Jeff Jardine

Jardine: Guardians or warriors? Ceres arrest video mirrors question on Friday posted a Washington Post story headlined, “New style of police training aims to produce ‘guardians,’ not ‘warriors.’ 

Indeed, confrontations between law enforcement and the public that turn ugly – and in an age where everything is caught on camera and posted instantly online – are making sheriffs and police chiefs across the country rethink the aggressive tactical approach and teaching more tact instead.

A misdemeanor case wending its way through Stanislaus Superior Court and likely headed toward a civil lawsuit as well is a microcosm of that very issue: When to use force to subdue a suspect or diplomacy in an attempt to defuse a situation before it gets to that point.

In April 2014, Ceres police dispatchers received a call, presumably from a resident of a trailer park, who reported three men fighting and possibly drinking outside a mobile home where one of the men lived. Officers Frederico Ortiz and Brittney England arrived at the scene, pulling up in front of the space where Gary Wylam, now 55, resided. A third officer, Jeremy Lewis, arrived shortly thereafter.

Captured on video by Wylam’s security camera, footage shows the officers taking one of the men, handcuffed, toward the patrol car. Wylam, meanwhile, stands near or leans against the lowered tailgate of his pickup. There is no sound accompanying the video, which was provided to The Bee by Wylam through his attorney, Cort Wiegand of Modesto. Thus, there is no way to know exactly what was said.

In his report, Ortiz wrote that he told Wylam to stop trying to put his hands into his pockets, fearing Wylam could have a weapon. In the video, Wylam’s hands are visible except when he uses one to extract his wallet from his back pocket.

After Wylam tosses the wallet onto the tailgate, Ortiz suddenly moves toward Wylam and takes him by the arm. England comes around behind him and they walk Wylam to the front of the parked patrol car, where they bend him over to handcuff him. Before doing so, England pulls him back up and then shoves him down onto the hood of the car. Over the next minute or two, things get, well, interesting. They stand Wylam back up and move him away from the patrol car, still not handcuffed, to take him to the ground instead. Wylam tumbles to the pavement, and England falls with him.

England, in her report, wrote that Wylam’s arm wrapped around her upper thigh and near the holster that contained her stun gun. In the video, his arm does cross over England’s leg, but he withdraws it as he tries to get to his feet. Ortiz then draws his club and strikes Wyman three times. England knees him in the head five times. Lewis then pulls Wylam’s shirt up and Ortiz uses a stun gun on him, with both darts hitting him in the torso. Ortiz stuns him again in the leg, apparently because the first two darts were too close together to register the desired effect. They roll him over and cuff him at that point.

The police report detailed Wylam’s blood alcohol content as 0.29 on the first test, 0.28 on the second. The maximum allowable for a driver is 0.08, meaning he was very intoxicated. The law gives officers the discretion to arrest a person they deem to be a danger to the public or themselves, which is what England wrote in her report. Wylam was charged with resisting arrest.

So what should have happened? Those of us who grew up in the Andy Griffith era remember fondly how Mayberry’s town drunk, Otis Campbell, would let himself into the jail cell and sleep off his weekly Saturday night bender, getting a complimentary breakfast from Aunt Bee the next morning. Great TV, but it doesn’t work that way in real life.

Could they have talked him down instead of taking him down?

Had Wylam complied by willingly putting his hands behind his back and allowing them to cuff him without incident, it wouldn’t have gotten to that point. But he was really drunk, according to his blood alcohol readings, and balance probably wasn’t his strong suit under those conditions.

His attorney, Wiegand, believes the officers exacerbated the situation by the way they handled it, and as a result created the need for excessive force. Photos taken after the incident show bruises on Wylam’s body. Wylam also suffered a broken tooth, facial abrasions and a knee injury, Wiegand said. He believes the officers treated his client differently because he lives in a trailer park.

“I think that’s the truth,” Wiegand said. “I really do.”

Wylam’s record includes one felony and some misdemeanor convictions, mostly for alcohol or drug possession, and a misdemeanor for fishing without a license. This case is charged as a misdemeanor and is scheduled to return to court Monday.

Brent Smith, who became Ceres’ police chief earlier this year, said the officers’ actions were consistent with what the department taught at the time (2014), which was the Krav Maga self-defense methods developed for the military. Smith saw the video for the first time this week. Wiegand said he also provided a copy to the prosecutor.

“We’re getting away from that and going to more traditional methods of how we train,” Smith said. “He’s struggling with the officers. He’s so intoxicated that he isn’t complying. Sometimes, it looks violent when you have to use force. If they get him down and in handcuffs and are still kicking him, we’re done (meriting an internal affairs investigation). I don’t see that happening here. I don’t see anything over the top. I don’t see anything egregious.”

Since the incident, two of the three officers involved have left to work for departments elsewhere. Ortiz is on leave recovering from injuries sustained while riding his motorcycle and being struck by a drunken driver, Smith said.

The city settled a case in which Ortiz was accused of breaking a woman’s handcuffed arm when he reportedly slammed her against a patrol car in 2012. The city paid the woman $312,500 while admitting no wrongdoing and denying the allegations in court filings, and said the city’s risk-management provider made the call to settle it.

Smith said he believes the settlement – and The Bee’s reporting of it – has encouraged others including Wylam to make similar claims.

To that effect – accusations of police brutality – Smith said his officers all soon will be equipped with body cameras.

“We want to be as transparent as possible,” Smith said. “They’ll all have their own cameras by the end of the month.”

In Wylam’s case, his lawyer believes his clients’ camera puts the officers under a legal microscope.

Guardians or warriors?