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Ask prominent Santa Ana-based attorney Federico Sayre what ties together two recent, notable police-brutality trials he argued, and the former U.S. Marine officer won't hesitate to answer.
"In both cases, the key question was: 'Were the cops telling the truth?'" says Sayre, the onetime head of the local Hispanic Bar Association. "And in both cases, juries concluded the cops weren't being honest. The officers had been willing to lie under oath."
It wasn't long ago that police in Orange County enjoyed reputations for honesty, as virtuous heroes. However, in the past decade, we've seen cops rape women, molest boys, steal cocaine from evidence lockers, perpetrate domestic violence, falsify official reports, assault handcuffed suspects, lie on the witness stand, knowingly arrest innocent people, party with organized-crime figures, accept bribes and destroy evidence. Last month, a jury convicted an LAPD detective of committing a sadistic murder.
With Orange County residents alarmed over the savage killing of Kelly Thomas by Fullerton police last July and awaiting trials of two involved cops, questions about police credibility will remain a hot topic for the foreseeable future. Yet, for most of us, police corruption still isn't tangible. That's not true for Anaheim's Ernest Raymond Rodriguez, one of Sayre's clients.
In May 2009, Rodriguez foolishly lost his temper and broke a Belmont Shore shop window near Legends Sports Bar. Confronted by the bar's bouncers, Rodriguez agreed to stay until cops arrived. Jonathan A. Steinhauser, a culinary host turned Long Beach cop, didn't believe Rodriguez adequately complied with his commands and struck him with a baton. The man put up his arms to protect himself and gained control of the weapon. The cop pulled out his Glock handgun and fired three bullets that incredibly put nine holes in Rodriguez.
"Thankfully, all the shots missed vital organs," Sayre says.
Police can legally use deadly force to defend themselves from real threats. To justify the shooting, Steinhauser claimed Rodriguez approached him while holding the baton as though it were "a baseball bat," a stance the cop saw as a potential fatal threat. (Note regarding the Thomas killing: Steinhauser testified that cops strike a suspect's torso to gain compliance or the head to inflict lethal damage; Fullerton cops targeted Thomas' head.)
"The way [Rodriguez] was holding the baton was up around the shoulder area, high enough that it would have been at my head level," the cop explained to Sayre during a deposition for a civil lawsuit against the city of Long Beach. "[The baton] was moving forward. . . . [I fired] three shots in rapid succession. . . . After the third shot, he fell to the ground and didn't pose a threat to me."
But five eyewitnesses, including ex-U.S. Marine David Irizarry, dispute the cop's tale. According to Irizarry, Rodriguez never moved toward Steinhauser or held the baton in a threatening way. In fact, Irizarry saw the man toss the baton over his shoulder. He testified that Rodriguez then stood still with his arms up and, to show his hands were empty, held his palms open to Steinhauser. Irizarry said that's when the cop began unnecessarily shooting.
"I was looking at Mr. Rodriguez when he tossed the baton behind him, and then I just heard shots," he testified.
Irizarry became Sayre's star witness at the 2011 trial, which ended in Rodriguez's favor. Last month, U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter upheld the verdict. He also ordered Long Beach to pay about $280,000 in damages and legal costs, including Sayre's $700-per-hour fee.
Sayre's other recent victory over police brutality began with a Nov. 5, 2009, LAPD-surveillance operation on a San Pedro residence in a heavily Latino neighborhood. Despite not seeing any drugs, the officers—Alan Coleman and Dana Lovato—weaved together three observations they thought justified a raid: a male stood in the front-yard area; during a 12-minute period, two vehicles drove up, stopped and talked to the man before driving away; and a young man riding a skateboard passed their observation point, politely said, "Hey," and then stopped briefly near the house under surveillance.
"I'd been discovered," Coleman asserted later in a sworn deposition. "This was, from my observation, narco activity."
In reality, the observations alone—a man standing in a front yard, two briefly stopping vehicles and a friendly skateboarder—meant zilch. It wasn't suspicious that Enrique Hernandez stood in front of that residence because he lived there with his parents. In fact, he wasn't alone outside. But the other people weren't drug dealers, either. They included Hernandez's two best, lifelong friends: 19-year-old restaurant banquet server Gustavo Dorado and 18-year-old Damian Ramirez, a trade-school student.
The cops thought they'd entered the neighborhood undetected. They were clueless that Hernandez and his friends saw them hiding. Because they'd been doing nothing illegal, the men were equally clueless they were the ones being watched. "I guess, in a way, we were being nosy to see what happened [to bring the police]," Dorado later recalled. "[We thought] they were looking for somebody."
When officers approached, the young men didn't flee. The cops began questioning and heard someone say, "Do you want me to get down from the tree?"
The question posed by Ramirez, who was sitting on a wooden plank about midway up a nearby 8-foot tree, startled the cops. There was nothing nefarious about the makeshift treehouse. Years earlier, as little boys, the three friends placed the plank between branches and used it as a perch when they played.
According to the police records, the officers managed the "threatening" scene with textbook skill and without the use of any force. After Ramirez left the tree, officers handcuffed and eventually released the three men when searches found no drugs or weapons. But the police version wasn't truthful.
Witnesses saw the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Coleman tackle the 135-pound Ramirez, throw as many as six punches to his body and knee him in his rib cage at least twice, according to court records. The force punctured the teenager's lungs, required two hospitalizations, as well as surgery, and will forever prevent him from swimming or playing sports again.
In the aftermath, Coleman adamantly denied beating Ramirez, but he claimed he had justification to feel threatened. Sayre asked the officer during a deposition to explain. Coleman said Ramirez asserted he had constitutional rights from police abuse when he was placed in handcuffs.
According to a deposition transcript, Sayre asked the cop, "If a citizen says to you, 'I have rights,' you consider that aggressive behavior?"
Here's the answer that demonstrates how warped some Southern California cops have become: "An officer could take that as an aggression," a straight-faced Coleman replied.
Last month, the officer's assertions didn't impress a jury as credible. It sided with Sayre. Police could now pay more than $585,000 for the abuse.
For Ramirez—now a grocery clerk—Coleman's assault altered his life.
"I don't feel safe," he testified. "I don't think I will ever be able to trust the police anymore."
This column appeared in print as "Shoot First, Lie Later: In recent Southern California police-brutality cases, jurors decided the violent cops were also brazen liars."