Even from a distance, the baton strikes are audible.
A seven-minute cellphone video taped from across the street shows a pair of police officers beating a man, slamming him to the ground and continuing to pummel him with batons. Bystanders scream as police cuff the man and escort him to the back of a patrol car.
A recording of the May 24 confrontation has made rounds after Nathaniel Howard, the man on the receiving end of those strikes, went public with an excessive-force complaint he filed against the San Jose Police Department.
“They forced me into a hold, picked me up and threw me back on the ground,” Howard told San Jose Inside. “The whole time, they hit me with batons, bruising my legs, forearms.”
Howard, a 23-year-old teacher from San Diego who delivered the keynote address earlier that day at San Jose State’s Black Graduation Ceremony, was released without any citation.
The complaint reignites a years-old controversy about the way the department handles claims of officer misconduct. Between 2010 and 2013, citizens logged 463 allegations of excessive force by San Jose officers. Only one was sustained after being investigated by the agency’s internal affairs department.
“We find that very concerning,” said Joanna Cuevas Ingram, Howard’s attorney through the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. “We just hope internal affairs investigates this in good faith.”
In 2013, 2012 and 2010, SJPD dismissed every single force allegation, Ingram noted. Yet in her latest report, Independent Police Auditor LaDoris Cordell found that 40 percent of those allegations included use of a “control hold” and 29 percent use of bodily weapons.
Since 2009, the city has shelled out nearly $7.9 million to settle 32 excessive-force lawsuits, according to the city attorney's office. A pending settlement may cost the city another $900,000, if the City Council approves the deal next month.
Howard says the SJPD never reached out to him after he filed multiple complaints. A statement came only after the case blew up in the media.
“The department has been proactive since we were made aware of the incident,” SJPD spokesman Officer Albert Morales said. “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. Additionally, we are conducting outreach within the community, specifically at SJSU.”
The police union firmly defended the officers’ actions.
"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,” Police Officers Association President 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."
Ingram agrees on that final point—albeit for different reasons.
“Just watch the video,” she urged.
The recording comes minutes after several police walked up to Howard’s friend, Joubert Ballard, to cite him for public urination.
As told in the complaint, it was around 2am and a crush of people were leaving a graduation party at Agenda nightclub in San Jose’s SoFA district. Howard, who was on the phone with his girlfriend, walked up to the officers and began questioning them about the way they were treating his friend. He said he didn’t see why they needed so many officers for a minor citation or why they were handling him so aggressively when he didn’t pose any threat to their safety.
“What’s going on?” he asked, walking up to his friend, still on the phone with his girlfriend.
According to the complaint, officers yelled back at Howard: “Move. You’re too close.”
Howard stepped back but continued to press them with questions about why they needed five or more officers to frisk Ballard.
“Move. You’re too close,” an officer repeated, according to the complaint. “You guys are so ignorant.”
That last remark really got to Howard.
“I went to USC,” he responded. “I’m educated and I know my rights.”
“You need to move,” the officer shouted, shoving Howard.
“Why are you touching me? I’m not doing anything!” Howard barked back, both hands in full view with one still clutching the cell phone.
The officers then resorted to physical force, subduing him in a control hold and slamming him with batons. Though the verbal exchange isn’t caught on video, that last part plays out in full view of the camera.
Cordell says her office needs to wait for SJPD to complete its internal investigation before she can start her review. That could take a few months to a year.
"Our purpose is to make sure that it’s thorough and objective," Cordell said. "If not, then we push back and say we disagree with this. Or we might initially agree with them. We have to see."
The San Jose incident wasn't Howard's first brush with racial profiling by police, he says. At a house party in Los Angeles last year, 80 officers responded in riot gear and a helicopter flew above after receiving noise complaints. Howard was at that party along with other mostly black and Latino students. The LAPD response elicited national scrutiny.
"I'm not anti-cop," Howard says. "I just think there needs to be communication between officers and their communities. There's a whole system that needs to be better understood, one that can be overly oppressive ... particularly to people of color."