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Black U.S. Navy Veteran Files a Claim on Four San Diego Police Officers Who Attacked Him After He Called Them For Help

A Black U.S. Navy veteran has filed a claim against the San Diego Police Department after being assaulted in 2020. The 32-year-old called the police after being attacked, but instead of receiving assistance, an officer knocked out his teeth and arrested him.

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, on Oct. 11, Stephen Keith filed a claim against the department and is seeking over $25,000 in damages for injuries, pain and suffering, legal costs and lost wages, and unspecified punitive damages.

Details of the incident, as recorded in the claim, state that a stranger approached him while he was on his property and asked him for a cigarette. When he refused to give him a smoke, the man attacked him — despite him being on crutches due to a recent knee surgery. 

Keith alerted authorities that he had been assaulted and waited for the law to arrive. When they did, four officers mistook him for the criminal and attacked him.

The filing states, that “when the San Diego Police Department officers arrived on scene, they immediately tackled Mr. Keith to the ground and began brutalizing Mr. Keith. Prior to taking Mr. Keith to the ground, the officers did not direct any order towards Mr. Keith and Mr. Keith did not do anything to cause a reasonable peace officer to believe that any force used on Mr. Keith would be justified.”

The beating, as recorded in the claim, was brutal, with one officer kneeing Keith in the back seven times.

He was then taken into custody, where it was decided that he needed medical attention for broken teeth and his injured back. After leaving the hospital, he was brought to the city jail and then given a bond. He paid the bail and went home. Keith was never charged with a crime by the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, his filing says.

This type of apparent policing mistake or misjudgment is not uncommon in Black communities in San Diego.

According to a newly formed unit in the SDPD called the Force Analysis Unit, there seems to be a systemic race-based bias that prompts officers in the department to wrongfully use force when they see a Black person.

Studies show that officers policing communities of color tend to exercise a disproportionate amount of force when compared against that used when they are policing white communities. This included pointing a gun at a person, deploying pepper spray or a stun gun, using a baton or apprehending someone by force.

“Understanding the contours, precipitators, and contexts surrounding police use of force and its racially disparate impacts are two urgent areas that require more and better data,” the task force stated. “Just as importantly, democratizing such data is critical to enhancing accountability and restoring trust in police.”

The report also shows how difficult it is to collect information on the role that race plays in policing.

It reads in part, “race-based outcomes are not routinely examined in the evaluation of police-reform measures. This is partly because data on race and ethnicity are generally poor, making it difficult to discern the degree of racial disparity in the criminal justice system and thus establish an accurate baseline against which to measure change. Metrics on ethnicity in the criminal justice system are even spottier, with one survey of state criminal justice data finding that only 15 states documented ethnicity separate and apart from ‘non-White.’”

The president of the San Diego Police Officers’ Association, Jack Schaeffer, believes that this research is an excellent start to find better ways to train officers that work with diverse communities. He shares, “If we can always be adjusting our training, that only benefits our cops and our citizens.”

Brandon Hilpert, chair of San Diego’s Commission on Police Practices, believes that also. He suggests that the information collected will need to be shared with the community, “Collecting the data is one thing, but if no one ever gets to see it, that’s another,” Hilpert said. “It makes it harder for the public to believe the department.” 

The San Diego Union-Tribune notes that the assault and arrest of Keith, a Black man, happened after the city adopted the new de-escalation policy, one that should have prompted the police officers to address the incident differently. Had they followed the policy set in motion in June 2020, not only would have the officers used the newly trained de-escalation techniques and tools but would have reported what is now seen as “unreasonable use of force.”

The next step in the Keith case is to see how the city deals with his claim and if there will be a lawsuit coming out of the filing.

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