What really happened when "Salinas California Officers Beat Mentally Ill Man With Batons"
A widely circulated cell phone video and story have given many people the impression that on June 5, 2015, Salinas Police officers brutally beat a mentally ill man with batons, for no good reason. The video frequently appears with the headline "Salinas California Officers Beat Mentally Ill Man With Batons." Another version is "Salinas California Police Use Excessive Force On Mentally Ill Man."
We understand the nationwide concern over police use of force, and we believe some of the cases in the national news clearly call out for reform. But this case is very different -- and the Salinas Police Department, which is recognized as one of the most progressive in the country, is very different.
A more accurate headline for this video would be: "Salinas Police Use Batons to Stop Meth User Who Threw His Mother Into Traffic, Assaulted Her and Violently Resisted Arrest."
A sub-headline might include that verbal commands, grappling, and three Taser shots had all failed to stop the arrestee, Jose Velasco -- who at one point ripped a Taser off an officer's belt -- or get him to show that he wasn't carrying a concealed weapon.
No evidence has emerged yet that Mr. Velasco is mentally ill, outside of his habitual use of meth (more on this below). The use of force has been found justified by an independent District Attorney's investigation.
We understand that by itself, this cell phone video is very disturbing. Any use of batons is disturbing, and our officers use them only rarely and reluctantly. But before you come to a judgment about this arrest, we hope you will make sure you know all the facts. We present them below, citing the verifiable evidence that backs up each one.
On this page
- Summary of what happened before, during and after the Velasco arrest.
- Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about use of force in this arrest.
- Video of the full press conference held by Chief Kelly McMillin on June 11, 2015, including recordings and transcripts of the 911 calls that led to the arrest.
- Text of the District Attorney's press release of July 1, 2015, announcing that he has found police officers' use of force justified, and that Jose Velasco will be charged with two felonies and a misdemeanor.
- Chief Kelly McMillin's remarks on the DA's finding, including a discussion of how use of force is judged.
1. Summary of the events of June 5, 2015
- According to police reports and multiple witnesses, Jose Velasco ran through heavy traffic near the corner of North Main Street and Bernal Drive in Salinas, screaming and jumping on cars, and then dragged his mother into the traffic, threw her to the ground and assaulted her.
- Mr. Velasco later told police, and a toxicology report confirmed, that he was high on meth. According to medical records released with his permission, he has used meth regularly since the age of 12. His records show he has previously been diagnosed with temporary psychosis caused by recent drug use, known as specific drug-induced psychotic disorder. (So far there is no evidence that he has a mental illness independent of drug use.)
- Two responding police officers repeatedly ordered Mr. Velasco to get off his mother, who was screaming at him to stop. The officers tried to pull him off her. He violently resisted.
- The officers tried to Tase him, but two successful Taser shots and one "drive stun" (direct contact with the Taser) appeared to have no effect. Imperviousness to pain is one of the effects of meth intoxication, and he later told police the Tasers hadn't worked on him.
- Continuing to struggle, Mr. Velasco pulled a Taser and its holster off one officer's belt.
- The officers called for backup, and began hitting Mr. Velasco with their batons. A total of five officers responded, who eventually managed to put handcuffs on him.
- They also placed a mesh bag, known as a "spit sock," over his head, in order to protect police and ambulance personnel.
- An ambulance took him to Natividad Medical Center. On the way he tried to assault a police officer and a fire department paramedic. At the hospital, he continued to struggle and had to be chemically restrained before he could be treated for the injuries he had incurred during the arrest.
- Those injuries were bruises on his arms and legs, a fractured leg, and a cut on his head requiring a few stitches.
- All uses of force by police are normally reviewed internally. In this case, in order to increase transparency, accountability and trust, the Chief of Police asked the District Attorney to conduct an independent investigation. The DA's investigation found that "after careful review of all of the available evidence, including independent consultations with two certified instructors in defensive tactics using baton and fixed stick weapons, there is insufficient evidence to prove any officer committed a crime during the incident." (The DA's July 1, 2015 press release is below.)
Click to see the original police press release.
2. Frequently asked questions about use of force in the Velasco arrest
Having seen only the widely circulated cell phone video, many people naturally ask the following questions. Because so many movies and TV shows are about police dealing with violent crime, many people assume they know how police are trained to deal with a violent suspect -- for example, by getting into a fist fight with him, shooting a gun out of his hand, or shooting him in the arm or leg. But the reality is very different from what you see in movies and TV shows. In real world situations, police use of force is judged based on the best choices available in the moment to protect pubic safety. The logic behind that is often a surprise to lay people, but it is based on research into countless interactions with violent people.
Why did police officers hit Jose Velasco with batons?
There were several reasons:
Mr. Velasco had shown that he was extremely violent, first by attacking the woman who turned out to be his mother, and then by violently resisting arrest. If a person like that were allowed to escape, in this case into a densely populated area, the consequences could be awful, as we too often see on the news.
No force, and lesser force, had failed. Officers started with verbal commands, then tried to restrain him and handcuff him -- he threw several of them off -- and then Tased him three times. The Tasers had no effect on him, apparently because of his meth intoxication, as he confirmed later.
His extreme behavior and his imperviousness to Tasers indicated he was very high on meth, which made him even more dangerous. The officers had to assume that if if he was willing to attack armed police, he was very likely to attack defenseless people, and that the public was in grave danger at this point -- remember, he had already thrown a woman into traffic and attacked her.
During the struggle, he ripped an officer’s Taser off his belt. Going for an officer’s weapon is one of the most threatening things an arrestee can do, for an obvious reason -- what possible use could he have in mind for that weapon? Many of the officers killed in the line of duty are shot by suspects who manage to grab their gun, and the officers in this case would have to assume that if he had the chance not only would he try to incapacitate them with the Taser and escape, but that he might try to get their guns.
- At this point, the officers in this situation had essentially two options left: batons or their guns. Mr. Velasco’s behavior to this point, especially grabbing the Taser, had already put him at high risk of being shot -- not because he “deserved” it, but because the officers had an imperative to stop him so as to protect the public. But the officers chose to use batons next. Our officers hate to use batons, because unlike lesser force, they don’t just hurt, they can cause injury. So they are trained to hit only non-vital areas, such as the upper and lower legs and arms, avoiding joints. That’s what they were doing to Mr. Velasco. While it was no doubt painful, none of the injuries he incurred was serious. Note that despite claims of blows to his head requiring "a hundred staples" or similar, the only wound to his head was as a result of an accidental, glancing blow that had been aimed at his upper arm, and which required a few stitches.
Why did the officers keep hitting Jose Velasco when he was on the ground?
There were several reasons:
On the ground does not mean restrained. He continued to struggle and to try to reach for the fallen Taser.
Part of the reason for using batons is to maintain some distance. It would have been a bad idea for officers to get down on the ground and have a fight with him. That would bring the risk of having a gun grabbed, or of losing control and allowing him to escape, which again would put the public at grave risk. The officers’ first priority was to protect the public, not take risks by trying to win a fight on the ground.
- He continued to struggle and to refuse to show his hands. During an arrest, two things are critically important: the arrestee must stop moving and must show both hands. If he refuses to do either of those, he is behaving in a way that is extremely threatening -- and placing himself at great risk. The reason is that because so many people in our society are armed, officers have to assume that everyone is armed -- all the more so when a person is already behaving violently. Officers have to be sure the arrestee won't reach for a concealed weapon, because many officers get killed or injured when a suspect suddenly pulls out a gun or a knife. And unlike what you in movies and TV shows, it's impossible to react quickly enough after someone has started to draw a weapon -- it's already too late, the officer is going to get stabbed or shot. Officers can be injured and killed even during routine traffic stops (there are horrific videos of this online), let alone during a struggle with an extremely violent meth user. Late in the video, Mr. Velasco is still struggling and in particular is refusing to remove one of his hands from under his body. Again, the officers were not going to get down on the ground with him and try to make him do that. If he were in fact armed, he could easily shoot them before that happened, or, as mentioned, they might lose control of him and allow him to escape and hurt members of the public. The final baton blows were intended to make him stop struggling, stop reaching for the Taser, and show both of his hands.
Why didn't they try to "talk him down?" Clearly he wasn't in his right mind.
Our department is highly trained in, and committed to, nonviolent crisis intervention, i.e. with people who are mentally ill or, as in this case, high on drugs. But there were far too many members of the public in the immediate area to take the risk of allowing Mr. Velasco to harm one of them while police tried to talk to him.
We have hundreds of encounters per year with mentally ill or intoxicated people, and almost always they are resolved without force, because whenever it can be done safely, our officers will spend as long as it takes to talk to the person and convince them to get help. For example see this story from June 9, 2015.
Why didn't they use a gentler way of restraining him, like a tranquilizer dart or a net?
We constantly keep an eye out for lesser forms of force that we might be able to use, and would like nothing better than to be able to avoid ever using batons, guns, or any force at all for that matter. Where an option isn't being used, it's because it doesn't work well enough. Tranquilizing drugs, for example, can take a long time to act, require different doses for different people, and can be dangerous for some people. Nets are too heavy and bulky to be part of standard equipment for a patrol officer, and they're unreliable.
But when lesser force options do prove out, we adopt them. That's how Tasers came into widespread use. In the Velasco arrest, our officers tried Tasers three times (after trying verbal commands and grappling with him) before resorting to batons.
What about Jose Velasco's mother's claim that he wasn't trying to hurt her?
Below you can find the recording and transcript of the 911 call by his mother, Rita Acosta. During the call, you can hear Ms. Acosta at first calling Jose to come out of the traffic. Then, you can hear her screaming "Stop! No! Jose! Stop!" After that, the police arrive, and immediately order him to "Get off of her! Get off of her! Get off her!"
Fourteen other 911 calls had come in about Mr. Velasco in addition to the one from Ms. Acosta. In four of them, the callers described what he was doing to her. All of those callers said he was violently attacking her, saying things like "He's throwing her into traffic!" and "He's beating the sh*t out of her!"
3. Press conference, June 11, 2015
Salinas Police Chief Kelly held a press conference on Thursday, June 11, at which he released recordings and transcripts of the 911 calls that led to the Jose Velasco arrest, and announced that, in order to enhance public trust in the process, he was asking the Monterey County District Attorney to conduct an independent investigation of the arresting officers' use of force.
Other new information from the press conference and following Q & A:
- Multiple witnesses described Mr. Velasco as violently assaulting his mother.
- In an interview following his arrest, he told police that he was high on meth and alcohol at the time of the incident, although toxicology tests later showed that there was meth, but not alcohol, in his body. According to medical records released with his permission, he has used meth regularly since he was 12.
- Mr. Velasco has been diagnosed with specific drug-induced psychotic disorder, meaning that his temporary psychotic state was caused by his recent drug use.
- Mr. Velasco has a long criminal record and is a known Norteño gang member.
- Note that while information about Mr. Velasco's drug use, mental state and criminal record may be relevant in judging his likelihood to be violent, it is not directly relevant to judging the use of force by police. Police use of force is judged according to the level of force needed to address violence in the moment, not the cause of the violence.
For Part 2 of the press conference video, you can find the 911 call transcripts here.
4. Monterey County District Attorney's Press Release of July 1, 2015
CRIMINAL CHARGES FILED AGAINST SALINAS MAN BEATING HIS MOTHER; NO CHARGES FILED ON ARRESTING OFFICERS
Monterey County District Attorney Dean D. Flippo announced today the filing of three charges against Jose Velasco, age 28 of Salinas, for acts committed on June 5, 2015. The charges are felony assault likely to produce great bodily injury upon Velasco’s mother Rita Ramirez; removing Salinas Police Officer David Pritt’s taser while resisting arrest, a felony; and misdemeanor assault on firefighter Collin Mitchell. Velasco will be arraigned on July 2 in Department 11 at 1:30 pm.
Further, after careful review of all of the available evidence, including independent consultations with two certified instructors in defensive tactics using baton and fixed stick weapons, there is insufficient evidence to prove any officer committed a crime during the incident.
Under California Rule of Professional Conduct 5-120, a member of the bar shall not make an extrajudicial statement that has a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing a pending case. The reason for this rule is to prevent the parties from arguing their cases in the media. Thus, the rule preserves the right to a fair trial for both sides. The officers’ use of force and the admissibility of that evidence will be a material issue in Velasco’s case. Therefore, because of Velasco’s pending case, the District Attorney is prohibited from further explaining the decision not to file charges against the officers. Publicizing the facts and reasoning for the decision risks a substantial likelihood of prejudicing Velasco’s right to a fair trial. The District Attorney expects further evidence will be made public at Velasco’s preliminary hearing.
5. Police Chief Kelly McMillin's Remarks on the Results of the DA's Investigation of the Jose Velasco Arrest
As Prepared for Delivery
July 1, 2015
I’m satisfied with the DA’s finding that the officers’ use of force was justified.
As the DA says in his press release, we need to hold off discussing details of this finding because those details are going to be evidence in Mr. Velasco’s trial.
But I know many people are concerned about use of force, and speaking in general terms, I can help them understand how the law judges whether or not use of force is justified:
The most important guideline to remember is this: What level of force is needed to get control of this person? And it’s important to understand that, particularly in violent situations, we’re not addressing the cause of the behavior, but the behavior itself.
Officers are trained to use the minimum amount of force needed at the time. Here are different levels of force that are options, depending on the person’s behavior:
1. The lowest level of force — and the one we always prefer to use — is to tell someone to stop and surrender. Officers will usually do that several times if they can.
If the person can be contained, so that he doesn’t pose a threat, officers may talk to him for a very long time. If he appears to be mentally ill, they will use their Crisis Intervention Training, and/or bring in mental health professionals to help.
2. The next level of force is to try to grab the person — if that can be done safely.
3. The next level of force might be to try to Tase the person or spray them with pepper spray.
4. The next level of force might be to strike him with batons. We don’t like to use batons, because they don’t just hurt, like a Taser does, they can cause injuries. We use batons when other options have failed or it is apparent the other options won’t overcome the suspect’s resistance. Officers are trained to aim for the upper and lower legs and upper lower arms. They try to avoid hitting joints, the torso, the head or the spine.
Note that in order to subdue a person who is resisting violently, officers need to get him to stop resisting, to stop doing anything threatening like reaching for a visible weapon, and to show both hands so officers can know he isn’t reaching for a concealed weapon.
Let me emphasize that although I'm satisfied with the DA's finding, we are never happy about using force — we want to avoid it wherever possible. In this case, it's not that I think Mr. Velasco "deserved" to be hit with batons because he was high on drugs and was being very violent. Force should only be used to make an arrest when there's no alternative available. That's what happened in this case.