SJPD Probes Beating Caught on Cell Video

"They hit me like an animal or something."

Monday, Oct 26, 2009  |  Updated 9:16 AM PDT
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SJPD Probes Beating Caught on Cell Video

NBC Bay Area

Phuong Ho says several San Jose police officers hit him with batons and used a Taser on him as he lie helpless on his apartment floor.

Four San Jose police officers are on administrative leave as the department investigates what appears to be a case of police brutality after video surfaced that shows the four beating an unarmed San Jose State exchange student.

The grainy cell phone video shows police officers repeatedly hitting an unarmed university student with batons and a Taser gun. The incident prompted a criminal probe into the officers' conduct, a San Jose police spokesman said.

The video, posted by the San Jose Mercury News on its Web site late Saturday, shows one officer hitting 20-year-old Vietnamese student Phuong Ho with a metal baton more than 10 times, including once on the head. Another officer is seen using his Taser gun on the San Jose State math major.

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The final baton strike in last month's incident appears to take place after handcuffs have been attached to Ho's wrists.

"It takes me back to the day I saw the Rodney King video on TV," said Roger Clark, a police expert and a retired lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.

The last baton strike ought to bring a felony charge, Clark said.

Officers arrested Ho on suspicion of assaulting one of his roommates. He was not armed when police arrived and he told the newspaper he didn't resist arrest.

The confrontation began Sept. 3 when Ho's roommate, Jeremy Suftin, put soap on Ho's steak. The two scuffled, and Ho picked up a steak knife, saying that in his home country he would have killed Suftin for doing what he did.

Police were called, and four officers responded.

Officer Kenneth Siegel encountered Ho in the hallway, but says he couldn't understand the student's accent, police reports said. Ho then ignored a police command to stand still, reports said.

When Ho tried to follow Siegel into his room, officer Steven Payne Jr. moved to handcuff Ho. Payne wrote in his report that he pushed the student into a wall and then forced him to the floor when he resisted being handcuffed.

Ho, who weighs more than 200 lbs., said his glasses fell off. As he went to pick them up, the officers struck him, he said.

Another one of Ho's roommates, Dimitri Masouris, captured the events on his cell phone. An officer can be heard on the video shouting, "Turn over!" Ho can be heard moaning and crying as he's struck.

"In philosophy, they call it 'dehumanization,"' Ho told the Mercury News. "So when they think me a dangerous guy, they don't treat me like I was human. They hit me like an animal or something."

Masouris said he considered the police response excessive. He sold the tape to San Jose lawyer Duyen Hoang Nguyen, who is representing Ho.

The Mercury News obtained a copy of the video and showed it to Daniel Katz, San Jose's assistant police chief. The police department is taking the matter very seriously, he said.

San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed said the incident would be investigated by the internal affairs division of the San Jose Police Department and the results forwarded to the Santa Clara County district attorney for possible criminal prosecution.

"As Mayor of San Jose, I am troubled by the contents of the video released by the Mercury News. I appreciate that Chief Davis and the San Jose Police Department immediately launched an investigation upon receiving this video from the Mercury News.

San Jose takes allegations of improper police actions seriously, and this case will be thoroughly investigated and the results turned over to the District Attorney’s office to determine if criminal prosecution is appropriate.  In addition, the SJPD Internal Affairs Division will investigate to determine if administrative actions are appropriate.

Both investigations must respect the constitutionally guaranteed right of due process, which belongs to all parties to an investigation.  I am confident that the investigations will be carried out so that all parties involved receive due process under the law and that justice will be done as determined by the facts and the law."

The city's large Vietnamese-American community is already angry over the police shooting of a mentally ill Vietnamese man in May, the newspaper said in an editorial about Ho's beating. The lack of public disclosure in the investigation that followed was also a problem, the paper said.

Police experts said the grainy, shaky video is difficult to view and may not show actions by Ho that justified the officers' response. Nevertheless, several said the video raises serious concerns.

"Once he is handcuffed, then he is helpless," said Frank Jordan, a former San Francisco police chief and mayor. "If you can show that his hands are behind his back, and he is handcuffed, that is where you get brutality. That would be excessive force."

Siegel and Payne didn't respond to written requests for comment sent through department officials and their union.

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