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Good Samaritan Backfire
I live in a new gilded age in a golden city. But sometimes the cracks show, even here. The façade crumbles and you find yourself naked, in solitary confinement, in a wretched, feces-stained prison.
How? As a result of my efforts to help injured bicyclists by calling 911, I was, in short order: separated from my friend, violently tackled, arrested, taken to county jail, stripped and left in a solitary cell. I am writing this story because, if it could happen to me, it could happen to you, and I feel the need to do something to help prevent this brutality from propagating.
I moved to San Francisco 9 years ago for graduate school at UCSF and currently run a company that brings transparency to the food industry and employs 12 people. It may appear to be self-serving for me to say so, but I am a rational and peaceful person whom no reasonable being would deem a threat.
South of Market, San Francisco — after midnight July 25th, 2013
My friend Ben Woosley and I were hanging out at Driftwood Bar on Folsom Street. We were talking work; we had three drinks over the course of three hours. We left the bar at 12:45am and walked towards my house, a block away.
The accident had happened just seconds before…
The first bystander helps Rebecca elevate her foot as Ben is preparing to take a photo per her request.
The bicycle had flipped forward and lay unattended in the street. The girl’s foot was bare and mangled, her chin bleeding. There was blood on her jacket, a puddle of it on the ground. Her name was Rebecca. “Where am I?” she kept asking. She was lucky to have been wearing a helmet. Josh, who had been giving her a ride on his handlebars, was wincing and bracing his shoulder.
Neither of them had working cell phones. When they asked me to, I immediately dialed 911. According to the record, it was 12:49am.
While I relayed the situation to the operator, Ben and the first bystander were helping Rebecca elevate her foot. Ben held her hand and supported her body on the ground. Rebecca borrowed his phone to call her friends and family.
Four minutes had passed when I spotted a fire truck and several police cars in the distance and stepped into the street to wave them over. “They arrived,” I told the 911 operator. She thanked me and told me to expect an ambulance to follow.
I identified myself as the caller to the half dozen police who poured out of squad cars and stepped back onto the sidewalk in front of Radius restaurant.
X-ray of pins in my elbow. I broke it in a bike accident a few blocks away. After walking home, I called Lyft to take me to the hospital.
Sgt. Espinoza, short, stout, grey and assertive, asked Ben and me whether we had witnessed the accident. We said that we hadn’t, but arrived shortly thereafter. I was standing 15 feet from the scene beside Officer Kaur, a stocky female of South Asian complexion. She turned to me and abruptly said that I was not needed as a witness and should leave immediately. I told her we were headed home, just across the way, when my friend and I encountered the accident; and that I’d recently broken my elbow in a similar bike accident here and deeply cared about the outcome.
The firemen were examining Rebecca and Josh. Ben was still supporting Rebecca’s back when Sgt. Espinoza and Officer Gabriel grabbed him from behind without warning, putting him in an arm lock and jerked him backwards over the pavement. They told him sternly that he had to leave now that trained medical professionals had arrived, implying that he was interfering and justifying their violent actions. The officers dragged him across the sidewalk, propping him against the building. Rebecca was still holding Ben’s cellphone when she lost his support. “Where are they taking him?” she asked perplexedly.
It all happened within 5 minutes of the police’s arrival. The sirens and emergency vehicles, the sudden arrival of over half a dozen uniformed personnel, two of whom had grabbed my friend, transformed an intimate street scene into something chaotic. Officer Kaur shouted at me to cross the street. It was very sudden and I was, admittedly, in shock. I stammered that I intended to head home, but that my friend was over there. I pointed at Ben against the wall, and said I’d like to take him home with me.
Without warning, I was shoved from behind by Officer Gerrans and then collectively tackled by Officers Gerrans, Kaur and Andreotti. As they took me to the ground, one of the officers kneed me in the right temple. On the pavement, I begged them to watch out for my recently broken right elbow. Knees on my back and neck pinned me to the ground. I was cuffed and left face down.
I was not told that I was under arrest, what the charges were, nor read my rights. I rolled over onto my back so that I could see the arresting officers and ask them their intentions.
Officer Kaur pulled me up so that I was in a sitting position, and then stepped onto my handcuffed hands, grinding them into the pavement. I was so suddenly transported to a distant reality, that I was still coming to terms with its operating principles. “Is this protocol?” I inquired and instinctively wriggled my hands from under her boots. Officer Kaur had full control of me physically. Again, she stomped her boots on my hands, demanded that I “keep [my] hands on the ground,” pushed me back face down, and walked away.
I could again see officers alongside Ben. He was propped with his back on the building but not cuffed.
When Officer Kaur walked away, I spoke with the remaining officers. I told Officers Andreotti and Gerrans that I appreciated their prompt arrival and respected their jobs. I mentioned that I’ve had only positive interactions with the SFPD until that point. I said that, strange as it may seem, I accept my current lot and await the course of justice to set the record straight.
We had a cordial conversation. They noticed I was shivering and propped me on the door of Radius restaurant. Then they asked me what I do for a living. I said that I write software that helps restaurants source food and indicated that the restaurant behind me uses our product.
What they said brought to light a fundamental rift between the residents of San Francisco and the police:
“Ah, you’re one of those billionaire wannabees in this neighborhood.”
What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate
Rich SOMA, poor SOMA. My instinct was to make this distinction go away, to show them I know our neighborhood is more complicated than that. To connect on human terms. I told them that it was an early stage startup; I’m doing this because I feel it’s a way to make the world around me better, to bring people joy through better food. I live here, right on this block, in a loving home with 16 roommates. I love this community. I asked them where they lived. And they responded in unison: “Far away! We can’t afford to live here.”
They exposed a growing tear in our city’s social fabric. A class conflict brought on by rising housing prices and economic disparity, resulting in a commuter policing class that resents the residents they’re meant to protect and serve.
As I sat cuffed and propped against the wall, another officer came over and reprimanded me for obstructing police work. If this were indeed the case, I said, I would agree. But I hadn’t interfered with the medical response, nor could I have. I was 15 feet away from Rebecca and Josh when I was tackled. I had good intentions, I said. I had called 911 and was following the operator’s instructions to remain on the scene until the ambulance arrived. That was all.
The small talk continued. They said I had nothing to worry about. I had done the right thing. I’d probably be taken to the police station around the corner and released. I asked whether I should communicate this to Ben or other friends, in case I needed help getting bailed out. They said that this process should be quick, quicker than my friends’ ability to help, and that I’d be out in no time.
I took them at their word. Then they took me to county jail, where I spent 12 hours, mostly in solitary confinement.
Officer Durkin’s reprimand is in violation of Ben’s rights.
Officer Kaur and her partner Officer Durkin loaded me into the back of a caged van. It drove a short distance. When the van stopped, Officer Kaur shined her flashlight in my face and asked me whether I was “going to be a problem.” There were lots of people who’d be happy to “take care” of me inside if I was, she said.
Left alone in the van, I pulled out my cellphone with my cuffed hands and texted my roommates that I was under arrest. The timestamp of these texts is 1:27am, 38 minutes after I first placed the 911 call.
When she returned, Officer Kaur had a deputy with her. Shining a flashlight in my eyes, she pointed out that he was big and strong.
“This is the guy,” she told the deputy. “I think he’s going to be a problem. Are you going to be a problem?”
It felt aggressive, almost goading.
I tried to ignore her tone and addressed him directly: “Hello, sir.”
He said, “Oh yeah, he’s going to be a problem.”
San Francisco County Jail, 7th and Bryant
San Francisco County Jail is less than 500 yards from my home. They fingerprinted and photographed me, stripped my shoes and vest, and placed me in cellblock 1SB with three other characters in various states of drug or alcohol induced inebriation. There was a phone, but it only called numbers in the 415 area code. In this era of cellphones, I can remember several of my roommates’ numbers. None of them began with 415.
The thick Plexiglas door of the cell was covered with stickers of bail bonds agencies with 415 area codes. These are the same agencies that occupy most storefronts on Bryant Street between 6th and 7th street. Most of the glass surfaces within the jail proudly display these phone numbers.
San Francisco County Jail, 7th and Bryant. On the top right is Treasure Island and on the top left is Alcatraz.
I was still under the impression that I’d be in jail for a brief interlude. I made small talk with my cellmates. A couple of hours passed. I started to wonder whether the circumstances had somehow changed. I began to ask the passing deputies questions. “Sir, how long should I expect to be here?”
They answered dismissively.
“As long as it takes.”
“We’ll keep you here as long as we want to.”
If sobriety was the issue, I volunteered to take a Breathalyzer test. They laughed. “You’re in jail.”
Given the circumstances of my arrest and what the officers initially told me about the expected timing of release, I became dissatisfied with the lack of information. I wasn’t going to get any straight response from the deputies. I asked to see a doctor.
Request to see a doctor
From the vantage point of the cell, I could see a few people in lab coats. I was physically hurt; my right temple was bruised and throbbing. When I began writing this account 36 hours after being released, I was still having trouble opening my mouth wide or chewing food without a throbbing pain in my right temple. My neck was sore from the officers’ knees. My arms bruised from being tackled, my wrists sore from Officer Kaur’s stomping, my broken elbow held together by metal pins reinjured.
I told commanding deputy, Terry, that I would like to see a doctor.
“You’d like a lot of things, but this is a jail,” he said.
“Actually, I just want one thing. I’d like to see a doctor.”
“There is nothing wrong with you.”
“I’m not feeling well, and I’d like to see a doctor.”
He said there were no doctors currently on staff, and I told him that I was willing to wait for one. Deputy Terry said I had already seen a doctor, when I was booked. “He was the one that asked you whether you were on any prescribed medications.” I hadn’t realized.
In retrospect, asking to speak to a doctor was perhaps a mistake. I mean, in retrospect it was unambiguously a mistaken means of getting clear information and accelerating my release. Thinking that there was someone I could speak with on the night shift in San Francisco County Jail, who would respond to my questions, and give me honest answers, was an insane delusion. But in the middle of those events, without time to reflect, it was the circumstances around me that seemed insane.
By nature, I’m a trusting person, and in most situations this has served me well.
I moved to San Francisco to attend UCSF where I received a PhD in Biophysics. I learned about our city’s complex demographics during my time working as a census enumerator in the Tenderloin. I have volunteered as a disaster relief responder for the American Red Cross and have been on several emergency scenes in San Francisco in this capacity. I’m all too familiar with the density of crime in our neighborhood, having experienced car break-ins, bike theft, and vandalism repeatedly.
I served our government as a contractor in Afghanistan and have received basic medical training. Given the opportunity, I try to pick up general life skills to help me and others in critical situations.
But on this night, stopping to help out got me thrown in jail and asking for any sort of a reasoned conversation about why only made things worse.
I acknowledge now, and part of me acknowledged it then, that the county jail staff is not trained to deal with reason or conversation from the inmates in their custody.
Psychology teaches us that human behavior is conditioned by the environment in which we spend our time. Plenty of inmates were cursing at deputies and driving them crazy. Heck, they were driving me crazy. Prisons are grotesque and hellish places. California and its counties keep 181,050 humans locked up in them.
As someone who addressed the staff as “Sir”, spoke slowly and deliberately, and constructed logical arguments, I was a more complicated problem than the typical swearing and insults they were used to hearing. The responses of the jailers, though terse and unpleasant, were true, “you are in jail, deal with it.”
I had no right to expect special treatment and, taking this logic to the bitterest end, this meant I couldn’t even expect to be treated like a rational human.
If I’d made no inquiries of when I was going to be let out, nor asked for medical attention, nor tried to communicate with the guards as equals, I would probably have gotten out sooner. And I certainly wouldn’t have been taken to the “safety cell.”
How I Felt
Standing in the cell for four hours, I knew that the sensible course of action would have been to keep my mouth shut and keep to myself. Once within the system, resistance is futile. I couldn’t help but recall a wise criminal lawyer’s (and friend’s) remarks: “Extricate yourself from the system, don’t try to vindicate yourself within it.”
But with my temple throbbing, I still insisted on seeing a doctor. When Deputy Terry walked away muttering, “I have had enough of you,” I banged on the door repeatedly and screamed, “I want to see a doctor. I WANT TO SEE A DOCTOR.”
My actions seemed to strike a nerve, and when Deputy Terry returned, he was accompanied by cadre of friends. It was ominous.
“So you want to see a doctor?” They may well have said in chorus.
They ordered me to approach the cell door with my back, and when it opened, to step out with hands extended behind me. Suddenly, I was back in handcuffs and being led down a hallway, away from the lab coats, to the right, and down another hallway.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“You worried or something? You wanted to see a doctor, so you’ll see a doctor alright.”
A heavy steel door was opened in front of me. The room was padded, sparse even by the Spartan standards of my previous cell.
Solitary Confinement — Safety Cell
I was led into a corner.
“First we have to get you ready,” one of the deputies said. His arm undid the button of my pants, which at first I thought was a cruel joke, and then he yanked them down to my ankles.
They pushed me forward against the wall. I stumbled in my handcuffs and pant shackles.
“Step out of your pants,” they ordered. And as soon as I did: “Step out of your socks!”
Naked from the waist down, someone said, “Take off your shirt.” It was topologically impossible, given the cuffs. One of the deputies said, “I’ll do it.” I was uncuffed, my shirt was stripped with force, getting caught on my neck, tugging my head backwards, then up, then off.
The night shift deputies were cruel. They responded to questions in the tone of schoolyard bullies—tauntingly. They giggled as they slammed the door behind me. “You’ll see the doctor alright.”
On the floor lay a straight jacket made from the material used to pad furniture when it is being moved, and a second piece of the same fabric that I later used to cover the dirty floor in an attempt to sleep.
There were no knobs or protrusions in the room, just soft corners. The toilet was a hole in the ground, no toilet paper. The hole dropped down a few feet where it was intersected by a grate of prison bars. The flushing happened automatically, periodically, though I never felt the urge. Even one’s feces left prison upon evacuation, presumably to leave the subject without anything to play with.
I say this, because while the room was dirty, it was not as dirty as the next two cells I experienced the following day, which were smeared with feces and peanut butter. Approximately every 6 hours, a pushcart made its way around the prison with regulation peanut butter sandwiches. Only a fraction were consumed. Many were used for wall decoration or splattered against the ceiling.
I couldn’t bear to eat, so I took my rations home as a souvenir. Aside from the milk, they still seemed edible a month later. This is their strength.
Trapped in a rendition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
While the metal door was too thick for me to be heard if I did not scream, I could hear the muted screams of others across the jail. The din was anything but soothing.
When I asked for water, I was given enough (a couple Dixie cups’ worth) to barely keep my throat lubricated.
I was cold. The two pieces of fabric were not enough to spread on the filthy ground and also cover my naked body. I tried to sleep but it proved fruitless. Every 15 minutes, the metal peephole was creaked open, and I was expected to react, presumably to confirm that I was still alive. This was noted on a clipboard hanging beside the door.
Eventually, I found it most comfortable to stand by the cell door with the coarse fabric draped over my body. I looked out through a narrow slit of Plexiglas and tried to call attention from passers’ by. “Sir, Ma’am, could you please tell me… how long should I expect to be in here?”
A streak of being ignored was broken by a couple disheartening responses. “Usually we put people in there for 24 hours.”
Now I really felt like I was going crazy. Those weren’t the reassuring answers my inner optimist had hoped for. When I had told the arresting officers that I accepted my lot, this wasn’t the lot I was referring to. I didn’t expect a medal for fulfilling my civic duty, but I still felt like I had some fleeting right to something other than this. I banged on the metal door repeatedly until Deputy Terry showed up.
“Why am I in here?”
“You are crazy. You are a lunatic,” he pronounced.
“Do you know how I got here?”
“This place—being in here—will make me crazy,” I pleaded.
“Good. That’s what you are and where you belong.” He spiraled his index finger by his muscular temple.
I tried to respond as he started walking way.
“Sir, might you consider for a moment that I am having a sane response to the conditions I’m being subjected? I was arrested by the very police I called to the scene of a medical emergency less than a block from my house, while heading home for the night.”
He stared at me bewildered, and never came near again.
The Day Shift
The difference between the night and day shift was exactly that: night and day.
The deputies who took the helm at 7am were more human. When I asked them the one simple question that occupied me for the past six hours, a deputy actually responded! He opened the metal peephole, leaned in, and whispered.
“Once you are in the safety cell, we can’t release you without a psychiatric evaluation. Those gals tend to arrive around 8am, though this depends if they’re needed in other jails first. When they do arrive, they’ll come to see you, and if you give them the right answers, wink wink, we’ll let you go.”
Doctor = Psychiatric Evaluation
Eventually I did get to see “the doctor,” though it took longer than my messenger indicated and we didn’t discuss my ailments. Chase conducted her evaluation through the same peephole that was used to hand me Dixie cups of water. I stood naked as I recounted my story.
“You don’t belong here,” she told me outright.
Chase said that once inside of the safety cell, the criteria for release were just this kind of evaluation. The criteria for being placed into a cell, she said, were more arbitrary.
She still had to ask:
“Are you having suicidal thoughts?”
“Do you want to hurt someone?”
“No,” I cringed.
“I’ll go fill out the paperwork. The rest is not up to me… I’m sorry.”
Fingerprints, Round-trip to Sacramento
An hour and a half after my evaluation, my clothes were handed to me through a slit in the metal door. I was led to another holding cell and waited to be digitally fingerprinted.
It took several more hours to compare my fingerprints to the entire California criminal database. “They run this in Sacramento,” commanding deputy Johnson told me. “It can take as little as 15 minutes or as long as 24 hours. It’s out of our hands, though it always takes longer the first time… If you are arrested again, it will take less time, since you’ll already be in the system.”
I couldn’t tell if she meant to be ironic or comforting.
4th Cell, Citable Offense
There was a cautious air of excitement in the fourth cell they moved me to. Citation was billed as salvation. “You’re lucky, being cited,” my cellmates reassured me.
Inmates in orange clothes and ringing shackles across their wrists and ankles were now coursing through San Francisco’s #1 prisoner intake and processing facility. The deputies had a point. “We’re busy as you can see.”
“I’m lucky they didn’t beat me up this time,” one of my cellmates told me. “Man, I’m stupid. I can’t believe I stole six coffee bags from Starbucks in plain view of the officer. They ain’t even worth much. You can’t steal at the end of the month. They know you’re desperate from the 25th onward. And why did I hit up the same place again? They know me there already. Last time, I was lucky since the needle sore on my elbow was freaking gruesome. This time it’s healed too much. They don’t wanna deal with you if you’re looking nasty. Why can’t I learn not to steal at the end of the month?”
After 12 hours in jail, more than 6 of them in solitary confinement, the process of checking out was unremarkable. I signed a few papers. Retrieved my backpack. Confirmed the contents — laptop, wallet, phone, books and keys.
“The charges will be dropped if you show up on Tuesday. If you don’t show up, there will be a warrant for your arrest,” I was casually informed.
“Deputy, should I have been here in the first place?”
It was almost too good to hear. “Then why did I end up here?”
“You have to consider the source.” This phrase I remember verbatim.
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, there are a lot of young cops on the street, trying to make a name for themselves.”
A sense of measure
I’m truly afraid that I’ll sound indignant and grouchy about being arrested. Normally it’s in my nature to accept the world as the strange place it is. This is not the worst experience of my life. It’s certainly not the most troubling thing to happen in San Francisco that evening.
One friend told me that I should chalk this up as another of life’s brutal lessons, that I should just be quiet, move on, and record this in my personal diary (if I must), and only return to these thoughts again if I am one day rich and powerful, when my decisions and donations can make a difference in the police force and civil affairs, and even then I might not really care. Stay coy until you are out of reach of the system, he emphasized. You think you’re clear now, but how many things went the way you expected?
Is there a weird middle ground, an uncanny valley, where you have no access to justice? Unless you’re severely beaten with cameras rolling or really have nothing to lose, your wiser friends will tell you to shut up and deal.
The following Tuesday, I approached a narrow Plexiglas slit in the courthouse window, and was handed a piece of paper with the word “dismissed”. The case was dropped from the docket before the charges were filed.
With passing time, the only consequence is a lingering memory that flares up some nights. Forgetting would be disrespectful to the officers who don’t accept this behavior as commonplace, and don’t want to be liable for actions of a minority of their peers. It would also be a fatalistic admission that such violence is acceptable.
It’s not. This should not have happened. I won’t pretend that I’m an angel. In fact, I pride myself on deconstructing systems and finding loopholes. And yet, under the circumstances, I feel comfortable saying that the police should have helped me get safely home.
Officer Kaur’s unnecessary escalation of a peaceful situation, culminating in the sadistic stomping on my cuffed hands is a severe professional failure that reflects poorly on the San Francisco Police Department. It does not surprise me that she and several of the other officers I encountered that night are currently in the middle of a lawsuit.
I painstakingly retrieved all possible documentation, including: the police report, transcript of radio chatter, audio of my 911 call, security footage from Radius restaurant (handed to me freely by the owner), Rebecca’s and Josh’s feedback, and collected photos from the incident and my injuries.
I presented all of this to the SF Office of Citizen Complaints. The filing party is not allowed to know the outcome due to the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights (POBAR) but may be notified if an internal investigation is initiated. Many months have passed since my complaint, and I have no sense of progress.
At this point, I’m left no choice but to present this case to the investigative court of public opinion, be it brave or foolish.
In the hope that it might help some other idealistic, nerdy people from following me down that rabbit hole, I conclude with several public service announcements:
Don’t call 911. Obviously, there are exceptions, but the sad lesson is, there are fewer than you’d think.
Call Lyft to take you to the hospital. (Worked well when I broke my elbow.)
Take such incidents to trial, where justice isn’t veiled by the POBAR. It’s not a matter of litigious vindictiveness. It’s just the only available way. The SF Office of Citizen Complaints is not a valid alternative.
Consider wearing a video camera at all times. It has been shown that when police wear cameras and are aware of being filmed, it moderates their behavior. As self reports of the need to use force decrease, so do complaints.