Op-Ed: Why No Charges in Police-Involved Beating in SF?

By Jeff Adachi

Special to the Chronicle

Nearly 25 years after the Rodney King beating shocked the world, Stanislav Petrov lay writhing in a San Francisco alley, desperately trying to protect his head from more than 30 nightstick blows.

We’d like to believe we’ve come a long way since 1991. We hope our cell phones and security cameras hold officers accountable. We listen eagerly as law enforcement leaders pledge transparency. The reality is difficult to face: Eleven days after King’s beating, the Los Angeles district attorney filed charges against the officers following a grand jury inquiry, but nearly three weeks after Petrov’s beating, officials are still refusing to reveal the names of the deputies involved.

The incident report remains a secret. Authorities will not reveal whether the incident was captured on deputies’ body cameras. Officers reportedly prohibited Petrov’s mother from photographing her son’s injuries in the hospital.

On Nov. 12, Petrov was allegedly driving a stolen car when he refused to pull over for Alameda County sheriff’s deputies, leading them on a chase across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco’s Mission District, hitting their cruisers in the process. He got out and ran for a short distance before being tackled by a deputy in the alley.

It was then that two deputies took more than 30 swings with their batons at Petrov’s head. He never fought back. A motion-triggered security camera caught footage of the beating, which ended when backup officers arrived. It recorded the cracks of the blows to Petrov’s skull, the sound of him screaming. In the 15 minutes before medics arrived, Petrov repeatedly begged for help.

The camera, the ultimate objective witness, shows clear misconduct. As Petrov’s blood dried in the street, neighbors who spied the brutality from their windows came forward.

Yet despite both eyewitness accounts and photographic evidence, no criminal charges have been filed against the deputies. We still don’t know their identities. The Alameda County Sheriff Office’s officials will not comment on the existence of body-cam footage. Deputies wear body cameras but are allowed to turn them off at their discretion.

First, it is vital that the deputies’ names are released so we may review other criminal cases involving their use of force and credibility. Releasing body-camera footage, as well as the incident report, is critical to maintaining transparency and accountability. Did the backup officers note the brutality illuminated in their approaching headlights or capture it with their dash cam? Did the Alameda County deputies give an account to responding San Francisco police officers? Answering these questions is central to maintaining the trust of the community, whose concerns are routinely met with a blue wall of silence.

We must be held to a higher standard. Police do not get to decide what a citizen “deserves” and mete out violent retribution in darkened alleys. If law enforcement leaders respect those they are sworn to protect, then they will conduct their investigation into Petrov’s beating with transparency. And if prosecutors are committed to rooting out rogue officers, they will file criminal charges against the deputies.

Jeff Adachi is the San Francisco public defender.