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SFPD’s Ugly History with Pepper Spray

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by Beth Winegarner
Nov. 30, 2011

When San Francisco Police came calling in June of 1995, 37-year-old Aaron Williams probably didn’t think it would be his last day on Earth. But as the pet-store-burglary suspect emerged from his house, a dozen officers piled on him. Police pepper-sprayed him, restrained him, and placed him face-down in a police van. Within an hour, he was dead.

That same month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California issued a sobering report on pepper spray, which had been legalized for police use in October 1992. By May 31, 1995, California law-enforcement officers had used it nearly 16,000 times, roughly 24 times per day. Twenty-six people had died — not including Williams — giving pepper-spray victims a 1-in-600 chance at death.

By October 1995, the San Francisco Police Department had updated its use-of-force policy, which details when and how pepper should be used. However, it appears that SFPD didn’t follow that policy six months later when officers picked up an incoherent Mark Garcia, then pepper-sprayed and hog-tied him. He died the next day, after suffering two massive heart attacks.

Since then, no one has died in SFPD custody following the use of pepper spray, according to Officer Albie Esparza. But with a wave of police pepper-spray attacks on Occupy Wall Street protests in Davis and across the United States, could it happen again?

“Davis was an eye-opener,” said Sean Seamans, a camper at Occupy San Francisco. “As with all ‘non-lethal’ items, as long as you put the ‘non’ in front, it gives you the excuse to use it liberally. And if you have asthma or respiratory issues, it puts lives at risk.”

Pepper spray, sometimes known by its formal name oleoresin capsicum, is a concentrated version of the substances that give spicy peppers their heat. In the human body, these substances release a brain-signaling compound called Substance P. Among other things, Substance P causes the airways to close, triggering uncontrollable coughing and making it difficult to breathe.

“Occupational Health Services, Inc., [a private research facility in Kansas City, Missouri], reported that because [oleoresin capsicum] caused the subject’s breathing passages to swell and constrict, the use of OC on persons with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma could, in rare instances, cause death,” according to the ACLU report.

Local police don’t see it that way. “People do not die from pepper spray itself. There are other, associated factors,” such as alcohol or drug use, as well as the “hog-tie” or hobble restraint, Esparza said. “The pepper spray we use is nothing more than Tabasco sauce in a canister.”

Hmm. According to Tabasco’s website, its spiciest sauce — made of habanero peppers — is a bit more than 7,000 on the Scoville scale, used to measure capsaicin’s potency. Meanwhile, U.S.-grade pepper spray rates somewhere above 2 million on the Scoville scale, according to Scientific American.

While the ACLU report called for better tracking and oversight into police use of pepper spray, other agencies went further. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights — then based in San Francisco, demanded a moratorium on the practice, in part because of its potential lethality. No police departments took them up on the demand, according to Ella Baker spokesman Abel Habtegeorgis.

“You’re quicker to use things like that because you’re told that this is not lethal, when in all actuality, your haste in using them can prove to be deadly,” Habtegeorgis said. “If police are going to have these weapons that can be deadly, they should use the same precaution they would use for a gun.”

Eight Headwaters Forest demonstrators won a victory over the police use of pepper spray in 2005, when a Humboldt County judge ruled that officers used excessive force in swabbing the stuff into protester’s eyes. However, the precedent only applies within that county, according to Headwaters Forest Defense spokeswoman Karen Pickett.

“It’s way too limited,” Pickett said. Although the Headwaters trial focused on pepper spray’s potential to cause permanent eye damage, some court evidence showed that it can be fatal when people have respiratory problems.

No Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have died after being pepper-sprayed — and SFPD hasn’t used it on local protesters, according to Esparza and Seamans.

During a recent raid, “I had eight officers on me at one time, and pepper spray was threatened,” Seamans said. He keeps goggles and a respirator at hand, just in case.

“Officers don’t like to use force unless we have to,” Esparza said. “But when someone’s given a lawful order, it’s against the law for them not to follow those orders. If you do what the officer tells you, there’s no need for further escalation.”

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly’s online news column, The Snitch.

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Written by Beth Winegarner

November 30, 2011 at 8:20 PM

Outgoing state Sen. Jackie Speier says farewell

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
November 23, 2006

Outgoing state Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, has authored some 300 successful bills in her 18 years as a state representative, but her major regret upon leaving office is that she couldn’t do more to reform California’s prison system.

Speier, speaking at a press conference in San Mateo on Wednesday, said she once spent a day and night in Chowchilla’s Valley State Prison for Women. While there, she met a 21-year-old mother of two who had been convicted of three DUIs.

“I asked her whether she had received any programming, and she said she hadn’t. She had been there 18 months and had not received a single day of rehabilitation,” Speier said.

While crime has gone down, prison populations have risen. Roughly 80 percent of women in California’s 33 prisons are incarcerated for minor crimes, but held in medium-security prisons, Speier said.

Meanwhile, guards maintain “extraordinary power” and prisons are hemorrhaging money. She challenged Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to be courageous enough to create a better parole system.

Speier, 56, was born in San Francisco and raised in Burlingame. She worked as a staffer for Congressman Leo Ryan, and was shot five times in November 1978 during a fact-finding mission regarding the Rev. Jim Jones and his People’s Temple human-rights abuses.

Speier served on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors from 1980 to 1986, when she was elected to the California Assembly. She moved to the state Senate in 1998, and this month lost the Lieutenant Governor’s race to Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi.

During that time, she also suffered two miscarriages, lost her first husband, Steven Sierra, in a car accident and became the first woman to give birth while serving in the California Legislature.

Though she has risen to state politics, Speier’s legacy is still felt widely in San Mateo County, according to Supervisor Jerry Hill.

“Every aspect of our life and our children’s life is better, healthier and safer because of Jackie. She is a giant of integrity and a giant of compassion,” Hill said.

Assemblyman Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, will succeed Speier in representing District 8 and said he plans to continue fighting for some of her key causes, including education and health care, particularly for children.

Speier plans to spend some time as a stay-at-home mom with her two children. In March, she’ll launch her first book, “This Is Not the Life I Ordered,” co-authored with friends Jan Yanehiro, Deborah Collins, Stephens and Michealene Cristini Risley.

Don’t think Speier has given up politics for good, however. When asked whether she would consider running for governor, she paused, and then nodded.

“If the opportunity availed itself, I think I could run this state very well,” she said.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

November 23, 2006 at 9:52 PM

Outgoing state Sen. Jackie Speier says farewell

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
November 23, 2006

Outgoing state Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, has authored some 300 successful bills in her 18 years as a state representative, but her major regret upon leaving office is that she couldn’t do more to reform California’s prison system.

Speier, speaking at a press conference in San Mateo on Wednesday, said she once spent a day and night in Chowchilla’s Valley State Prison for Women. While there, she met a 21-year-old mother of two who had been convicted of three DUIs.

“I asked her whether she had received any programming, and she said she hadn’t. She had been there 18 months and had not received a single day of rehabilitation,” Speier said.

While crime has gone down, prison populations have risen. Roughly 80 percent of women in California’s 33 prisons are incarcerated for minor crimes, but held in medium-security prisons, Speier said.

Meanwhile, guards maintain “extraordinary power” and prisons are hemorrhaging money. She challenged Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to be courageous enough to create a better parole system.

Speier, 56, was born in San Francisco and raised in Burlingame. She worked as a staffer for Congressman Leo Ryan, and was shot five times in November 1978 during a fact-finding mission regarding the Rev. Jim Jones and his People’s Temple human-rights abuses.

Speier served on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors from 1980 to 1986, when she was elected to the California Assembly. She moved to the state Senate in 1998, and this month lost the Lieutenant Governor’s race to Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi.

During that time, she also suffered two miscarriages, lost her first husband, Steven Sierra, in a car accident and became the first woman to give birth while serving in the California Legislature.

Though she has risen to state politics, Speier’s legacy is still felt widely in San Mateo County, according to Supervisor Jerry Hill.

“Every aspect of our life and our children’s life is better, healthier and safer because of Jackie. She is a giant of integrity and a giant of compassion,” Hill said.

Assemblyman Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, will succeed Speier in representing District 8 and said he plans to continue fighting for some of her key causes, including education and health care, particularly for children.

Speier plans to spend some time as a stay-at-home mom with her two children. In March, she’ll launch her first book, “This Is Not the Life I Ordered,” co-authored with friends Jan Yanehiro, Deborah Collins, Stephens and Michealene Cristini Risley.

Don’t think Speier has given up politics for good, however. When asked whether she would consider running for governor, she paused, and then nodded.

“If the opportunity availed itself, I think I could run this state very well,” she said.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

November 23, 2006 at 2:22 AM

Retired justice to investigate charges against coroner

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
June 8, 2006

A retired Court of Appeal justice will investigate allegations that San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault allowed and participated in sexual and off-color jokes, teasing and lewd behavior in the Coroner’s Office.

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to hire retired Justice Zerne Haning to investigate the allegations, which the County Counsel’s Office made public last week. The allegations stem from a complaint made by an anonymous Coroner’s Office employee, who notified the county’s personnel department of the alleged problems last August.

“The report indicated there were some concerns about an atmosphere where sexually charged comments and things of that nature were occurring,” Deputy CountyCounsel Michael Murphy said. “Justice Haning will be doing fact-finding to determine if there is something to those allegations.”

Foucrault, 43, appears to have beaten write-in candidate and Coroner’s Office employee Stacey Nevares in Tuesday’s election for the coroner’s seat, although no count of the write-in votes was available. The county Elections Office has not yet counted some 20,000 absentee and provisional ballots, according to elections officer David Tom. So far, more than 63,000 residents have voted for Foucrault.

Nevares has denied any knowledge of the complaint prior to its public release last week, shortly before the election, but described the atmosphere at the Coroner’s Office as “hostile.”

Investigating the claims was the responsible thing to do, according to Board of Supervisors President Jerry Hill. If Haning finds Foucrault guilty of wrongdoing, the Board of Supervisors will determine what to do next. However, only the voters have the authority to remove Foucrault from office, Murphy said.

The allegations made in the letter and uncovered in a subsequent investigation by Mary Kabakov, director of employee and public services for the county, included frequent sexual banter and innuendo in the Coroner’s Office; teasing about an employee’s sexual orientation; decorations of a sexual nature on a birthday cake; and one incident in which Foucrault is alleged to have “mooned” employees. Kabakov’s investigation, given to county counsel in September, also found that staff had not received proper training in sexual harassment policies, although Foucrault himself received the training in 2000.

Foucrault denied initiating the sexual comments or jokes, according to Kavakov’s report. Foucrault’s attorney, Bill Rapoport, said the complaint should have remained a confidential personnel matter.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

June 8, 2006 at 9:56 PM

Report says Coroner’s Office has ‘inappropriate’ atmosphere

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
June 5, 2006

A county investigation has found “repeated inappropriate behaviors of a sexual nature” over the last six years in the form of off-color jokes and lewd behavior at the San Mateo County Coroner’s Office.

The report was made public shortly before Tuesday’s election, in which county Coroner Robert Foucrault faces a write-in candidate in an attempt to secure his position.

An investigation by Mary Kabakov, director of employee and public services for the county, was launched in response to an anonymous complaint in August last year.

A report was made to the county counsel in September but not made public until last week.

Kabakov’s report stated that employees “engaged in a pattern of sexual behaviors dating back to at least 2000,” including sexual banter, innuendo, decorations of a sexual nature on a birthday cake and teasing about one employee’s sexual orientation.

“The investigation supports that, more likely than not, repeated inappropriate behaviors of a sexual nature did occur that a reasonable person would find offensive,” the report said.

Staff had not taken part in sexual harassment training nor signed county policies, although Foucrault himself received the training in 2000, according to the report.

The report also found it probable that Foucrault, 43, had “mooned” employees in one incident, based on the reports of two employees. Foucrault denied exposing himself, according to the report.

“Foucrault stated that he finds it a challenge to balance how to allow staff to let off steam for working a tough job versus behaviors that may be inappropriate,” the report said, later adding: “He denied initiating comments or sexual jokes and states when he hears or sees something questionable he ‘shuts it down.’”

No legal claims have been filed against Foucrault, who did not return a call seeking comment Sunday. He faces competition in Tuesday’s election from Stacie Lynn Nevares, a Coroner’s Office employee who has qualified as a write-in candidate.

Nevares said Sunday that she knew nothing about the complaint.

Shortly before Kabakov’s report was made public, San Mateo County Supervisor Jerry Hill publicly pulled his endorsement of Foucrault’s campaign.

“There are a number of reasons [why I pulled my endorsement],” Hill said. “I talked to the coroner specifically about why I was withdrawing, and I want to leave it at that.”

Much of the banter allegedly focused on Deputy Coroner Felipe Fernandez, who shares a birthday with Foucrault.

Their 2005 birthday cake was topped with a negligee-clad female statue, which was then placed in full view on Fernandez’s desk, the anonymous tipster told Kabakov.

Employees frequently made jokes questioning Fernandez’s sexual orientation, but some workers claimed Fernandez helped foster the office’s off-color atmosphere, according to interviews in the report. Fernandez could not be reached for comment Sunday.

The alleged activity may predate Foucrault, who took the top coroner’s post after Coroner Adrian “Bud” Moorman died in 2001.

A female investigator, whose name is blacked out in Kabakov’s report, said her blouse was ripped off; when she reported it, Moorman allegedly told her, “Good, you can quit.”

The same employee depicted the atmosphere in the Coroner’s Office as “lighthearted and fun,” and peppered with “sick humor” regarding “difficult cases, death and body parts,” the report states.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

June 5, 2006 at 9:54 PM

Election over, but campaign wounds linger

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Beth Winegarner
Daily News Staff Writer
November 22, 2005

Wounds inflicted during this month’s Redwood City Council election may take some time to heal.

Fellow Planning Commission members Richard Claire and Hilary Paulson found themselves on opposite sides of the fence after Claire headed a political-action committee that launched hit pieces opposing Paulson in the days before the November election.

Incumbent Diane Howard, a longtime supporter of Paulson’s, is listed as the controlling candidate for the group, known as the Redwood City Citizens for Effective Government.
Paulson and Claire have not spoken since the election.

“I don’t know what I’ll say to him,” Paulson said. “He’s somebody I thought was a friend.”

“Hilary was a friend of mine,” Claire said. “She was. Probably not anymore.”

Howard has apologized privately for the negative campaign, according to Paulson. The council member, who encouraged Paulson to seek a seat on the Planning Commission five years ago, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Both Paulson and newcomer Adrian Brandt lost in the election against incumbents Howard, Jeff Ira, Jim Hartnett and Alicia Aguirre on a platform that included criticism of the City Council’s support for the controversial Marina Shores project.

So far, no one has claimed authorship of the two hit pieces against Paulson and Brandt, which arrived, unsigned, in local mailboxes in early November.

“I had no part of it. But I am the treasurer, so I have to take full responsibility,” Claire said.

They were sent in response to pieces supporting Paulson and Brandt written by the Friends of Redwood City, a political group born of residents” opposition to the Marina Shores project, according to Claire.

The Friends of Redwood City mailer “had a lot of things in it I was really upset about,”
Claire said.

Paulson and others were disturbed by the tone and near-anonymity of the Citizens mailers, which bore only the name of the group.

“Ours were positive, in the sense they didn’t particularly attack anybody and were signed by the people who sent them,” said Friends of Redwood City member Ralph Nobles. “The others were just negative.”

On Nov. 1, the Citizens group received a $5,000 donation from PG&E — the electric company’s only contribution to an active political campaign in San Mateo County. The San Mateo Building Trades Council, Pellarin Enterprises, developer Max Keech and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers also chipped in $500 apiece.

The mailers opposing Paulson and Brandt were mailed days after the donations were made. One flier accused the candidates of ignoring or “bulldozing” those who disagreed with them, while the other claimed Paulson opposed the development of Redwood Shores, and accused her of having no respect for that community.

Paulson agreed that during a Sept. 29 candidates forum she made critical statements about the design for Redwood Shores that were used in the mailer, but said they were taken out of context.

Claire said he was out of town when the Citizens mailers were sent and doesn’t know who created them. Both Ira and Nobles said they did not know who was responsible, and Hartnett and Aguirre could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Locals also took note of PG&E’s donation. Spokesman Paul Moreno said that PG&E regularly contributes to political campaigns, but could not explain why the company was interested in supporting the political-action committee.

This article originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily News.

Written by Beth Winegarner

November 22, 2005 at 9:10 PM

Posted in Politics, Redwood City

No conflict of interest for Grocott

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Beth Winegarner
Daily News Staff Writer
June 15, 2005

San Carlos Vice Mayor Matt Grocott’s stock holdings in Varian Medical do not make him liable for conflict of interest, according to the city’s attorney.

Varian Medical once owned the site near Holly and Industrial roads now being eyed by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation for a new facility in San Carlos. City officials are in ongoing talks with PAMF and will eventually approve or deny the foundation’s development plans.

Last month, Grocott was called to task for not disclosing his stock holdings, including those in Varian, to the City Clerk’s office.

According to the California Fair Political Practices Committee, publicly traded companies must show that they will gain or lose a minimum of $200,000 from an action before their stakeholders face a conflict-of-interest issue.

“It does not appear that Varian Medical has any remaining interest in the property,” Lanzone said. He learned the information from Alan Palter, an attorney for Varian.

Grocott’s stock disclosures became the focus of several media reports and a public discussion among City Council members at a meeting May 9.

The Vice Mayor had submitted a California Form 700 — a statement of economic interests — with San Mateo County when he became a member of the library joint powers authority. He thought that filing was sufficient, because the county has a larger jurisdiction than the city.

On May 13, he disclosed his holdings with San Carlos.

According to his paperwork, Grocott owns more than $10,000 in shares in Cisco Systems, UBS and Varian Medical. His holdings in Altria, Adobe Systems, Clorox, Dell Computer, Dow Chemical, Ingersoll Rand and General Electric are less than $10,000 each, and he owns an unknown number of shares in Chevron Texaco.

He is also a shareholder with his own firm, Grocott Design, and his wife owns more than $10,000 in shares in UBS.

This article originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily News.

Written by Beth Winegarner

June 15, 2005 at 9:23 PM

Posted in Politics, San Carlos