A Santa Monica Police Department squad car leaves the Public Safety Facility on Tuesday. (Daniel Archuleta daniela@www.smdp.com)

A judge has awarded a Santa Monica man $1.1 million in a police brutality case.

A federal judge rendered the verdict last week in favor of Justin Palmer, an African-American man who was arrested while charging his electric vehicle at Virginia Ave. Park.

Palmer is a NYU grad and father of four with no criminal history and was at the park’s electric car charging station on the evening of April 21. He was asked to leave the charging station by police officers who said the park had closed for the night and police say Palmer refused to provide identification when officers tried to issue a citation. Palmer’s attorney said the park was not closed, that officers singled out Palmer while others continued to use the park and that Palmer questioned the need for his identification because he felt he had done nothing wrong.

During the interaction with police, Palmer was tackled to the ground, pepper-sprayed and arrested. Palmer subsequently filed a federal lawsuit claiming police used excessive force.

Two officers were taken to trial over the incident and the jury exonerated one while finding the other did use excessive force. Palmer’s attorney, Justin Sanders, said his client was knocked unconscious by the takedown and was barely awake at the time he was pepper-sprayed. He said the testimony of eye-witnesses reinforced Palmer’s assertion that he was not a threat.

“There were eye witnesses standing 25 feet away who testified (Palmer) appeared to be unconscious for a significant amount of time,” he said.

Palmer said the verdict should be seen as a beginning, not an end, to the discussion. “I think (the police) probably need to evaluate how they look into matters like this because when you think of a police officer, you think of their duty, their sense of brotherhood, how courageous they are in times of crisis, but you don’t really think of them being able to self-evaluate, self-assess or deconstruct their problems,” he said. “You would think if you have witnesses that are telling you something is wrong you should be able to look into that and see what we could have done to make this better and it seems like they’re lacking that.”

Palmer said the institution of law enforcement has a bias against black men, regardless of the race or gender of the individual officer. The two officers taken to trial in Palmer’s case were Hispanic and Asian. Jacqueline Seabrooks, Santa Monica’s Police Chief, is an African-American woman but Palmer said being a police officer overrides any other demographic affiliation. “To me it’s a great thing that they hired a black woman, but what is she doing as a black woman? Who’s she really helped?” he said.

“Has she broken down their system of doing things slightly differently? No, she is a police officer.” In a statement, the Santa Monica Police Department said the city has not yet evaluated its prospects for an appeal.

“The Santa Monica Police Department recognizes and respects the work of the court system and the jury’s decision in the Palmer case. We understand the verdict is not, in any way, a general criticism of the men and woman of the Santa Monica Police Department or of their work.” said Chief Seabrooks. “We remain steadfast in our goal of continuing to provide Santa Monica with the highest quality of law enforcement services. We will continue to keep our community safe while respecting the rights of individuals. And, like any committed organization, we strive to learn any lessons taught by our experience”

Palmer said he hoped residents would seek out the trial transcripts and read the testimony from everyone because he said the stark differences in the descriptions are startling. “I don’t know if I can ever say what’s right or wrong but I know what I felt and what I experienced,” he said. Palmer said his friends, neighbors and acquaintances in Santa Monica have all be supportive during the case. He said in general Santa Monica officials are working towards a diverse, inclusive society, but that the larger, national discussion is still relevant here.

“The ones in charge are aware of needing more diversity and exposing community to all different backgrounds,” he said. “I don’t think the people on top are completely bias or have any ill intentions, it’s very uplifting and positive, they want to create the Santa Monica that everyone dreams Santa Monica is.”

He said without a diverse community, prejudice and fear take root. It’s also possible to get complacent in a place like Santa Monica where many people feel insulated from the broader problems in American society. “People feel the news is more of a show than reality and are disconnected,” he said. “Santa Monica is an ideal place and when you pop their bubble, you kind of shock them into some of the realities of the rest of the world.” Palmer said he will be more involved in issues in the community after the incident, but at the end of the day, he wants to focus on his family.

“I don’t think I’ll completely jump into being an activist,” he said. “I still have four girls, I still have to get myself somewhat back to normal.”

editor@www.smdp.com

 

Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...