San Jose police who shot tear gas and projectiles at people protesting George Floyd’s murder lacked training on how to safely deploy those kinds of weapons.
The complaint brought by civil rights attorney Sarah Marinho accuses the city of failing to teach officers how to use reasonable crowd-control measures, leading to tactics that exposed protesters to indiscriminate, excessive and unconstitutional force.
In painstaking detail, through the eyes of each plaintiff—Derrick and Cayla Sanderlin, Breanna Contreras, Pietro “Peter” di Donato, Shante Thomas, Adira Sharkey and Joseph Stukes—it describes the physical damage wrought by SJPD’s alleged brutality.
It argues that Chief Eddie Garcia, Capt. Jason Dwyer and Sgt. Christopher Sciba enabled the abuse by deploying officers ill-equipped to deal with protests and poorly trained on how to de-escalate tense situations.
As an SJPD Training Unit instructor, Sgt. Sciba—whose name recently came up in connection to an investigation into Islamophobic Facebook comments—prepared a 50-page presentation on how to use less-lethal crowd-control weapons that included no mention of de-escalation. According to Marinho, it also made light of some of the dangers of such tactics and ended with directives to “not hesitate” and “always win.”
One slide features a Far Side comic that “mocks shots to the groin,” the lawsuit states. “The cartoon depicts two cavemen who fell a giant mammoth with their tiny arrow by shooting it in the groin,” per the complaint. “This slide immediately follows the slide which covers where the shooter should aim and which body parts to avoid.”
The comic may have prompted a few chuckles in class, but the fact that officers actually shot one of the plaintiffs—29-year-old Derrick Sanderlin—in the groin makes Sgt. Sciba’s attempt at humor seem particularly galling in hindsight.
Derrick and his wife Cayla spent hours at the May 29 protest before getting caught up in the chaos caused by SJPD trying to kettle protesters. At about 6pm, Cayla “began to fear for her safety,” so she tried to get out of dodge by making her way to Pho Passion restaurant. But she found herself stuck between two lines of officers, each side barking conflicting commands about where protesters should go.
“An elderly couple who appeared to be in their seventies were also trapped with Cayla,” the lawsuit states. “Cayla was frightened when she saw an officer use the tip of his rifle to push the elderly gentleman. Cayla saw officers push demonstrators with their batons and continue to fire projectiles into the crowd. Cayla saw a young man get shot in the ribcage which knocked the wind out of him, and his friends had to help him to safety. Around this time the police were also using flash bang grenades.”
“Cayla could not control her tears and shaking.”
Horrified by the violent turn of events, Cayla found Derrick among a throng of demonstrators and implored him to take her home. Her husband suggested she take a walk to collect herself because—as someone who spent years helping training SJPD recruits to keep their subconscious biases in check—he felt an obligation to stay in solidarity with fellow protesters.
Cayla agreed and met up with a friend to stand behind the line of officers and pray for the safety of her husband and other protesters. After about 15 minutes of bearing witness and praying, Cayla called for Derrick, who had wandered out of her line of sight.
Derrick heard her calls and shouted that he had just been shot.
As Cayla prayed, Derrick found himself face to face with a line of officers firing riot guns at protesters in close range. According to the lawsuit and video footage that captured the incident at Fifth and Santa Clara streets, Derrick—holding a carton of milk in one hand and a cardboard sign that read “We R Worthy of Life” in the other—raised his arms in surrender and begged officers to stop shooting people.
One of the cops in the skirmish line opposite Derrick was Officer Jared Yuen, whose video-captured taunts of protesters vaulted him to viral infamy that weekend.
“Video of the incident shows officers, including Officer Jared Yuen, escalating the crowd and shooting people at close range,” according to the lawsuit. “Defendant Yuen is also captured on video around this time saying, ‘shut up, bitch,’ to a young woman who asked him why he was ‘on that side of the line.’ Then a protestor is heard saying ‘f*ck you,’ causing Yuen to rush forward and shoot towards the protester out of anger, and not because the use of force was reasonable.”
None of Yuen’s colleagues or supervisors intervened or reported his behavior, per the claim, thus exposing protesters to his “abusive tactics.”
“Video shows a nearby officer said to his colleague, ‘Black guy … trash can,’ and motioned toward Derrick Sanderlin,” the lawsuit goes on to state. “The colleague responded ‘copy,’ and motioned to another officer who then rushes over and fires at Derrick.”
Marinho says Yuen shot Derrick “at least once,” along with two other officers who fired rubber bullets at him. One of those shots struck Derrick in the groin, rupturing a testicle and potentially sterilizing him for life.
After the groin shot, another officer lobbed a metal canister at Derrick, “which is not an authorized use of the riot gun, according to manufacturer guidelines,” the lawsuit alleges.
Derrick fell to the ground, immobilized by the wound. None of the officers rendered aid.
Thankfully, some bystanders rushed to help after seeing him lying alone on the sidewalk by First Methodist Church, unable to walk. As a friend ran to get her car, Cayla tried to get Derrick up on his feet to help him shuffle away from the scene, which had become so choked with tear gas that the couple could barely breathe and barely open their eyes enough to see where they were going. “Once they got to the corner of Fifth and St. John,” the lawsuit goes on to say, “Derrick lay on the ground because it hurt to walk. Cayla remembered that she had packed a bag of frozen okra to keep the milk they brought to the protest cold, and she gave it to Derrick to ice his groin.”
The Sanderlins’ friend drove them home rather than risk exposing them to COVID-19 at the local hospital. But the pain reportedly grew so unbearable that Derrick went the next day to a doctor, who performed an ultrasound.
But Derrick’s pain and swelling got worse, so Cayla took him to an emergency room for urgent surgery to stitch up the rupture. “Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Cayla was not allowed inside to support Derrick during this traumatic time,” according to the lawsuit, “and she instead had to wait in the hospital parking lot alone.”
Derrick left the hospital with a three-inch surgical scar on his scrotum as well as scabs from where rubber projectile had broken skin on his penis, Marinho says.
Days after the incident, Derrick told San Jose Inside that the pain was unimaginable and the uncertainty over his reproductive future psychologically devastating.
According to Marinho, officers never warned Derrick about their plan to use force and violated their own standards prohibiting shots to the groin. “When an officer uses ‘less-lethal’ weapons on a person, injury should be expected,” Marinho states in the legal claim. “Upon contact with a human body the object creates an impact shock wave and produces blunt force trauma. The kinetic energy created by a thrown fastball pitch is 97 foot-pounds, while a 40-gram bean bag round like the ones shot at San Jose protestors on May 29, 2020, creates 120 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. Rubber bullets, foam batons, and bean bag rounds are used as a form of pain compliance. Less-lethal projectiles can cause serious injury when deployed from distances of less than 15 feet. Firing these ‘less-lethal’ impact munitions at the groin, head, neck or chest is lethal force.”
Eye for an Eye
About an hour before Derrick crumpled to the ground in pain, a rubber bullet struck 21-year-old Breanna Contreras in the right temple while another hit 75-year-old Pietro “Peter” di Donato in the lower left leg.
A veteran of anti-Vietnam War protests, di Donato joined the march earlier in the day to support the Black Lives Matter demonstrators—many of whom looked very young, no older than high school students. When police began getting rough with the protesters, di Donato approached them to ask that they ease up.
“You should not be doing this,” di Donato reportedly told a cop. “This is wrong!”
One of the officers responded by threatening di Donato with a baton and telling him to back up. The elderly protester complied, moving a few feet away, but the cops fired rubber bullets, flash grenades and tear gas anyway.
“The use of force was prolonged, unnecessary, and an egregious overreaction for any failure to disperse,” the lawsuit claims. “Peter at this point resolved not to back up any further in protest to this conscious shocking excessive use of force and stood his ground. An officer shot Peter in his lower left leg above his ankle. The pain was strong and immediate, so Peter retreated to the side of the street and took cover behind a streetlamp pole because he feared being shot in the eyes.”
After mustering enough composure, di Donato returned to the street “despite the constant barrage from SJPD, so as to not let them ‘win’ with their abusive tactics,” per the claim. He finally went home at about 6pm to ice his wound and share time-stamped, geo-located video of the incident with friends and family.
Like di Donato, Adira Sharkey joined protesters that day after observing them for a while from her home in downtown. But she, too, found herself caught in the fray of what the lawsuit describes as “police-created chaos.”
After enduring hours of aggressive crowd-control tactics, Sharkey walked over to Plaza de Cesar Chavez where fellow demonstrators were regrouping. But police kept firing tear gas at people in the park. Some of the chemical got in Sharkey’s eyes, forcing them shut until bystanders flushed it out with water.
Once she could see again, she says she recognized some of the protesters as recent graduates from Del Mar High School, where she works as a bilingual aide.
“At that point, Adira felt that her role at the protests changed from just being a demonstrator, to feeling protective of these former students from her school and she worried about them facing police brutality,” the lawsuit states. “She later saw them across the street and crossed the street to give them her phone number, telling them that she lived nearby in case anything happened to them or they needed anything. Right after saying goodbye to the teens, Adira crossed the street and had re-entered Cesar Chavez park where her roommates stood, when she suddenly felt the painful impact of a rubber bullet in the back side of her ribs.”
The rubber round hit Sharkey so hard it took her breath away.
“The wind was almost knocked out of her,” per the claim, “and she hunched over and hobbled over to hide behind a redwood tree and catch her breath. She felt nauseous and stunned. The shot came out of nowhere because she had not realized she was in the line of fire and she thought the park was a safe place to gather.”
On May 30, the second day of the protests, 46-year-old Shante Thomas watched the events unfold from her third-story apartment across from City Hall when one of the rubber baton rounds pelted her while in the supposed safety of her own home.
It came around 11:45pm, after she had hollered out the window to let police know that she was watching and recording them.
“The next thing she knew, she heard the blast of a weapon and glass shattering as her living room window broke in her face,” per the lawsuit.
“She was struck in the chest with a rubber bullet and would later find a total of 13 projectiles in her one-bedroom apartment, her walls scarred with gashes from the rubber bullets,” the lawsuit reads. “The SJPD officers also shot out her bedroom window and launched a tear gas canister into her apartment, causing her to cough and her eyes burn so much that she had to temporarily vacate the apartment.”
According to Marinho, Sgt. Jonathan Byers—a veteran officer with a long record of at times literally bone-breaking brutality—“was present and participated in the use of force on Shante as retaliation for her filming police and criticizing their abuse of protesters.”
“Byers lied and said that beer bottles were being thrown from Shante’s unit, when this is demonstrably false,” the lawsuit claims. “SJPD officers then lied to the security guard and/or building management, saying that someone from Shante’s unit had been throwing beer bottles at police prior to the shooting. This resulted in Shante’s landlord sending her a notice to cease and telling her to pay to replace the windows since she had thrown beer bottles at police and therefore been the cause of the damage.”
A lawsuit filed against Byers years ago accused him of engaging in “a pattern of behavior” that includes using “excessive force against persons of color” and then crafting “a story to justify his actions,” the claim notes. Despite more than a dozen misconduct claims to Byer’s name, however, the lawsuit says SJPD exposed the public to further abuse by allowing him to rise through the ranks, awarding him sergeant stripes in 2019.
On June 2, the fifth day of anti-brutality protests and third night of the city’s hastily enacted curfew, police simply waited until the clock struck 8:30pm to begin arresting people for the crime of staying out too late.
Joseph “JT” Stukes stood among about 150 demonstrators protesting the curfew when police made him the subject of targeted harassment, the lawsuit says.
From the sidewalk outside City Hall, Stukes shouted at police about how they were violating the public’s First Amendment rights. “Stifling speech is fascist,” he told them, according to video of the incident.
“JT continued his protest until he was rushed by dozens of SJPD officers, at which point he complied with the armed officers and was dispersing in the only available direction due to the kettling, when he was purposely tripped from behind by an officer,” the lawsuit alleges. “As a result of the trip, JT fell and bloodied his hands and knees.”
Even with Stukes posing no threat on the ground, officers shot him with rubber bullets, striking the back of his left hip and the back of his right leg, where one of the 40mm foam baton rounds left a nine-inch bruise. Other officers shot him with bean bag rounds, one of which ripped a hole through his backpack.
All told, he says officers shot at him about 50 times.
SJPD officials declined to comment on pending litigation.
But in multiple press conferences and public statements after the first several days of protests, city officials defended police actions. Chief Garcia and Mayor Sam Liccardo commended officers for showing “restraint.” Capt. Dwyer told reporters that he had no regrets about authorizing the use of less-lethal weapons.
To this day, the plaintiffs say they’re still recovering from their injuries.
Derrick and Cayla have had to research fertility options such as freezing sperm. Contreras has a quarter-sized scar on her head.
Sharkey struggled to breathe for days after getting hit, while di Donato has suffered so much pain that he’s had to forgo his usual near-daily hikes.
Thomas has had to follow up with her doctor about the strike to her chest, which hit close to her heart, and continues to suffer flashbacks and the sense that her home is unsafe.
In addition to seeking unspecified monetary damages in an amount to be determined at trial, the lawsuit demands that SJPD train its officers in proper crowd-control techniques to avoid the kind of chaos that resulted in so many injuries.