Jonathan Smith, a longtime resident of Tulare, left his home Tuesday morning, August 25, to cash a check and stop at the hardware store. But a funny thing happened on the way to the bank. His twenty minute errand turned into a seventeen-hour ordeal and he didn’t make it home again until 2:30am the next morning.
According to Smith, he was slowly driving down South K Street when he noticed a police car following closely behind. Even though the police car did not have its lights flashing, Smith pulled into a mom-and-pop auto repair shop and stopped his car. He rolled down his window and asked the officer if he needed something. The officer asked to see Smith’s license and registration. Smith asked the officer to identify himself so he knew the officer was legitimate because he was acting funny. The officer responded by returning to his vehicle and calling for backup.
Within three minutes the compact parking lot was buzzing with five police cruisers. The same officer approached Smith’s open window with a ticket booklet and ordered Smith to sign his traffic ticket. Smith asked what the ticket was for. Because he inquired as to the nature of the ticket, which was interpreted by the gaggle of police as a refusal to sign, a second police officer reached into Smith’s car and pulled the handle. Before Smith knew what was happening he was laid out on the cement parking lot. On his way out of the car, the left side of his head was smashed against door. Once on the ground, the officer tried to grab Smith’s cell phone, which was recording the altercation. Smith hugged the phone tightly against his chest to protect it.
From the back seat of his car, Smith’s Golden Retriever, Chizum, leaped out to protect his owner. A policeman drew his gun on the dog. Another policeman saw the drawn gun and quickly tasered the dog to possibly avert his colleague from shooting Chizum. When Smith saw that his dog was in danger he handed his cell phone over to the officer in order to try and divert the attention away from Chizum.
The dog was hit in the mouth and bleeding as he ran into the four lanes of traffic on South K Street. A witness, Doug Emery, sitting only 20 feet away, tried to coax the dog out of the traffic and Chizum took refuge in the trailer park across from the shop.
After Smith relinquished his cell phone he was handcuffed with his hands behind his back. At this point, according to Emery, a police sergeant put his knee on Smith’s back and started pummeling Smith’s head.
“All I know is that they beat the s**t out of that boy and he was already down,” said Emery. By the seventh blow Emery yelled at the sergeant, “F**k he’s down already, quit socking him.” The sergeant continued punching Smith in the head until a police officer who seemed to be in charge told the policeman to stop. At that point the sergeant pulled Smith’s handcuffed hands as far up Smith’s back as possible and Smith had to take evasive action crawling up the side of his car to prevent both shoulders being dislocated. The sergeant then physically threw Smith into the back of his patrol car.
While Smith was sitting in the back of the patrol car wondering what had just happened, another scenario was unfolding at home just five minutes away. Smith’s foster father, Michael Koonce, was informed by their neighbor that they had seen his son being arrested at the auto-shop. Koonce then noticed that Chizum was missing but that the back gate was closed. He put two and two together and realized that Smith had taken Chizum on his errands and that the police must have taken possession of the dog.
After a few calls, Koonce found Chizum at Tulare Animal Services. According to Koonce, he went to the shelter to identify the dog but could not take possession himself. He had to wait for a police officer to bring the dog home. Half an hour later the officer arrived with the dog, but before he opened Chizum’s metal cage, he informed Koonce that he and Smith should be grateful that the Tulare Police Department did not shoot the dog. He said that they did, however, taser and pepper spray the dog. Koonce was so appalled by Chizum’s appearance and condition that he didn’t think to get the officers name or badge number.
Meanwhile, in the patrol car, the officers determined that because of Smith’s injuries, they had to get him cleared by a doctor before they put him in jail. According to Smith, they took him to Tulare Regional Medical Center, where Smith was cleared in 10 minutes by an ER doctor. From the hospital, Smith was taken to the Bob Wiley Detention Center. The reason for his detention was that he was pulled over for a vehicle code violation, and then arrested for resisting arrest.
It is important to note that Smith is a slight man born with spina bifida and at least 50 pounds lighter than any of the attending police officers.
While in his jail cell, Smith’s head throbbed from the beating and he was disorientated. He threw up several times and was ridiculed for missing the toilette. After six hours without improvement he was released. According to Smith’s lawyers, John Sarsfield and Maggie Melo, an individual can be held without charges for up to three days. But in cases where medical attention is needed, it is common practice to immediately release the detainee to avoid the cost of medical care, which is what happened in Smith’s case. Once released and in the care of his father, they drove straight to the hospital. Koonce, a former nurse, could see that Smith needed immediate medical attention. After an array of tests Smith was diagnosed with swelling of the brain, concussion, impaired vision, fluid on the knee and a bruised back. Smith is currently on crutches because of his injured knee.
His cell phone was not among the belongings returned to him up on his release.
Smith is scheduled to appear at Tulare County Superior Court on September 24. At the hearing the charges could either be dropped or the Tulare County District Attorney could order that Smith be charged with resisting arrest. In any case, Smith’s lawyers are hoping to get his cell phone back. Smith commented that the police recorded the incident also.
In the mean time, Sarsfield and Melo plan on filing a complaint for excessive force. They also plan on contacting the FBI. When asked why, Sarsfield said, “Because I’m sick of this crap.” He said for a county this small there are way too many cases of police brutality and he blames the District Attorney, Tim Ward. The law Offices of Sarsfield and Melo is currently handling from five to eight police brutality cases throughout Tulare County. Both Sarsfield and Melo said they are former police officers who have defended police in court, so they know both sides of the issue.
Sarsfield says that the Visalia Police Department isn’t perfect but they rarely see claims of police brutality coming out of that department. “It’s because of good management,” Melo said.
This is the second high-profile abuse case concerning the Tulare Police Department to hit the media. The Visalia Times-Delta reported on July 23 that a Lindsay woman is pressing charges for being detained for three days because she was talking on her cell phone while driving. The Tulare Police Department believe it was a case of mistaken identity.
In addition to the abuse cases, Tulare’s Police Chief, Jerry Breckinridge, was arrested for domestic violence in May and has since been put on administrative leave. Tulare’s Deputy City Manager, Margee Fallert, has been on administrative leave since April for undisclosed reasons. Taxpayers are paying $22,500 a month to keep these two high-ranking employees on paid leave.