Did Police in Salinas Use Excessive Force?

The California community is grappling with a beating that raises questions a video of the incident can’t fully resolve.

Quin Anya / Flickr

A brutal police beating has seized the attention of Salinas, California, where locals are debating whether a flurry of baton blows meted out to a man who resisted arrest were justified by the circumstances or an instance of excessive force. There is hard evidence to review, thanks to a passing motorist who recorded the incident. But raw footage does not render the sorts of judgment calls that Americans must increasingly make as ever more policing is documented on camera.

This latest incident began when Jose Velasco suffered a schizophrenic episode while with his mother, Rita Acosta. She called 911 as he ran into traffic. Police say that other motorists also called to report a man beating up a woman on the side of the road or that they had witnessed an altercation.

The footage on YouTube begins after police arrive and deploy force. Here is what many residents of Salinas saw without context, prompting some to express upset and anger:

Police Chief Kelly McMillin told a local TV station that "the video alone is horrific and inflammatory," granting that "anybody who looks at that video without context would have concerns, because it looks terrible." But he says there’s more to the story. “If people watch this video and get upset because they believe that the police were beating up a homeless guy, I would argue that they are misinformed," he said. "This was a very violent man beating a woman in a public street, tearing weapons from police officers' belts, trying to bite them, trying to headbutt them."

I’d especially encourage anyone inclined to regard the incident as excessive force to watch video of Chief McMillin thoughtfully expressing his perspective at length:

I find his perspective compelling.

And according to a police statement, “Two officers responded and saw Jose Velasco slamming the female's body into the pavement of the northbound lane of North Main Street while heavy traffic was passing by. As the officers tried to get Velasco off of his mother by pulling him away, Velasco began to violently resist and attacked the officers."

For now, let’s assume that account is correct. Does it justify what happened next?At the beginning of the clip, the suspect appears to be resisting arrest and lunging at the cops. If so, body blows with a baton are perfectly defensible. But focus on the police officer who runs into the frame at the 29 second mark. At that point the unarmed suspect is laying on the ground surrounded by four policemen. It’s hard to definitively say if he’s still resisting or just writhing around under body blows, but he doesn’t appear to represent a threat to the public or the police, and it’s hard to imagine that the four of them couldn’t get him into custody without more baton blows.

In fairness, the video is partially obscured as he gets more baton blows until the 42 second mark. At that point, he is visibly pinned down and restrained. Yet the tall, white police officer on the far right commences still more baton strikes at the 45 second mark. If nothing else, those last four or five blows strike me as obviously excessive.

Jeff Mitchell, a columnist at The Salinas Californian, sees things differently. While he criticizes the conduct of various police officers who’ve found themselves in national headlines, as well as two Salinas cops involved in relatively recent shootings, he came away from the video more sympathetic to the police.

“People see this video and assume that jack-booted thugs with badges and guns are back at work out there,” he writes, but “the officers, after having their verbal commands and two Taser strikes ignored, began beating the man with their batons... And even then all the strikes were focused on Velasco's legs and arms — save one that inadvertently hit his head when he moved at the last moment, according to police.”

He continues:

Finally, when enough officers arrived, they were able to put the man under control. And I say “control” lightly, because he continued to fight even while physically secured on the gurney. In fact, he was so out of control that doctors at Natividad Medical Center had to “chemically restrain” him when he arrived at the emergency room, police said. So yes, the video going around is ugly. The “optics” in things like these are never good.

You have to ask yourself though, what would have happened if the police ignored the call and let Velasco—who later told officers he had been smoking methamphetamine and drinking alcohol right before the incident—kill his mother or cause other harm to motorists and pedestrians—or himself, for that matter? How would we all be reacting to that today?

To me, that is a false choice. The public should not have to choose between police officers who keep beating criminals past what is necessary to subdue them and cops who don’t show up at all. Nor should the Salinas community “give our cops the benefit of the doubt” (as Mitchell urged near the end of his column).

The police account of what preceded this incident may well be correct. The same goes for their description of the beating. But to give the official police version of events the benefit of the doubt is to ignore that many police reports are fudged and some are fabricated. In this case, the mother of the man who was beaten told a local news station, "My son didn't do what they are saying he did. That's not what happened."

"I thought that I was doing right for my son by calling for help, calling 911," she said. Perhaps she is protecting her son or in denial about what happened, but I see no reason to assume that, as we would have to if we gave the cops the benefit of the doubt. No one should get the benefit of the doubt. Evenhanded analysis of evidence should rule.

One final note.

As the protest chants in the video above make clear, some in Salinas who see this as an example of excessive force also charge that it was racist. There are racial elements to many cases of police misconduct that have made national headlines and the U.S. criminal-justice system is racist in many ways.

But this case doesn’t strike me as a good example, at least given what is known so far. The incident didn’t begin with a young black or brown man minding his own business and getting profiled, as happened to Freddie Gray. Police had an obligation to intervene against a man they reasonably believed to be engaged in a violent assault. There is also evidence to suggest that their initial use of force was justified. But once a group of police officers start beating on a suspect who is resisting arrest, my experience is that more force than necessary is likely to be used regardless of the suspect’s race. There is no certainty in these matters, of course, but this particular incident appears to fit within a broader pattern of police responding to mental illness with excessive force.

In any case, even after taking what Chief McMillin said into consideration, my judgment, after repeatedly watching the video, is that police officers who were initially justified in using force continued to use baton strikes after their suspect posed little threat (even as elsewhere in Salinas some other police acted heroically).Your take on the videotaped incident may vary. What do you think?