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Video shows Long Beach police striking a suspect

Long Beach police chief vows a thorough investigation of the incident in which officers used batons and a Taser on a man before his arrest.

September 04, 2013|By Ruben Vives, Richard Winton and Kate Mather
  • Frame of a video showing Long Beach police officers striking a suspect with a baton. The video can be seen online at bit.ly/14pwsfa. The police chief has vowed a thorough investigation.
Frame of a video showing Long Beach police officers striking a suspect with… (YouTube )

A video posted to YouTube showing Long Beach police repeatedly using a Taser and baton on a man has prompted an internal investigation and raised questions about the officers' actions.

Police training experts who reviewed the 41/2-minute recording were divided about whether it amounted to excessive force. Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell said he understands that there is community concern about the video and vowed a vigorous investigation.

"It is too early to make any judgments.… The YouTube video is certainly disturbing," the chief said. "Any time you see someone hit with the baton, there is level of discomfort."

The incident unfolded about 6 p.m. Monday, when officers were called to Locust Avenue and South Street after receiving multiple 911 calls about a fight outside a liquor store, Long Beach Police Sgt. Aaron Eaton said. Surveillance footage showed a man later identified by police as Porfirio Santos-Lopez, 46, hitting another man in the head.

Eaton said Santos-Lopez acted irrational when first approached by police, and at one point punched the asphalt.

"As the officer tried to communicate with him, he started to yell," Eaton said. "He asked the officer to kill him."

Maria Ruiz, 29, said she was cutting hair at a nearby beauty salon when she saw three or four officers trying to speak to the man. She doesn't speak English, but said it looked like the officers and the man were arguing. Ruiz said a client told her that at one point, the man yelled "Shoot me!" to police.

"It looked like they were trying to arrest him but he didn't want them to," Ruiz said. "He tried to kick and punch one of the officers and that's when they took him down."

Surveillance footage from a nearby business shows Santos-Lopez falling to the ground, apparently after being Tasered. The video then shows two officers hitting him at least six times with batons.

The video posted to YouTube — taken by a witness — begins a short time later, and depicts another round of baton strikes. Santos-Lopez is seen lying on his back as one officer hits him six times in the legs, with Santos-Lopez sometimes kicking between blows. A Taser can be heard, although it is not clear exactly how many times it was used.

At one point, the officers can be heard commanding Santos-Lopez to "roll over," with the man responding "Why?" But most of what the officers and Santos-Lopez say is unclear.

Eaton said Santos-Lopez refused orders to roll on his stomach, prompting officers to use batons and a Taser as "tools for us to use and get a combative subject into custody."

"It wasn't that he couldn't understand," Eaton said. "He refused to go on his stomach."

Police officials said the baton blows were delivered to Santos-Lopez's arms, legs and possibly his torso. The department trains officers to avoid the head, neck, throat, kidneys and groin areas, which could result in permanent damage.

Santos-Lopez was eventually taken into custody and transported to Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, where he remained Wednesday. Santos-Lopez suffered a broken right arm, a partially collapsed left lung and needed stitches in both legs, his girlfriend said. Police said they were unaware of the lung injury.

Eaton said beer cans were found near the scene, and after his arrest Santos-Lopez told officers he had used methamphetamine before the incident. His girlfriend denied that he used drugs.

The officers involved remain on regular duty, Eaton said.

Greg Meyer, a former LAPD captain and use-of-force expert, said the baton blows shown on the YouTube video appeared to follow protocol. He cautioned that the recording did not show the full context of the interaction or clarify exactly how Santos-Lopez was injured.

"It doesn't appear from the video that the police officers were doing anything wrong," Meyer said. "But we still don't know all the facts here."

But Larry Smith, a use-of-force expert and retired Fontana police sergeant and former training specialist, said the response looked excessive because of the baton use. He questioned why the officers didn't exhaust other nonlethal measures — such as pepper spray — or move in to handcuff Santos-Lopez after he was Tasered.

"To me, he must not have been that violent, because otherwise the other officers would have jumped in," Smith said. "They could have always just dog-piled him and then you're not hitting him with a baton."

Lee Ann Hernandez, 59 — who has dated Santos-Lopez for four years and refers to him as her husband — said the father of three hadn't been acting like himself lately. She said he started hearing voices and seeing people who weren't there six months ago. He worried that Hernandez's late husband was trying to hurt him, she said.

Santos-Lopez's behavior worsened in recent weeks, Hernandez said. He would constantly call police and paramedics, she said, and she would ask that they take him to a psychiatric facility. Hernandez said authorities told her they couldn't because Santos-Lopez was not a danger to himself. They gave her the number of a police psychiatric unit, she said, but they never returned her calls.

"They had no right to beat him up like that," she said. "They don't need to be doing that to someone like that."

ruben.vives@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

kate.mather@latimes.com

Times staff writer Joseph Serna contributed to this report.

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