Sept. 16 2015 12:01 AM

San Diego Sheriff's Department faces allegations of lax deputy oversight

Marcial Torres with his son, Derrick
Photo by Joshua Emerson Smith

After the third electrical shock, Marcial Torres stopped moving. He was lying face down on the ground, and the 28-year-old Latino man would not regain the ability to get up for another three months.

Sheriff's Deputy Dylan Haddad, who'd repeatedly shot Torres with his Taser in a Vista parking lot, paced around Torres, waiting for paramedics to show up and remove the Taser's barbs.

Torres had gone into cardiac arrest.

Transferred to Tri-City Medical Center, he slipped into a vegetative state, contracted sepsis and suffered organ failure.

Beating extremely long odds of survival, Torres eventually regained consciousness to find both his legs amputated below the knees.

As the Sheriff's Department now faces a resulting multimillion-dollar lawsuit that alleges excessive force and a pattern of lax deputy oversight, CityBeat recently confirmed Haddad has returned to his beat.

“There is a systemic problem because there's no transparency or accountability with respect to misconduct,” said Julia Yoo, a civil rights attorney with the law firm Iredale and Yoo, which is representing Torres.

Luckily for Torres, two security cameras caught the episode on video. Based on the footage, which has not been made public, Torres' legal team filed the lawsuit this summer in U.S. District Court in San Diego.

The Sheriff's Department originally anticipated Torres' death and started an internal investigation, according to Torres' legal team. However, when he survived, the department seemingly abandoned its efforts.

With all officer-involved shootings, as well as any use-of-force incidents that result in death, the investigation is forwarded to the District Attorney's office, which didn't receive such information in this case.

“I am not aware of any case related to this matter being submitted to us for review,” said spokesperson Steve Walker. “Additionally, our Special Operations Division reviews officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths, but this one does not appear to fit within those categories.”

When bringing a lawsuit against a deputy, it's not uncommon to find a pattern of complaints and very little disciplinary action, Yoo said.

“One of the biggest problems that I see with the Sheriff's Department is outright refusal to investigate,” she said. “On the rare occasion that Internal Affairs conducts a thorough investigation and recommends disciplinary action, that goes to a supervisor who can overturn that recommendation.”

Beyond confirming that Haddad, a deputy with four years experience in the department, has returned to his “normal duties” in Vista, the Sheriff's Department and San Diego County Counsel declined to comment for this story.

Torres' attorneys also declined to have him comment for this story. Torres lives with his long-term girlfriend and their three sons in Vista. Over recent years, he's been charged with a number of crimes, including driving under the influence and drug possession.

According to the Sheriff's Department's procedure manual, a Taser—which produces 50,000 volts of electricity—should only be used to subdue a person “displaying assaultive behavior.” Multiple uses must be “reasonable” to gain control of a suspect. The manual cautions that Tasers shouldn't be used on pregnant women, children or those “under the influence.”

Shortly after noon on June 26, 2014, Haddad encountered Torres in a shopping mall parking lot, according to an incident report. Haddad got out of his patrol car and told Torres to stop. Instead, Torres said “Fuck you,” kept walking and threw a glass pipe on the ground.

Earlier, Haddad had talked to a nearby resident who reported that a group of men had threatened to get a gun and shoot her after she told them to get off her property, according to the report. While Torres was identified as part of the group, he was never charged in connection with the incident and the woman identified another man as the primary suspect.

After throwing the glass pipe, Torres turned to face Haddad. In the incident report, the deputy describes Torres as taking a posture similar to a “Muay Thai fighter.” Haddad also reported believing that Torres had a gun.

According to a court filing that describes the video, Haddad fired his Taser into Torres' chest one second after Torres turned around. Torres fell onto his back, curled into a fetal position and then “writhe[d]” forward. Within 10 seconds, Haddad fired the Taser again. As Torres continued to roll around in pain, Haddad stood over him, and five seconds later, fired the Taser a third time. Torres then rolled on his stomach and lay motionless with his arms and legs sprawled.

Use-of-force techniques by sheriff's deputies—including firing a Taser and pulling out a gun—have increased significantly over the last five years, according the Sheriff's Department Use of Force/Internal Affairs annual reports.

In 2014, total use-of-force incidents increased by nearly 60 percent to 3,266, up from 2,045 in 2010.In the same period, officers drew their guns 941 times, up from 705. Meanwhile, arrests stayed nearly flat, increasing less than 3 percent.

Taser deployments followed the same trend, increasing more than 28 percent to 239 in 2014, up from 186 in 2010.

Overuse of Tasers by law enforcement is a “chronic problem,” said David Loy, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties.

“The Taser becomes a substitute for conflict de-escalation,” Loy said. “The Taser becomes a substitute for ordinary law enforcement techniques because it's easier to pull out a device off your hip and Taser somebody than it is to actually go through conflict de-escalation protocols and calm the situation down.”

In these and all use-of-force cases, it's nearly impossible to determine how or if the department investigated and disciplined a deputy. Those records are not considered public documents under the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights. Only a judge can order disclosure of such records.

Even the San Diego County's Citizens' Law Enforcement Review Board, which reviews misconduct complaints and then issues a determination of a deputy's culpability, has no sense of how the department metes out punishment.

“I can't really tell you whether or not they're disciplining their deputies fairly or appropriately because I don't know what discipline is imposed,” said CLERB Executive Officer Patrick Hunter. “It would be unfair of me to make any kind of assessment.”

The nondisclosure of the video in the Torres case puts the public in roughly the same position. His attorneys have said they will be asking a judge to release the footage.

Lawsuit alleges lax oversight

Marcial Torres' lawsuit against the Sheriff's Department argues the department has a “widespread history of ratifying misconduct by failing to conduct appropriate investigations.” The lawsuit documents cases involving four deputies:

In 2003, Deputy Jeffrey Jackson admitted to stalking a woman who sued the deputy after he shot and killed her husband. Despite multiple excessive-force lawsuits, Jackson remained on duty through Sheriff Bill Gore's appointment in 2009.

In 2009, Deputy Marshall Abbott, responding to a noise complaint, entered a home without a warrant to find roughly 40 people attending a Democratic Party fundraiser. After exchanging heated words with the host, Abbott threw her to the ground, causing injuries. Despite a lawsuit that resulted in a $1.2 million settlement, Abbott remained on duty, only to be hit in 2011 with another excessive-force lawsuit.

In 2011, Deputy Jason Philpot was the subject of an excessive-force lawsuit. The plaintiff accused him of bringing false criminal charges, (including a felony) which were eventually dismissed by a judge. Shortly after, Philpot repeatedly punched a man in the face, fracturing his eye socket. Similarly, a jury acquitted the man of a resisting arrest charge.

During this time, Philpot maintained a public MySpace page under the name “Knuckle Sandooch” and included a drawing of a law enforcement officer that read: “I'm going to kick your ass AND GET AWAY WITH IT.” His occupation was listed as “Waste Management.”

After the excessive-force incident, Philpot was promoted to the sheriff's training division, which instructs deputies on use-of-force tactics.

In 2011, Sgt. Elizabeth Palmer cost the county $150,000 in a legal settlement. Patrick Howard filed a complaint against Palmer for unprofessional conduct after she detained, yelled and threatened to bar him from the South County Courthouse for walking through the wrong metal detector. In alleged retaliation, she arrested Howard, who worked for an attorney service, a few days later at the courthouse. The charges were eventually dismissed, and Howard filed a lawsuit. As far back as 2001, Palmer has faced internal complaints involving racial discrimination and jokes. Recently, she's been the subject of two more civil rights lawsuits.


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