SAN JOSE -- A keynote speaker at a San Jose State graduation ceremony has filed an excessive-force complaint against the San Jose Police Department and hopes his case can be a lightning rod for heavier scrutiny of the internal investigations that by and large clear officer misconduct claims from the public.
Hours after he spoke at SJSU's Black Graduation Ceremony in May, Nathaniel Howard said officers beat him and threw him to the ground across the street from a downtown nightclub because he questioned them as they were citing a friend for urinating in public -- a confrontation partially caught on video.
Howard was taken in handcuffs into police headquarters but later released without being cited for any offense.
Now supported by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Howard wants the officers who roughed him up disciplined. But the San Diego-based motivational speaker is also seeking to focus attention on the fact that department investigators almost always clear San Jose police officers of misconduct allegations.
Hundreds of use-of-force complaints have been lodged against San Jose police in recent years. All but one was dismissed.
"I'm not necessarily against the police," Howard told this newspaper. "I want to make people aware of what's going on and try to figure out what's going on and stop this excessive force."
Howard's complaint was submitted to the city's Independent Police Auditor, who forwarded it to the Internal Affairs division at SJPD. He is speaking out in part to put pressure on officials to be as transparent as possible, said Joanna Cuervas Ingram, an attorney with the Lawyers' Committee.
"What he is asking is that the allegations are sustained, that the investigation is done thoroughly, completely and fairly, and he receives an official written apology and assurances from IA and IPA that the department will conduct further training and education of officers of how to treat the public fairly," Cuervas Ingram said.
Sgt. Heather Randol said the department will not comment specifically about Howard's claim but defended the integrity of its internal affairs process and outlined its "proactive" response, which will include outreach at the university.
"We are conducting an administrative inquiry to determine if there are any training needs to address. We want our employees to know our policies and understand our expectations," Randol said. "Our Internal Affairs investigation will be fair and thorough and will undergo review by the Independent Police Auditor."
Misconduct allegations have been a sore point for police auditor LaDoris Cordell, a retired judge, who noted that in the past four years, only one of 463 excessive-force allegations was declared valid by Internal Affairs.
It could mean officers are behaving better than they have in the past, but Cordell said a more likely answer could lie in the narrow criteria for substantiating a complaint.
"It begs the question: Does that mean with these allegations of force, there's no merit to them? Or is it perhaps the manner in which the department evaluates force that leads to nothing getting sustained?" she said. "I'm of the view that all police departments should be looking at a definition that doesn't focus just on the act, but circumstances leading up to use of force."
The complaint also alleges an instance of "bias-based policing." Howard said an officer told him "You guys are ignorant," which he took as a racially charged comment uttered because Howard and most of the people in his party were black. In the department's entire history, no allegation of bias-based policing has ever been validated by investigators, Cordell said.
Howard, 23, was a featured guest at the university's Black Graduation Ceremony held May 23 in part because of his work spearheading a community program teaching high school students poetry in his native San Diego. After the event, he attended a party at the Agenda Lounge at South First and San Salvador streets.
Around 2 a.m. the next morning, Howard and a friend left the club and crossed the street to the former site of the Angels nightclub, where police saw the friend urinating in public. As the handful officers were writing a citation for the offense, Howard approached them to ask what they were doing and complain that they were handling his friend too roughly.
The officers told him to back away, and while Howard said that he followed their orders, he is shown in the video to remain in the vicinity. An officer shoved him, and he said as he was objecting to the contact, he was grabbed by two officers, one of whom hit him with a baton at least twice, after which another threw him to the ground.
"At no time did Mr. Howard pose any immediate danger to any SJPD officers or to public safety," the complaint states.
The San Jose Police Officers' Association, after viewing the same video, sees it differently.
"Simple, clear and reasonable commands from a police officer should always be followed, it is always unfortunate when those commands are not followed as it puts police officers and those we are sworn to protect in potential danger," union president Sgt. Jim Unland said in a statement. "We stand by those officers who were dealing with a very hostile situation that easily could have escalated and put officers and innocent civilians in harm's way. The video speaks for itself."
There's disagreement on that point in the video. As the physical encounter unfolds, some of Howard's acquaintances can be heard yelling "Stop resisting," while others say "He wasn't doing anything."
Howard hopes that by bringing attention to his case, he can spark more movement toward greater police transparency.
"I still have some bruises," he said. "It's still a very traumatic experience."
Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.
The video capturing the confrontation between San Jose police and Nathaniel Howard can be viewed online at http://youtu.be/5lnfcY3YWuY. WARNING: The video contains explicit language.