By Joel Rubin
From The Chicago Tribune
A Los Angeles police officer shocked a handcuffed woman with a Taser stun gun while joking with other officers at the scene, according to interviews and law enforcement records, adding to a series of controversial use-of-force incidents at the LAPD.
Officer Jorge Santander then appeared to lie about the December 2010 incident repeatedly in written reports. The three other LAPD officers who witnessed Santander stun the woman all corroborated his version of events when first questioned and failed to tell supervisors that one officer had recorded a video of the encounter, the records show.
The video shows Santander firing the Taser without warning and later displaying a Superman logo he wore on his chest beneath his uniform, according to the records. Off camera, another officer is heard laughing and singing.
The details of the case were outlined in a memo written by a prosecutor in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office that was obtained by The Times. Police officials confirmed that Police Chief Charlie Beck is seeking to have Santander and the three others fired. All four have been suspended since shortly after the incident.
The D.A.'s office concluded last year that the video and other evidence were not conclusive enough to prove that Santander had committed any crimes, according to the prosecutor's memo. Prosecutors also declined to charge the woman.
This marks the fourth time in the last few months that cases have come to light in which LAPD officers are accused of using force on suspects who had been restrained.
In August, a security surveillance camera captured an officer violently throwing a handcuffed woman to the ground with any apparent provocation. Days later, the Times reported on a July incident in which a video camera in a patrol car recorded a female officer stomping her heel onto the genitals of a woman who was being restrained by other officers. That woman died after being forced into the back of a patrol car, although there is no evidence that her death was caused by the officer's kick. And this month The Times learned about a botched arrest in July, in which a handcuffed man was mistakenly shot by officers after he escaped custody.
The civilian Police Commission, which oversees the LAPD, has launched an independent inquiry into cases of Taser use and other types of non-lethal force by officers.
The roughly 1,700 such cases that occur each year are investigated less rigorously than those involving lethal force, and the study will examine, among other things, whether changes to training and oversight need to be made, said commission President Andrea Ordin. She added that the report, which she said is expected to be completed in the coming months, will shed light on whether the recent string of controversial cases are unrelated or rooted in some common problem.
"They certainly raise some red flags," said Geoffrey Alpert, a leading expert on police violence and training, of the recent cases. "These types of things do happen, but when they do you have to look for the patterns that link them, if there are any. Were these officers trained by the same people or in the same way? Do they share a common psychological profile that can be identified? Someone needs to start peeling back this onion to search for what's going on."
Department officials rejected the idea that the cases add up to a larger behavioral pattern. Cmdr. Andrew Smith called them "isolated, unrelated cases in which officers got out of line." The cases, he emphasized, represent a small fraction of the total number of those involving force and added that in each of the cases in question the department is investigating the officers for misconduct.
The case involving the woman shocked by officers dates back nearly two years. Two officers, Steven Bauman and Jose Lepe, were dispatched to a parking lot behind a Hollywood nightclub around 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 4, 2010. A couple had returned to their car to find a drunk woman inside, who refused to get out. The officers ordered the woman out of the car and repeatedly gave her the opportunity to leave voluntarily, records show. When she refused to go, Bauman and Lepe arrested her on suspicion of public intoxication.
According to records, the officers handcuffed the woman and requested that a female officer be sent to assist them. Santander arrived shortly after with his partner, Georgeta Buruiana. Buruiana searched the woman and then Lepe tried to seat her in the back of his patrol car. The woman resisted and Lepe eventually resorted to pushing her down into the car. For reasons not explained in the D.A. memo, the officers then decided instead that Santander and Buruiana would transport the woman to a nearby station to be booked.
Bauman had turned on a personal video camera and focused it on Santander and Buruiana as they led the woman over to their patrol car. Again, she resisted getting in. As before, they shoved the woman into the seat, but she managed to stand back up. Without warning, Santander placed a Taser against the woman's torso and fired it twice, according to the prosecutor's account of the video. The woman fell face down onto the seat.
Immediately after he delivered the shocks, Santander stated that the woman had kicked him in the stomach. It was not possible to tell from the video if the claim was true, the memo said. The D.A. memo details Santander displaying the Superman logo but does not say exactly when in the chronology it occurred.
As the woman lay in the car kicking and yelling, the video showed the officers discussing how to move her into a seated position. Santander climbed into the front seat and is heard warning the woman that she will be shocked again if she doesn't comply, the prosecutor wrote. The officer then reached back toward the woman with the Taser and, according to the memo, appeared to place it against her arm as the weapon's red activation light illuminated, although it was unclear if he pulled the Taser away before the electrical charge began.
When a sergeant arrived at the scene, Bauman turned off the camera. Santander told the supervisor simply that he had used the Taser on the woman twice because she had kicked him and had tried to kick out the windows of the patrol car. The three other officers corroborated that version of the encounter and none mentioned Bauman's video, the memo said.
Sometime later in the day, Santander wrote an account of firing his Taser for the woman's arrest report. In it he said he had fired the Taser only twice and warned the woman that she would be stunned before firing the Taser the first time. He also alleged that she had kicked him in the chest with such force that she knocked him off balance. Both claims — about the warning and being knocked off balance — were proved false by the video, the prosecutor wrote.
Santander amended the arrest report a few days later, saying that it had been Bauman, instead of himself, who warned the woman about the Taser. That, too, was untrue according to the video, the memo concluded. Santander also added mention of firing the Taser from the front seat, but said he had used it only to scare her with the noise of the electrical charge.
Word of the video reached a supervisor only after Santander asked an officer if he had seen it and that officer reported the conversation to a higher-up.
The woman declined to speak to investigators about the incident on the advice of her attorney. The Times could not reach her for comment.
Smith declined to discuss any of the details of the case, citing state laws that protect officers accused of misconduct. None of the officers responded to requests for comment.
The four officers, Smith said, were suspended with pay until August this year, when the department concluded its internal investigation and Beck ordered each of them to go before discipline panels.
In sending the officers to the so-called Board of Rights hearings, Beck made clear that he wanted them fired. In Los Angeles, the chief can suspend officers and issue other, lighter penalties, while only boards can fire officers. One officer's hearing is underway, and the others are expected in the coming months, Smith said.
The nearly two-year delay in passing judgment on the officers was a result, in part, of the seriousness of the case. Santander's actions were disturbing enough to police investigators that they postponed the internal inquiry in order to present the case to the district attorney's office for possible criminal charges.