot of laterals because of the cost of living here.”
Hedges said training is the key to keeping difficult situations from going bad.
“The state does have minimum standards, and we exceed those required hours. I can’t say offhand how much we exceed them, but what we’re faced with is not less training, but the requirement for more diverse training.”
He said the department is trying to expand training to cover these requirements.
“A big emphasis is on first aid and CPR, and training in other, newer issues like domestic violence. The legislature continues to mandate more and more required training, which means there may be less training in more traditional areas.”
Modern policing is affected in many ways by economics.
Salaries, benefits and other overhead expenses for police and sheriff departments are a steadily rising cost factor. Initial and ongoing training costs money. So, too, does equipment and needed supplies.
When the financial pinch is felt, managers are prone to reduce first the expenditures on intangibles such as training. Next to go are new hires, an action which in turn limits manpower, creates larger workloads for the remaining work force, and often cultivates a climate of impatience and anger toward those who have created the money problems: the citizen taxpayers.
But it is training—or the lack thereof—that spawns the greatest problems between police and those they are sworn to protect and serve.
Law enforcement officers are called upon all too often to confront violent situations; theirs is a dangerous line of work. Swiftness of action can be life-saving.
The most innocuous situation can become deadly in a split second, and police officers are expected to instantly take the proper action to save the lives of innocent bystanders as well as their own. Instinct, honed by careful instruction and repetitive practice, prepares an officer for those moments. But adrenaline and fear spooked by a suddenly dangerous circumstance can cause even the steadiest of officers to make a critical error in judgment and action.
Author London wrote, “We Americans enjoy a strange love-hate relationship with our police. On the one hand, cops make up a ‘thin blue line’ that marks the boundary between a civilized society and chaos; on the other, they are quick trigger bullies hired specifically to keep the lid on an imperfect melting pot.”
There are, however, local examples of police restraint that portend promise.
Last week, a man with a bloodied head showed up at the Grover Beach Police Department and reported that a man was threatening a woman with a knife.
When two Grover Beach police officers arrived, they found Thomas J. Anderson, 52, waving a knife. He refused to drop the weapon, according to police reports, and ignored other commands from Lt. Bob Thomas and Sgt. Mike Penza. As Anderson allegedly advanced on the officers, Thomas fired a specially equipped sandbag gun four times to bring down Anderson, and the matter was resolved without bloodshed.
The beanbag pellets are about the size of a cherry.
But the fact that four of the beanbags were needed to down the advancing man is not reassuring to cops. You’d be hard-pressed to find a law enforcement officer in this or any other county who doesn’t think Anderson could have—should have—been taken out by a barrage of 9-mm bullets.
Law enforcement recruits are taught early in their careers that a gun is to be used only when deadly force is required, and when that occasion arises, an officer is trained to shoot to kill. “Winging” the suspect or otherwise trying to slow him down is not the training objective; stopping him permanently is.
Vestal was clad only in boxer shorts when his mouth and nose were pressed into a thick bed of dry dust outside his home; his death was witnessed by friends who have vowed to seek justice. It also was noticed by legions of county residents who now are asking the question, “Who’s in charge of the police?”
No one, it might appear to the casual observer.
Sheriff Pat Hedges, overwhelmed by the rash of recent complaints against his deputies, put in an SOS for the FBI, bypassing the local talents of the district attorney to seek an investigation by the feds into a possible civil rights violation.
“We are looking at the case as a possible color of authority violation,” said Special Agent Ed Miller of the Santa Maria FBI, referring to an abuse of official power.
Said Hedges: “The public expects a certain comfort level as far as knowing that any law enforcement agency is making every step to insure that things are being done properly. I had several different options. I could have asked for the Grand Jury, but I didn’t think they had the level of expertise necessary.
“The situation borderlines on a civil rights issue. I have to feel the public has confidence and that our employees have confidence—this is paramount. I like to think everything is going according to Hoyle, but I think we all would expect and appreciate some independent confirmation. I want an impartial review, so I’m not working under some false assumptions. The U. S. Attorney will decide if there’s any basis for further investigation.”
Frustrated by an apparent lack of resolve on the part of law enforcement to solve the violent-officer problem, some county residents are seeking redress in unique ways.
Morro Beach resident Penny Harrington, a former Oregon police chief, is part of a group of citizens planning to take an ordinance proposal to county supervisors establishing a civilian commission to conduct independent investigations of cases such as that of Vestal.
Patterned after a successful San Diego ordinance, the local plan calls for a fully funded operation that can conduct oversight of official investigations and take action independently in the pursuit of justice. Harrington and her associates expect opposition to the proposal to come from the sheriff’s department and local police agencies, and a lawsuit challenging the ordinance if one was created.
Jay Anthony Vestal would have been 37 on Sept. 2.
News Editor Daniel Blackburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.