Perhaps you can't blame Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies Scott C. Harper and Brian Sherred for thinking an unarmed man standing near a Santa Ana sidewalk in broad daylight and minding his own business was cause for a Code 3, guns-drawn, emergency situation.
As transit cops, Harper and Sherred—two hulking officers who could easily play non-talking, lethal-mercenary extras in a Jerry Bruckheimer film—don't exactly work in an environment that says movie material. The most common excitement they enjoy is detecting ticket cheats or catching juveniles who throw rocks at passing trains. Sometimes, work gets so boring for the deputies they discover imaginary crimes. In June 2009, for example, Harper got a hunch that an African-American woman reading a Bible on a train from Riverside to Union Station in Los Angeles didn't have a ticket. She did, but that didn't stop him from handcuffing and removing her, according to court records.
Five months later, Harper and Sherred thought they were on the verge of a major bust near the Santa Ana Metrolink station. In their patrol car, the deputies (who are white) turned a corner and, in their minds, saw convincing proof that a serious crime was under way: A soft-spoken, African-American homeless man, 45-year-old Johnnie Franklin Jones, stood alone, facing a wall close to the sidewalk. He'd turned away from the street to tuck in his shirt.
The deputies swerved their patrol car into the wrong lane and leaped out of the vehicle, their guns drawn. They began issuing commands as they rushed up to a startled Jones, knocked him to the pavement and beat him severely. Jones landed in the emergency room at Western Medical Center with multiple facial-bone fractures and in need of surgeries.
In theory, police officers can't just beat the hell out of a citizen without a good reason. Harper and Sherred produced their justifications in the aftermath, claiming the tall, skinny Jones was a drug user with superhuman strength. They charged Jones—an Orange Coast College student with a clean record and a long history of employment—with five major crimes, including destruction of evidence. They claimed he assaulted them to evade arrest for the cocaine he possessed. Indeed, Harper and Sherred noted they saw Jones holding "rock cocaine" in his hand, and then, as he fought them, taking a momentary timeout to put the drug to his mouth and swallow.
Can't you image this scenario on an episode of Cops: The Super-Dangerous Duties of LA Transit Cops?
The deputies' story seemed plausible, especially because everyone knows cops would never, ever lie. But there was a huge problem: The rock-cocaine tale was fictitious. Toxicology tests done on Jones within minutes of his arrival at the ER proved he had no drugs in his system, not even a faint trace of cocaine.
But Jones—whose face is now slightly deformed as a result of the officers' crushing blows to his head—would remain stuck in a twisted La-La Land. Harper and Sherred continued to push charges. To bolster their stance, they wrote supplemental reports that added a new element to justify them drawing their weapons immediately upon arrival. They speculated that Jones had been urinating on the wall or preparing to perform an act of indecent exposure instead of using rock cocaine.
Those scenarios had no evidence either; officers scoured the area of the incident in hopes of finding discarded drugs or proof of urine but found nothing. The flasher scenario also went nowhere because no witnesses saw anything lewd.
It didn't help that Harper couldn't get his story straight. He initially reported that Jones' hands had been in his pockets when they arrived. Later, perhaps to match up with the urination or flasher scenarios, Harper changed his mind and said Jones' hands had been shoved inside his pants' waistband. During a deposition, Harper took a third stance by asserting that "pants pocket" and "waistband" are interchangeable terms.
There were also issues surrounding the use of force that fractured Jones' jaw and eye bone, leaving him with double vision in certain conditions. The deputies claimed they had to assault the suspect because he was attacking them "with great strength" and they, the trained officers holding guns in their hands, "feared" for their lives. Tellingly, the deputies emerged from the incident boo-boo-free.
After reviewing the deputies' questionable reports, Orange County Deputy District Attorney Laurie Hungerford refused to prosecute Jones even on the misdemeanor resisting-arrest charge. Hungerford determined that the deputies had overreacted at the scene, concluding there was "no probable cause to detain" Jones.
In 2010, Jones sued in federal court. The LA sheriff's department backed the deputies, claiming Jones had given officers the right to attack him when he allegedly didn't raise his hands fast enough. The agency's view was that Jones must have been guilty of something.
During the pretrial period, deputy Los Angeles County Counsel Joseph Langston took the position that a federal judge's order that Jones was to receive all discovery records on the officers meant he only had to share information favorable to the cops' side. Working in conjunction with the sheriff's department, Langston, who is the spitting image of a young Rob Lowe, stonewalled Jones' legal team of Jerry L. Steering and Alexander J. Perez. The department even ignored the orders of U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter. The battle over the records went on for days at the outset of the trial. Finally, Carter told Langston that he was on the verge of sending a team of U.S. Marshals to arrest Sheriff Lee Baca and transport him to his courtroom.
The department still refused to produce recordings of internal-affairs interviews with Harper and Sherred; in fact, as of this moment, they remain officially "lost." That claim is "very troubling" to Carter. In open court but outside the presence of the jury, he opined, "This certainly reflects on the agency."
Sheriff's officials finally released a video of Harper participating in an incident in which a herd of transit deputies brutalized a different African-American suspect, pulverizing his face with a barrage of punches and forcefully slamming him—throat-first—into the door jam of a patrol car.
During Jones' trial, Harper testified he was without remorse about his use of force. He'd done the man a favor, he explained, by not inflicting more damage. Without a hint of a smile, he asserted that, as a cop, he believed he had "the right to execute" Jones at the scene.
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On May 14, we learned a result that should worry members of the community hoping for justice in the case of the Fullerton cops charged with the 2011 savage killing of Kelly Thomas, another unarmed, homeless man. A jury dominated by folks you'd easily find at a Newport Beach country club discussing the latest BMW accouterments couldn't reach a unanimous verdict. In its final vote, the jury voted 7 to 1 to sanction the conduct of the deputies, resulting in a hung jury.
"We had no video like the Thomas case," explained Steering. "But we're going to re-try this case. The deputies beat an innocent man."
This article appeared in print as "Beating Mr. Jones: It isn't just the Kelly Thomas killing in which cops believe they have the right to execute a citizen during a scuffle."