Sept. 24 2014 12:38 PM

With few specifics on who they were looking for, officers held the wrong man at gunpoint

Demetrice Sightler
Demetrice Sightler stands on his balcony where, on Sept. 9, several police officers held him at gunpoint.
Photo by Kelly Davis

From the balcony of his City Heights apartment, his view obstructed by two large trees, 33-year-old Demetrice Sightler counted at least four police officers with guns pointed at him. The red dots on his chest, from riflescopes, told him there were more officers out there that he couldn't see.

"That's when it's starting to sink in," he says. "These cops have guns on me, there are these dots on me, they're not listening to me."

Late afternoon on Sept. 9, a case of mistaken identity resulted in Sightler being held at gunpoint by San Diego Police officers for roughly 10 minutes. Lt. Kevin Mayer, a department spokesperson, declined to say how many personnel responded, but a video of the incident shows several police cars either parked or pulling up to the building, officers with semi-automatic weapons, a canine unit and a police helicopter overhead. Mayer says police were responding to a call saying that a man was holding a gun to a woman's head; a call log CityBeat obtained under the California Public Records Act shows officers were directed to Apartment 5 at 3:40 p.m. (CityBeat has opted against including the street address so as not to identify people who may or may not have been involved in alleged domestic violence.)

Sightler, who's African-American and has a beard, lives in Apartment 3 in the front of the building; Apartment 5, whose occupants include an African-American man with a goatee, is at the back of the building. When Sightler poked his head outside to see if his girlfriend needed help with groceries, he was ordered to step onto his balcony—which faces the street and overlooks the apartment's parking lot—and put his hands in the air.

Mayer says officers spotted Sightler "before [they] could identify the exact location of the apartment in question."

A neighbor recorded the incident on video; Sightler added captions and posted it to YouTube where, as of Tuesday afternoon, it had been viewed more than 55,000 times. In the video, Sightler, a self-described nerd who likes to read, play video games and care for his Spanish Timbrado canaries—"feed my birds, mind my business," he says—holds his hands in the air as he tries to explain to officers that they have the wrong man. "My girlfriend called?" he says after an officer tells him that they're responding to a report of domestic violence. "Who's my girlfriend?" he asks. The officer tells him the name.

"You have the wrong house!" Sightler yells. "You're looking for Apartment 5. 
That's the unit in the back."

It's not the first time police had received a call about domestic violence in Apartment 5. Kristina Baca, Sightler's girlfriend, says she called 911 a few months ago after hearing the couple fighting; and the call log, which covers the last 90 days, shows police responded to Apartment 5 on a domestic-violence call in late August.

Sightler and Baca say that a police sergeant later compared the call they received on Sept. 9 to a "game of telephone," where information had been passed along to the point of being vague.

"They got a call from someone who got a call from someone," Sightler says. "I believe that they didn't have the full story to begin with, and they definitely didn't have a full description [of the suspect]."

Sightler says that when he tried to get more information from a captain at the scene, he was instead asked whether he had a criminal history.

"The level of response just seems way out of line," says Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, policy director with the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. In the video, two officers run up the street, brandishing what Dooley- Sammuli says look like M16s, a military rifle. In 2008, the San Diego Police Department acquired 75 M16s from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), according to records recently obtained by the investigative-reporting website MuckRock. San Diego-based then put together a database showing all vehicles and weapons acquired locally under the DOD's Excess Property Program, also known as the 1033 program, which has received scrutiny after reports that vehicles and weapons police used to respond to protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, were purchased through the program.

"On the one hand, you have police coming up on a scene where they think there may be weapons," Dooley-Sammuli says. "On the other hand, they roll up with quite heavy-duty machinery and engage this man on the balcony based on very little information."

Mayer says he can't comment on tactics. 

"I'm sure you can understand the extreme danger the victim was allegedly in, as well as the officers responding," he says.

Sightler and Baca say that the alleged victim and her alleged abuser are still living together in Apartment 5. The man was never arrested and, as far as Sightler knows, never questioned. Sightler doesn't think he was even in the apartment the afternoon of Sept. 9. He knows for sure the girlfriend wasn't, because she drove up shortly after Sightler was allowed to leave his balcony.

Mayer says the police department has forwarded a case involving the suspect to the City Attorney's office, but he couldn't provide any additional information. A spokesperson for the City Attorney's office said the case is under review and declined to say anything beyond that.

Last week, when Sightler tried to photograph the man, the man threatened him. Sightler says he wanted to document that two of them look nothing alike— the man's lanky and has a goatee and short hair, while Sightler's heavyset and has a full beard and a ponytail. Sightler was standing on his balcony with his camera when the man started yelling at him.

"‘I'll take your life' and a lot of profanities," Sightler recalls. "A lot of not very nice things." 

Baca called police. 

"I let them know then that he was threatening me," Sightler says.

The officers told Sightler that they'd talk to the man, but when they returned, they told Sightler, who recorded the conversation, "to avoid him" and that "it's not against the law [for the man] to say whatever he wants."

Shortly after the Sept. 9 incident, Sightler and Baca went to the Mid-City Police Station to file a complaint. They were told that Sightler first needed to speak to a sergeant; that sergeant happened to be one of the responders on Sept. 9. Sightler says he didn't feel comfortable lodging a complaint with the guy he was complaining about. He says the station's captain tried to convince him that he didn't have a valid complaint, either. He left the station and called the department's Internal Affairs Unit. He says they recorded a statement, and he'll meet with a sergeant from that unit this week to provide a second statement.

Standing out on his balcony last Friday evening, Sightler brings up the end of the video when police finally acknowledge he's not the guy they're looking for and Sightler becomes irate, swearing at officers who, he says, still hadn't lowered their weapons.

"I probably shouldn't have said those things," he admits now."I was mad," he says. "I tried to tell them multiple times, ‘You've got the wrong place; you've got the wrong apartment.' I gave them my name so many times."

He says that when he looked down at the officer positioned closest to him, whose rifle's red dot was still on his chest, he saw a smirk.

"It just made me feel like I wasn't a person, like I wasn't a human being, like they don't care about my rights.

"I thought I was going to die," he says. "I thought I was going to get killed on my balcony. They never lowered their guns."

Email or follow her on Twitter at @citybeatkelly.


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