SF police excessive force case that caused fight between DA, chief begins

Within seconds of arriving to a domestic violence call in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, police Officer Terrance Stangel struck Dacari Spiers eight times with a baton -– a beating that left Spiers with a broken wrist and leg.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed on a handful of the facts in the now-infamous use-of-force case, but laid out their conflicting arguments about whether Stangel acted excessively, during opening statements Monday in the case against the officer. 

The trial is the first prosecution against an officer for on-duty use-of-force by District Attorney Chesa Boudin – and possibly the first in city history – and has already exploded into a contentious political conflict between the city’s chief of police and the Boudin’s office.

But as the warring sides and their respective supporters dig in – Judge Teresa Caffese was adamant that things would proceed in court. Recent allegations of misconduct by an investigator in the district attorney’s office, Caffese said, did not affect Stangel’s due process. 

Assistant District Attorney Hans Moore, outlined his case to the jury – directing them to focus on the Stangel’s conduct rather than a barrage of facts outside of the beating. 

"This is a trial about officer Terrance Stangel and his excessive use of force to detain Mr. Decari Spiers," he said. "That’s all this trial is about."

Moore addressed domestic violence accusations the defense would soon bring up, saying Spiers was engaged in a "loving embrace" with his girlfriend when police arrived. Moore said Stangel showed up out of nowhere and began a volley of baton blows before he had time to react.

Spiers’ girlfriend even told officers at the scene that Spiers never touched her, according to body worn camera video played at trial.

But Stangel’s attorney, Nicole Pifari, pushed back on the prosecution’s narrative. She said the officers were responding to multiple 911 calls reporting Spiers was violently choking his girlfriend. 

She said Spiers resisted and even shoved Stangel’s partner before he used his baton.

"Stangel’s use-of-force was calculated, measured, reasonable and lawful," Pifari said.

But even as the trial was underway inside the San Francisco Hall of Justice, a conflict between Chief Bill Scott and Boudin continued to simmer.

Scott last week announced that he was pulling out of an agreement that gave the district attorney’s office authority as the lead investigator in officer use-of-force cases.

The agreement – or memorandum of understanding – was created by the chief and former District Attorney George Gascon following a number of controversial police killings in San Francisco, including the 2015 killing of Mario Woods. 

Scott cited recent testimony from an investigator in the district attorney’s office, who said she was pressured to remove exculpatory evidence from Stangel’s arrest warrant. 

Boudin on Thursday denied any wrongdoing and accused the chief of politicizing the prosecution of Stagel. Boudin is facing a recall in June. The chief has been under increasing pressure from his own rank-and-file, which scheduled a "no confidence" vote that it later canceled after the chief’s announcement. 

"I can assure you that when my office – my team – makes mistakes that we own them," Boudin said. "And I can tell you that we did not make mistakes under my leadership in this case."

On Monday, police spokesman Matt Dorsey said the department had reached out to the state Department of Justice, pledging its commitment to reform and asking the office to take over as lead investigator in police use-of-force cases. 

Dorsey questioned the integrity of the district attorney’s Independent Investigations Bureau following the accusations from investigator Magen Hayashi, which he called "essentially a whistleblower allegation."

"Based on sworn testimony and evidence, however, it is clear to the chief of police — as it should be to any reasonable observer — that the San Francisco District Attorney’s office has breached its agreement and betrayed a public trust both our departments owe to the San Franciscans we serve," Dorsey said.

Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at evan.sernoffsky@foxtv.com and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky.