The night they
pulled me over
April 10, 2003
By Stephen James
Torres, 25, left the shop, stopped at a nearby Taco Bell and headed home. “All I wanted to do was digest the Nacho Bell Grande and go home and hit the bed,” she recalled. But less than two hours later, she was being booked into the county jail. Her face and eyes burned intensely--the aftereffects of an application of pepper spray--and two female jail deputies had used a jewelry wire cutter to remove a piece of genital jewelry she’d worn since she was younger. She felt traumatized by the experience of having been jerked by the hair, pepper-sprayed and wrestled into handcuffs in a parking lot after a routine traffic stop. And instead of breakfast at Marie Callender’s the following morning, Torres would refuse to eat a tray of food that was served on the urine-soaked floor of a jail holding tank.
According to police reports, witness interviews, court documents and other records obtained by SN&R, the routine traffic stop of 5-foot-6-inch Torres somehow escalated into a physical brawl involving three women and multiple officers from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. And just after midnight on May 11, Torres was booked into the Sacramento County main jail on charges of battery on a peace officer and resisting or interfering with a peace officer in the discharge of duties. Torres’ cousin Precious Williams and aunt Diane Campbell--who arrived on the scene after being called from a cell phone by Torres--were arrested for the same offenses. The women allege they were choked, punched, thrown around by the hair or otherwise assaulted, without provocation, by Sgt. Greg Johnson, 42, and two deputies. According to an eyewitness’ statement and crime-scene photographs, Williams had her head slammed into her car with such force that it created a dent in the trunk lid of her new Daewoo sedan. But the deputies claim the women were responsible for escalating events that night. The account of what occurred and the justification, or lack thereof, for the physical force the deputies used both differ dramatically depending on who is relating the story.
Then last month, a funny thing happened on the way to the courthouse. For the previous 10 months, the Sacramento County district attorney’s office meticulously prepared for the criminal trial of the women. Crime reports and 911-call and police-radio transcripts were compiled and reviewed. Investigators were dispatched to gather evidence and interview the deputies and the witnesses. Crime-scene photographs were cataloged and scrutinized. But suddenly, on a Tuesday morning last month, Deputy District Attorney Amy Haydt appeared at a court hearing and abruptly dismissed the case, citing a lack of evidence. Though allegations of excessive force are not uncommon, this case is different because the charges against the women were dropped after the district attorney’s investigation. In addition, the sheriff’s Internal Affairs Unit found no evidence that supports the women’s allegations.
This week, the attorney for the women, Stewart Katz, will file a federal civil-rights lawsuit alleging that the women were subjected to the use of excessive force, false arrest and malicious prosecution, all in violation of their constitutional rights. According to a pre-lawsuit claim filed with Sacramento County, the women also contend that “the use of force and false arrest was done because [the women are] African-American.” According to a declaration from court records, the suit will allege that the deputies assaulted the women and then arrested them on sham charges in order to insulate themselves from the possibility of a civil lawsuit, criminal charges and departmental discipline. In addition, Katz will charge that witnesses who called the sheriff’s department the night of the incident to report that the deputies were assaulting three women were essentially ignored, or worse. One eyewitness who called the department during the incident to report the misconduct was told to call Johnson, the sergeant who allegedly initiated and applied the bulk of the abuse, according to a tape recording of the call. Referring the call to Johnson was contrary to the Internal Affairs Unit’s written policy, which requires that all complaints against department employees “received after normal business hours will be reviewed by the watch commander, who will determine whether to immediately begin an investigation,” said Katz, citing a sheriff’s department policy manual. As a result, at least one sheriff’s department dispatcher and Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas also will be named as defendants in the suit, according to Katz.
Blanas declined to comment on any aspect of the incident personally, but sheriff’s spokesman Lou Fatur issued a one-page written response, which he specified would be the extent of the department’s reply. Fatur called the incident “very unfortunate” and the result of persons “without lawful purpose” inserting themselves into a routine traffic stop. “It is our position that the officers were in accordance with and followed department policies and the law. ... We strongly disagree with the district attorney’s decision not to file charges.” Fatur called the allegation that a false report was filed “absurd and quite frankly slanderous” and pointed out that the Internal Affairs Unit of the department had investigated the case and “determined all allegations to be unfounded.” Reached by phone, Internal Affairs Commander Trang To declined to comment on the internal investigation or clarify why an independent eyewitness to the incident said he was never contacted by that division.
Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully declined to discuss the case or address whether the evidence warrants criminal charges against the deputies. Scully did issue a letter through office spokeswoman Lana Wyant confirming that the office has not “opened an investigation of the deputies” and implying that the sheriff’s department would be responsible for investigating its own officers. Contacted at her residence, Haydt declined to comment on the case she worked for more than 10 months. Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Al Locher refused two freedom-of-information requests to provide information about the number of cases his office had filed under the Penal Code sections associated with police misconduct and excessive-force crimes.
The convoluted chain of events in the case began that Friday night when Torres left the Taco Bell. As she headed for her home on Howe Avenue, she was talking with a friend on a hands-free cellular phone. As she approached North Highlands, via Roseville Road, she noticed a county sheriff’s patrol car following her. Several miles later, as she neared home and turned onto Watt Avenue, the red light on the top of the patrol car flashed on. Torres pulled over in the street and, because her driver’s side window doesn’t roll down, got out of the car as Sacramento County Sheriff’s Deputy Heather Ann Sullivan, 26, approached. Sullivan asked Torres to pull her car out of the street and into the parking lot of the nearby Underground records store. The record shop was closed, but a small, adjoining neighborhood pub was open, and several employees of a Wienerschnitzel on the other side of the parking lot were completing kitchen-cleanup work. After Torres re-parked, she got out of her car again, and the deputy asked for her license, registration and proof of insurance, which she produced. She assumed she had been pulled over because her Chevrolet Lumina didn’t have license plates, so she also provided Sullivan with a copy of the police report she had filed when she reported the plates as stolen. The deputy went back to the patrol car, and Torres sat down in her car and continued her cell-phone conversation.
It seemed to Torres that it was taking a long time to either issue the traffic citation or verify that the missing license plates had been stolen. Sullivan’s written report confirmed that Torres initially was detained for more than 20 minutes. “I know it doesn’t take this long to write a ticket,” Torres recalled thinking. A second patrol car pulled into the parking lot, and Torres noticed that a group of gawkers had wandered out of a bar adjacent to the record store to see what was going on. “It was like, 'What did this woman do?’” she said. Meanwhile, the second deputy had left, and a third patrol car pulled in. Becoming concerned about the long wait, the parade of patrol cars, the gathering crowd and the hour of the night, she decided to call home, which was about a two-minute drive away. “[I thought], 'Let me call my family,’ just so they could come out here just to watch, just to be safe,” Torres said.
When they arrived, Williams said, they parked several car widths away from the Chevrolet and noticed that a female deputy was talking to Torres as she sat in her car. “And there was a big guy--now we know his name is Sergeant Johnson,” who was standing at his own patrol car and talking on the car’s radio, Williams said. She said she and her mother, Campbell, got out of the car first. Johnson walked over to the Daewoo. “At first, it seemed like he was gonna talk to us,” said Williams. “He didn’t seem threatening at all.” Her mom started to explain that they had come because Campbell was essentially a guardian of Torres, but Johnson cut her off and demanded that the women get back in their car. Williams spoke up, saying she just wanted to know what was happening with her cousin. “But he didn’t want to hear that. He started talking over us,” Williams said. The sergeant again ordered the women back into their car, and when Williams asked her questions again, “that’s when he grabbed my throat,” she said. Williams recalls that as Johnson began choking her, her mom began to scream. Johnson did not return phone calls asking for a response to this charge. However, other witnesses report that Williams was choked.
Campbell, a 50-year-old, 5-foot-6-inch woman, remembers screaming when she saw what was happening to her daughter. She made allegations of being hit by Johnson. Then she, too, was being choked, she said. “I was gasping for breath, and I couldn’t breathe,” she said. As she was being choked with one hand, she watched as Johnson held her daughter by the hair with his other hand and slammed her head into the back of the car. Williams, who has long, braided hair, said Johnson wrapped her braids around his fist, “and at one time, he took my head and was bashing it into the back of the trunk of my car.” But Williams was more concerned for her mother, who Williams said is in frail health, having suffered two strokes and ongoing thyroid problems.
Meanwhile, Penn, Williams’ 47-year-old, 5-foot-2-inch aunt, had gotten out of the back seat of the car and was watching in shock as Johnson assaulted her sister and niece. “As I came around the back side of the car, he was getting ready to turn toward me, and I said, 'Sir, don’t hit me. I got a bad heart.’” The sergeant apparently heeded the plea, and the woman remained unscathed for the duration of the melee. Originally from Arkansas, Penn has a bachelor’s degree in administration from Arkansas State, achieved the rank of staff sergeant during a stint in the Air Force and worked at Hampton University in Virginia after getting out of the service. She moved west to California several years ago to take care of a sick sister, who passed away in December 2001. Penn said she was particularly surprised by the conduct of the sheriff’s sergeant. “I think the officer, the one that did most of the hitting and all, that something must have been wrong with him that night because he just flew off the handle. He should have had more control. It was very wrong,” she said.
As Penn looked on, Torres was standing at her car while Johnson attacked her aunt and cousin. Torres remembers thinking, “I can’t believe I’m watching this.” Torres said she started screaming for someone to call the police. “Next thing I know, [Sullivan] comes over to me, starts pulling my hair and tells me to shut up,” she said. Sullivan was pulling her hair in an attempt to take her to the ground. Torres said she continued to cry. She realized Sullivan was spraying her with pepper spray, so Torres tried to keep her face and eyes away from the spray.
As he wrestled with Williams and Campbell, the sergeant radioed for backup support, and a third deputy, D. Leon, arrived on the scene. When Leon arrived, Williams said, she had been released by Johnson, had her hands up and asked if she could explain what had happened to the newly arrived deputy. But Leon put her on the ground, put his knee in her back and handcuffed her. Campbell, Williams and Torres all were handcuffed and led to the back seat of patrol cars. The women were booked into the county jail and then were released the next afternoon.
Two Caucasian employees at the adjacent Wienerschnitzel called the 911 and non-emergency lines of the sheriff’s department to report the deputies for using excessive force, and those calls confirm the women’s claims of choking, for example. A third employee also witnessed part of the encounter. But the accounts given by the officers are substantially different. Indeed, the one-page response given by Fatur, the sheriff’s spokesman, stated that the officers were “challenged by the complainants,” who “refused to obey lawful orders,” which resulted in their arrests. The officers’ written reports are a matter of record. In accordance with standard police procedure, Sullivan and Johnson attest to the accuracy of these reports and declare under penalty of perjury that the facts justifying the arrests of Torres, Campbell and Williams are “true and correct.”
According to the report of Sullivan, the altercation began after she finished writing a traffic citation for Torres, as Torres sat in her Chevrolet and as the Daewoo (which the deputies incorrectly identified as a Hyundai in their reports) was pulling into the parking lot. Sullivan claims that when the Daewoo pulled in, Torres got out of her car, began walking toward the deputy and ignored her command to get back in the vehicle. Sullivan alleges that Torres attempted to push her, so she grabbed Torres’ right arm and attempted to place her in a rear wristlock control hold. “Torres pulled away from me and attempted to get back in her vehicle. I still had ahold of her right hand, so I pulled Torres back out of the vehicle and again attempted to put her in a control hold,” wrote Sullivan. The deputy claims Torres “continued to struggle” and ignored her order to place her hand behind her back, forcing her to spray the woman’s face with pepper spray and attempt to “take her to the ground using a hair-pull take-down.” The hair-pull take-down technique didn’t work, and Sullivan again applied pepper spray to Torres’ face. With the help of the third deputy, Leon, Sullivan was able to handcuff Torres and advise her that she was under arrest for battery on a peace officer and for resisting a peace officer.
Johnson said he directed Leon to take Williams into custody. In his report, Leon wrote that Williams batted his arms away when he attempted to apply a rear wristlock control hold, forcing him to resort to what apparently was the deputies’ preferred apprehension technique that night. “I had no choice but to take her down to the ground by pulling her by the hair,” he wrote. Leon successfully handcuffed Williams while she was pinned to the pavement, and Campbell complied with the sergeant’s command to put her hands behind her back. She was cuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car.
Shortly after all the women were brought under submission, Johnson received a voice-mail message from the sheriff’s department communications center dispatcher informing him that “a male witnessed the incident from the Wienerschnitzel and wanted to give a statement.” Johnson claims he dispatched a deputy to the fast-food restaurant to take a statement but that the deputy returned and reported that the business was closed and that he was unable to locate the witness.
It took an investigation firm retained by attorney Katz, the women’s attorney, several weeks to identify and locate the witness. And when 19-year-old Wienerschnitzel employee Bryan Young was found, a dramatically different description of the incident emerged than that put forth by the officers. Young gave a recorded statement describing what he had seen, and a typed summary of the statement was prepared by Capital City Investigations. When contacted by SN&R, Young confirmed the statement he gave to the investigator. Last month, Haydt, the deputy district attorney, dispatched an investigator from her office to interview Young to verify his account. According to a letter from Haydt to Katz, the witness confirmed his original statement.
According to it, on the night of the incident, Young was finishing some kitchen-cleanup work at the fast-food restaurant, when he stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. The Chevrolet driven by Torres already had been pulled over, and Young watched as the Daewoo pulled into the parking lot. Young said he was 20 to 30 yards from where the incident occurred and had a clear view of the area. Young related that Torres was sitting in her vehicle when her family arrived in the Daewoo. He said two females got out of the car and stood at a distance observing the activity. A short time later, Young said, Torres attempted to get out of the Chevrolet “when she was suddenly shoved back inside as a female deputy 'plowed’ into her,” according to the statement. When that happened, he said, the two females that had been watching started walking toward the Chevrolet, and a large male deputy grabbed the two females by the throat.
Young admitted he could not hear everything that was being said, but he said he didn’t hear any of the deputies make any verbal commands toward the women, although he did hear loud screams by the women as the pepper spray was being applied or as they were being thrown around. Young also reported that the deputies did not use hand gestures to signal the women to stop or to get back into their vehicle and that the females did not behave in a threatening manner. He said the deputies’ actions were unprovoked, and he was upset at having witnessed such a display of excessive behavior. Young said that one of the women eluded the grip of the deputy, while the deputy “slammed” the back of the other woman’s head down on the trunk of the Daewoo. The woman who had her head slammed rolled off the trunk and onto the ground. At that time, a third deputy arrived, and Young said he watched as this officer subdued her by force before handcuffing her. Young also watched as one of the women on the ground attempted to get up on her knees and was sprayed in the face with pepper spray by one of the deputies. Young told the investigator that the woman screamed in pain and fell back to the ground.
Young also said that during the incident, he called the non-emergency line for the sheriff’s department to inform them that excessive force was being used by the deputies and that they should send additional deputies to get the situation under control. A sergeant at dispatch informed Young that Johnson was on the scene and that Young should call the sergeant at his personal phone number. After the incident, Young said, he attempted to call Johnson on several occasions but did not receive a return call.
Later on the night of the incident, a sheriff’s department car-to-car text message indicated that word was out in the department that a citizen had reported observing deputies use excessive force on the women. A deputy identified as “Paul” sent a text message to Johnson: “HEY SARGE U THERE? YES//HEY THIS IS PAUL,,,,U GET SOME GUY WANTIN TO BE ALL HIGH AND MITY FRM DER WEINERSHCNIZEL WANTIN TO COMPLAIN HOW THAT PERSON WAS TREATED? HAHAHAHA FGURES, I THINK HE JUST WANTED TO ACT ALL BIG. HAHAHAHA YEAH AND SHE THOT SHE CUD FITE U???? EVEN THO I COULD TAKE U I DONT THINK SHE CUD HAVE.”
The sheriff’s department employees that welcomed them at the jail weren’t any more congenial, according to the women. Having experienced a night in the Sacramento County main jail, the women now express a newfound compassion for anyone subjected to confinement at the facility. Torres was shocked when a uniformed deputy used a pair of jewelry wire cutters to remove the ring from her genitalia. “I felt [that] was really unsanitary. You’re not a nurse. You’re not a doctor, and there was no cover over [the wire cutters],” she said. Jail staff then subjected her to an additional indignity. “During that time, I was on my monthly. They removed my tampon first, and then they cut out my ring,” she explained. “The part that really got me about that is that afterwards, they wouldn’t even give me a pad or a tampon. I sat in jail bleeding on myself for 14 hours.” When she finally got the attention of a male deputy to remedy the problem, a female deputy overheard her request and berated her for asking male staff for help.
The women also describe other anxieties that grew out of their experiences that long night. Torres suffered the humiliation of having someone from her church drive by the front of the jail as she was being released the next day. “They thought I was on drugs--that’s how bad I looked,” she said. And until the case was dismissed, the women worried about being tried on the charges, going to jail and living with a criminal record.
The women were frustrated further when they were informed that a sheriff’s department internal-affairs investigation determined that no misconduct had occurred. “Evidence which supports or corroborates these allegations is non-existent. Therefore, the disposition for these allegations is classified as Unfounded,” wrote Blanas in a March 24 letter to Campbell. In the department’s written response to SN&R, Fatur explained that “regardless of the claims made by persons involved in this incident, none of these issues would be in question had persons without lawful purpose not inserted themselves into a routine law-enforcement-citizen contact.” But experts on police procedure whom SN&R asked to review the police reports and other related documents said that may be an oversimplification.
Penny Harrington, a retired police chief, is a nationally recognized authority on police practices and has worn the hats of detective, lieutenant, captain and chief of police in Portland, Ore. At SN&R’s request, Harrington reviewed the excessive-force allegations. Emphasizing that she has no way of determining who is telling the truth, Harrington said the incident seemed to involve “peace officers that aren’t willing to take the time to try and de-escalate situations and communicate.” Harrington pointed out that the initial traffic stop appeared to be legitimate, but she believes the dramatic escalation of the incident may have been unjustified. “Look at the situation: Here’s a woman stopped for a traffic violation, and the next thing we know is we’ve got three people arrested. How do we get from A to Z on that one?” Harrington said.
She attributes the exaggerated drama to what she described as the “hard-line” approach of Johnson. “The issue I have is with the sergeant. He takes this hard-line approach, and it escalates very rapidly, and that’s what happens when you take a hard-line approach is things escalate; people get more angry.” Harrington said Johnson could have pro-actively defused the situation when Williams, Campbell and Penn arrived in the second car. The former chief related that, in her experience, overly aggressive cops often explain their behavior by claiming they worked in a “much tougher district” or by claiming “I’m a more aggressive officer,” she said. Harrington speculated that this wasn’t the first time Johnson had had problems. Indeed, records from the criminal case against the women show that Johnson did indeed have previous complaints against him for discourteous treatment and use of force. Johnson explained to Haydt, the deputy district attorney, that “neither of those incidents were sustained by the Internal Affairs Bureau,” according to a discovery record from the case.
Today, Torres looks back at the events of that long night and considers how best to move on with her life. She attributes her ability to cope with the ordeal to her strong family and spiritual ties. She hopes to attend a state university and join a sorority; she needs about 20 units to become an accredited teacher. But the experience has left her with a revised perception of law enforcement, which she always respected in the past. “You know those sheriff’s ball [fund-raisers] they call you for every year? Our family donated money to that--and Neighborhood Watch. I can’t remember a year that went by that we didn’t donate.
“After this, it kind of makes you not want to [give] anything.”
||Truth in Justice