Last Updated on April 18, 2015 by Paulette Brown-Hinds

‘Disturbing’ footage showing use-of-force by deputies also spurs ACLU request for more oversight of San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department

By Corey Arvin
Staff Writer

From a deserted field in rural Apple Valley to television and computer screens across the country, a video depicting several San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputies apparently beating a man after he surrendered has fueled more discussion in the growing national debate about officer-worn cameras. The incident, which took place April 9, is now followed by mounting concerns by the Southern California American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) about practices by the sheriff’s department.

Adriana Wong, an attorney and spokeswoman for ACLU’s Inland Empire chapter, said the incident involving San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputies caught the attention of the ACLU after it was released by media outlets. Wong said the footage of the deputies hitting the handcuffed man, Francis Pusok, 30, was “disturbing.” The ACLU subsequently issued a statement calling for a thorough investigation into the incident. The ACLU has historically pursued cases involving excessive use of force by law enforcement officers, she added.

Wong estimates she has watched the video involving San Bernardino deputies arresting Pusok five to ten times since its release.

“What stood out to me is that from the video, it appears the man had surrendered or was being compliant at the time the force started. That’s troubling. The sheer number of officers involved is troubling. It’s hard to say there are just a few bad apples when you have 10 officers engaging in this sort of force,” said Wong.

Ten deputies were placed on leave, although nine were seen in the apparent beating. On Friday, the FBI said it would launch a civil rights investigation into the incident.

San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department did not return a call seeking comment by press time. But during a press conference held after the televised use of force incident, Sheriff John McMahon stated, “…it was disturbing…I assure you that we will conduct a fair and thorough investigation into the incidents that occurred.” He mentioned that it appeared to be excessive to him.

The video has prompted officials such as James Ramos, chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and representative of the third district to advocate for body worn cameras on local law enforcement. A large portion of Apple Valley, where the suspect was apprehended by deputies, is part of Ramos’ district.

Ramos released a statement Tuesday that in part said, “The incident in our High Desert last week has provoked concern among members of the Board of Supervisors. However, we cannot interfere in the ongoing investigations by inserting ourselves in what is a law enforcement and legal matter.”

“The Board of Supervisors is aware the Sheriff is exploring a pilot program to use body cameras in the department. The board encourages the Sheriff to implement the pilot as soon as possible and bring a recommendation to the Board for consideration on a larger-scale program,” the statement read.

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors’ call for implementation of a body camera program echoes a growing national trend of officials advocating for the deployment of the technology in light of high-profile cases that involved citizens who died during altercations with officers.

The concept got a large push last December when President Obama requested Congress approve $263 million for officer-worn cameras and training.

Body cameras have been slowly adopted by law enforcement agencies in the Inland Empire. The cameras are currently in use by the Rialto Police Department, one of the earliest police departments in the U.S. to deploy the technology department wide in 2012 as part of a randomized control trial experiment before official deployment in 2013. The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department has also used body cameras on deputies. There, the department began voluntarily testing the use of body worn cameras at its Jurupa Valley Station. In early November 2014, the Board of Supervisors authorized $384,000 to purchase BWCs in addition to the necessary data storage/ retrieval equipment at its Jurupa Valley Station. In early November 2014, the Board of Supervisors authorized $384,000 to purchase BWCs in addition to the necessary data storage/ retrieval equipment at Jurupa Valley Station to further expand the voluntary testing efforts of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.

Rialto Police Department deployed the cameras on police officer, rotating them on select shifts and compiling data every week. After the trial experiment concluded in February of last year, data that was collected indicated significant drops in police incidents and complaints. Rialto Police Department reported an 88 percent drop in complaints filed against its officers and a 60 percent drop in use-of-force incidents.

San Bernardino County Sheriff’s department’s recent controversy is one of a list of concerns that ACLU has tried to address with the department, said Wong. The ACLU has a pending case against the sheriff’s department regarding some of the department’s records. The organization filed a lawsuit over information it sought to obtain regarding its Taser from the department through the California Public Records Act.

Wong said the ACLU has reached out to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department to obtain various information on several occasions. According to Wong, most of the information the department has submitted to the ACLU are “standard policies and training documents” but not information that would indicate its actual use of force.

“We have no interest in maintaining a lawsuit if it’s unnecessary if the Sheriff’s department changed its position in respect to use-of-force data and would voluntarily disclose that like so many other law enforcement agencies do. There’s no reason why we would try and push for judicial intervention so certainly we would be happy if we could resolve this out of court and engage with the sheriff’s department in a more meaningful way about how to engage the community and how to have some more accountability in respect to use of force,” said Wong.