What does a Rocklin police officer’s acquittal say about the rare instances when cops do face trial?
It’s video taken by a bystander’s cellphone, not the police dash-cam or three officer body-worn cameras, that to Sacramento attorney Stewart Katz best captures what happened to his client Emelio Perez-Chavez during a DUI stop in Rocklin.
“It shows what happened, which is the guy’s getting out of the car, complying with the officers, and he starts getting whomped on with a baton again and again and again and again, for no reason,” Katz told SN&R.
The question now is if more people will see any of the videos from the case.
Within days of the Sept. 24, 2017 incident, the Placer County District Attorney’s Office charged the officer who struck Perez-Chavez, 15-year veteran Brad Alford, with four felonies, including assault with a deadly weapon.
Alford had one charge, for filing a false police report, dismissed in 2018 and was acquitted May 15 of the remaining charges. On June 19, though, a hearing will determine if video evidence sealed last year can be released. The DA’s office is arguing that it can and should be made public. Alford’s attorney opposes the video release, citing concerns for his client’s safety.
It isn’t often that an elected prosecutor in a conservative county wants the public to see footage that convinced him to put an officer on trial. The office of District Attorney Ronald “Scott” Owens also prosecuted three Auburn jail employees. Video of the inmate beatings was published widely.
In recent years, one high-profile case after another both nationally and around the region has fueled calls for greater police transparency. But what happens in cities like Rocklin shows how far advocates might still have to go.
It wasn’t the first time Rocklin police have come under fire in recent years. City leaders agreed in 2016 to a $94,000 settlement, according to media reports, for another Katz client, Nebraska Huggins, who alleged Rocklin officers mistreated him outside of a party.
In February 2017, Rocklin officers shot and killed Lorenzo Cruz after receiving reports he was attempting to break into houses. Incidentally, one of the three responding officers, Breanna Adams, was also present during Perez-Chavez’s arrest.
The Placer DA cleared officers of wrongdoing for the shooting, saying Cruz had amphetamines in his system. None of the three officers had their body cameras operating during the shooting.
“It’s real challenging,” said Sacramento attorney Kellan Patterson, who represented Cruz’s family in an unsuccessful lawsuit against Rocklin. “For a lot of the police shooting cases throughout the nation … it sucks that the only account of the death of a family member is from the person who killed the individual.”
For Patterson, the case’s silver lining was that Rocklin PD began training officers to activate their cameras before getting out of their vehicles—which might explain the abundance of embargoed video evidence from Perez-Chavez’s arrest seven months later.
James Pierson, a use of force and deescalation expert, testified during Alford’s trial that Perez-Chavez, who had two previous DUI convictions, wasn’t given adequate opportunity to comply with officer commands.
“He initially does—the best analogy I could give, he initially does what we would call, ’A small child coverup who is about to be spanked’ because [cognitively] he’s not functioning,” Pierson testified.
Patterson attended a few days of the trial and also saw video.
“At the end of the day, the guy’s hands [are] up and he’s getting beat by a baton multiple times, unnecessarily,” Patterson said. “He never was aggressive toward the officer. You gotta ask yourself, what was that all about? How does an officer get off the hook for that?”
Officer Alford retained Michael Rains, a Bay Area attorney who represented Barry Bonds during the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative scandal and former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle, convicted of involuntary manslaughter for Oscar Grant’s 2009 death.
Rains acknowledged to SN&R that a baton strike broke a bone in Perez-Chavez’s left wrist. But he called the quick decision to prosecute Alford “a grotesque overreaction to graphic video evidence.”
During the trial, Rains’ team established Perez-Chavez as a gang member.
“He claimed he hadn’t hung around with Nortenos since he was in high school in 2009,” Rains said. “All of that was nonsense. It was all false. It was all perjury. The jury saw it, they hated it.”
Rocklin officials agreed to a $249,000 settlement with Perez-Chavez in February 2018. He has struggled since his arrest. He pleaded no contest in Placer County last year to charges related to his arrest, receiving 240 days in jail and five years probation.
On May 16, one day after Alford’s acquittal, Perez-Chavez was sentenced to two years in custody and five years probation on two felony DUI counts and five other charges in Sacramento County.
Alford remains on paid leave pending internal investigation by his department. Rocklin police Chief Chad Butler and city manager Steve Rudolph declined to comment.
Placer County Chief Assistant District Attorney Jeff Wilson told SN&R in a June 6 email that the “video evidence speaks for itself” and that “it remains clear to our office that Alford’s conduct was excessive.”
Jurors needed just two hours to acquit Alford after the two-week trial. One juror even called Rains afterward.
“She said the jury both loved and believed Brad Alford,” Rains said. “They thought he was a wonderfully credibly guy.”