On Jan. 6, 1999, Rodney Mitchell says he was standing outside Roberto's Taco Shop in Miramar lodging a citizen's complaint against two San Diego Police Department officers to their sergeant when without provocation or warning he was grabbed from behind and thrown violently onto the hood of a police car.
Now, more than four years later, on Feb. 19, Mitchell's claims that his civil rights were violated when three officers used excessive force against him will be heard in federal court. Mitchell, a retired naval officer, will be representing himself in the trial.
On the night of the alleged attack, Mitchell claims, police Sgt. Robert Dare slammed his head against the hood of the car with enough force to send his glasses bouncing off his face. The next thing he remembers is laying on the ground with officers beating on him.
"After the blow to the head, I believe I temporarily lost consciousness," Mitchell said in an interview. "The next thing I remember is being on the ground and the other two officers joining their sergeant in attacking me, punching and kicking me in the arms and shoulders."
Mitchell says he repeatedly yelled to the officers that he was in pain and had medical conditions, but that the officers didn't stop. "I yelled that I was injured, that I don't bend that way, that I was in pain," Mitchell said. "I yelled that I have severe back, arm, shoulder and neck problems and that I wasn't resisting except to try to protect myself and prevent further physical injury."
After he was handcuffed, Mitchell alleges the officers twisted his hands and arms high above his back to the point where he could not stand, causing him to collapse to his knees in pain. Mitchell says the officers dragged him to the police car and threw him in the back seat, where he was held, he guesses, for about two hours. Throughout the incident, Mitchell alleges that the officers denied his repeated pleas for medical attention. When he was taken to San Diego County Jail, Mitchell contends that he was assaulted again and then dragged into the jail.
Though Mitchell says he was taken into custody at roughly 3 a.m., he alleges he was not booked until 6:35 a.m. and not examined by the jail nurse until 8:30 a.m. And he says that although he was not drunk or intoxicated, the officers booked him on charge of being drunk in public.
CityBeat's calls requesting comments from police officers Daniel Burow and Gregory Bisesto have not been returned. Sgt. Dare declined to comment, saying that with the trial about to begin, doing so would be inappropriate.
Maria Severson, the San Diego city attorney defending the three officers, said she is confident that the officers will be cleared. "A completely independent witness, with no interest in this case, will corroborate the officers accounts at trial and prove the charges to be without merit," Severson stated.
In narrative reports filed with the court, each of the three officers disputes Mitchell's claims.
Officer Bisesto states that he saw Mitchell acting intoxicated. "As Mitchell spoke," Bisesto claims, "he was very angry, hostile, agitated and confrontational. I could smell a very strong odor of an alcohol beverage coming from his breath. His speech was slurred at times. I believed Mitchell was unable to care for his own safety or the safety of others based on his confrontational and hostile attitude."
From his patrol car, Bisesto saw Mitchell and Sgt. Dare talking about Mitchell's citizen's complaint. In contrast to Mitchell's allegations that his head was slammed against the hood of Sgt. Dare's car, Bisesto's statement reads: "Sgt. Dare began to direct Mitchell to the front of his police vehicle and lean him forward onto the hood.... The only force used was a wrist flex on both wrists to bring his arms behind his back.... I placed another wrist flex hold on Mitchell's right wrist for a pain compliance technique in order to get Mitchell on his feet and walking to my police vehicle."
Once at the jail, Bisesto's statement reads, "Mitchell refused to get out of our police vehicle. I grabbed his boots and pulled him out of the vehicle. Mitchell was kneeling on the ground and would not get up. I applied a wrist flex hold on his right wrist and Officer Burow applied a wrist flex on his left wrist."
The three officers' statements are consistent in the way they talk about how Mitchell was physically taken into custody. All three mention that Mitchell complained of pain and injury.
Nonetheless, Mitchell maintains his complaint of excessive force against the officers. He says there's no evidence to substantiate the officers' claims he was drunk, which he says the cops used to justify their actions against him. "[The officers] never administered a breathalyzer test, never shined a flashlight into my eyes, never made me walk in a straight line or any of the other tests used to determine whether a person is intoxicated," Mitchell says. "But so what? I could have been stinking drunk-does that justify giving me a beating?"
Mitchell believes he was assaulted because he challenged the officers' authority in making a citizen's complaint. Soon after he began complaining to Sgt. Dare about Bisesto and Burow hassling bar customers that night, Mitchell says, he soon realized Dare wasn't interested in doing anything about it. "So I put my hands up, palms out, in resignation, as I said, "It seems like there is an excess of police resources here. I really need to make a point of attending the next series of City Council meetings discussing the police budget," Mitchell said.
As he was walking away, Mitchell alleges, Sgt. Dare grabbed and threw him onto the hood of the police car without giving him any warning or chance to comply with commands. "Sgt. Dare and the other officers were exacting street punishment on me for daring to object to their police practices, which is every citizen's right," Mitchell said.
Photographs viewed by CityBeat reveal bruises in an L-shaped pattern on Mitchell's right arm. Three large dark bruises were visible, one behind his shoulder, the second on his bicep and the third behind his elbow. Examination of Mitchell's medical records dating from three days after the alleged incident occurred show he was referred to radiology for his claim of head injury.
Mitchell says he is awaiting a reply to a criminal complaint he filed with the FBI alleging obstruction of a federal lawsuit by destroying evidence, conspiracy by multiple parties to obstruct justice and attempting to intimidate a witness in a federal lawsuit.
Severson dismisses Mitchell's conspiracy claims. "It's obvious that this person's interpretation is that of a conspiracy theory going on," she said. "A lot of people who experience an arrest interpret the events that happen to them in that way."
Mitchell says the past four years have been a frustrating experience of ups and downs but that his military makeup won't let him quit. "My training and work in the Navy instilled a sense of right and wrong and feelings of justice within me," Mitchell said. "I can't see people hiding behind the law and getting away with criminal acts."
He said his entire outlook on life has changed since the incident that transpired on Jan. 6 1999. "I've been conservative[ly] bent virtually all my life until the assault happened," Mitchell said. "I had looked at these civil-rights cases against cops and thought they were a bunch of baloney."
Mitchell notes the trial currently underway over the death of former pro football player Demetrius DuBose, who was shot to death by San Diego police officers as indicative of a widespread problem. "In contrast to DuBose, I'm still alive," he said. "There were three of them against me; they could have easily gunned me down like they did to Demetrius. I'm lucky to be a survivor."
Whatever free time he manages to squeeze in each day between his job and trial preparation, Mitchell says he spends on the website-www.itsforthekids.com-he created as clearinghouse of allegations of police misconduct and brutality. He even advocates solutions to preventing future cases of police brutality and misconduct.
Mitchell recommends that police departments "wire the cops with video and sound," he said. "My solution cuts out false charges citizens might bring while at the same time, if cops are misbehaving, [it] shows that," Mitchell said. "So my solution protects the good cops and weeds out the bad ones."