How much will this cost city?
By G. Romero Wendorf
SAN JUAN – If you’re the city of San Juan’s insurance carrier, you have to be wringing your hands – why us? Because there it is for all the world to see on social media, much less local TV: a San Juan cop allegedly kneeing a guy in the groin, ouch, while the alleged perp is in cuffs, no less.
If you’re a shyster lawyer, one who doesn’t let a little thing like barratry, AKA ambulance chasing, stand in your way of chasing down lawsuits, you have to be thinking: how can I get in touch with this (alleged) poor beat-up guy in San Juan and get him to hire me as his attorney before any of my other fellow shyster attorneys get to him? No matter he allegedly assaulted some police officers. And so what if I risk civil and administrative penalties for ambulance chasing, not to mention misdemeanor or felony criminal sanctions if I get caught chasing a case, money’s money. There’s the trip to Cabo, the new Porsche, the new girlfriend my wife knows nothing about. And if this San Juan case isn’t a potential lawsuit in the making, what is?
Body cam jam
The exclusive KGBT-TV alleged knee-to-the-groin news story first reported by Ashly Custer late last week began Dec. 14th at approximately 7:13 p.m. when San Juan police were dispatched to the 200 block of Camino Real Rd. in reference to a runaway female. The mother of the 17-year-old girl said her daughter could be located at a nearby apartment. A single cop on patrol duty went there and spoke with the grandmother of the runaway’s 19-year-old boyfriend who said that she knew nothing of their whereabouts. But she gave the cop permission to search her apartment. Surprise: the two teens were hiding behind one of the bedroom doors.
According to the Probable Cause complaint, while the lone officer on the scene was leading the runaway girl out the front door in handcuffs, he was assaulted from behind by her boyfriend, who allegedly clobbered him in the back of the head with a balled-up fist and then followed that up with a punch to the side of his face. The officer attempted to use pepper spray on his assailant, later identifed as Victor Manuel Aguirre, but his attacker grabbed it from him. Before he could do any more damage, two back-up officers arrived on the scene and helped subdue Aguirre.
Meanwhile, his 17-year-old girlfriend, the runaway, was allegedly showing her willingness to cooperate with police by biting one of them on his right bicep and on other assorted body parts, which were protected from further alleged dental attacks thanks to the bullet-resistant vest he was wearing. No report on whether she suffered any cracked molars.
Once outside, other cop cars were arriving on the scene, screaming to a stop outside the apartment complex. Allegedly, both boyfriend and girlfriend showed their good manners by cussing at police. At one point, according to the Probable Cause complaint, the 17-year-old girl used her head to butt one officer’s chest, apparently forgetting that most cops are decked out in bullet-resistant vests, which protects them not only from dental attacks but head-butting assaults as well.
Then things allegedly took a turn for the worse, at least as far as the San Juan PD is concerned, but first a little back story:
These days, according to the San Juan Police chief, the department owns approximately 50 body cams. Cops on street patrol are mandated to wear them. For their protection, or so goes the theory. But in this arrest case, and in others around the country, it also works against them at times if police misconduct comes into focus.
Last year, for example, according to Gonzalez, the San Juan PD had 10 misconduct complaints filed against them. The body cams, which cost approximately $300 apiece and are worn on either the offcer’s shoulder or chest, showed that only two of the 10 complaints were justifed. In other words, two officers were found guilty of misconduct, but eight of the 10 found the complaints unfounded.
“In other words,” said Gonzalez, “in two of the 10 cases, we found that the officers needed to do something different. So we addressed those issues.”
This case from last week, however, may prove more serious because it’s been labeled alleged excessive force on the part of a police officer.
The story would have remained an internal affair – granted the arrestee, Victor Manuel Aguirre, might still have later sought out legal representation in civil court – but the case wouldn’t now be all over social media, including a Facebook page devoted to police misconduct from around the country, called “We Copwatch.” Scroll down to the Dec. 18th entry, and there’s the KGBT-TV/ValleyCentral.com story posted, titled: San Juan police officer caught on video using excessive force.”
Knee to the groin
The officer in question is Juan Pablo “JP” Galindo, who’s bounced around various Valley law enforcement agencies before landing in San Juan approximately six years ago. According to one source, he’s known as a guy who doesn’t really care if people like him. One of his favorite sayings, according to one police source, is:
“I’m here to do a job and that’s it. I’m not here to be liked.”
All of which might explain why he was chosen as one of the PD’s union presidents at some point in time. It’s unclear if he still holds that position.
Unfortunately for him, he may have overstepped his bounds when he walked up to the handcuffed Victor Manuel Aguirre after his arrest Dec. 14th and took insult at the trash talk Aguirre was allegedly tossing his way (the audio is jumbled). But what is clear is the video first aired on KBGT-TV: Galindo can be seen walking up to Aguirre, still in cuffs, waiting to be placed inside the San Juan PD squad car, and kneeing him squarely in the testicles. And it’s not a light knee applied to the crotch. You can see the force Galindo puts into it. Aguirre immediately crumbles to the ground screaming in pain.
In the old days of walking the beat, based on stories you now hear from cops who are retired, that sort of street justice, if you will, would teach the guys who assaulted police to shut up and don’t mouth off to cops, much less physically assault them. Just be happy they didn’t gang up on you and beat the (expletive) out of you for attacking one of their own unprovoked. An eye for an eye, so to speak. Back then, lawsuits were far more the exception than the rule.
These days, things have drastically changed. If you’re an alleged thug who’s just attacked a cop, instead of keeping your mouth shut and taking your punishment, you fnd a good attorney and cry to the jury and the media about how you were physically assaulted by police. Excessive force. Police brutality. A civil lawsuit gets fled, the insurance carrier usually settles nine times out of 10, and bingo, a hundred grand or more for getting kicked in the (expletive).
Take out the legal costs, split the monetary award 60/40, and not bad for a little pain, some would say.
No one argues that some cops don’t overstep the lines. The poor guy who basically got smothered to death last year in New York City because cops wouldn’t get off him even though he was screaming he couldn’t breath is a case in point. But where’s the balancing act? Because by the same token, cops are getting shot to death around the country today like never before. The Houston deputy shot in the head 15 times from behind while pumping gas at the end of his tour this past August is a case in point. Dead for no reason other than being a cop.
Chief Gonzalez, however, said there’s a lot about this case that bothers him. Besides the alleged excessive use of force.
First, he’s not happy that one of his own officers leaked the video to Channel 4. A clear violation of departmental policy.
“Those types of leaks, those type of unauthorized release of evidence can potentially hurt the cases that we're investigating. Really, it’s tampering with evidence. We’re investigating the situation. Leaks hurt the case; they don’t help.”
On social media, some are saying that if the body-cam video hadn’t been leaked to Channel 4’s Ashly Custer, the story would have been buried.
Not so, said Gonzalez.
“Since I arrived in San Juan as police chief in 2009, I’ve terminated at least 14 people following a complete internal investigation. So no one can say that I don’t take personnel incidents seriously if they rise to the level of misconduct, because I do.”
People want to ask, why is JP Galindo suspended with pay? Because departmental policy stipulates that if an officer is arrested for something, he or she is suspended without pay, said Gonzalez.
“If they’re suspended due to an internal investigation, it’s a suspension with pay.”
Gonzalez said that his office is in contact with the district attorney’s office on the “use of force,” and it’s an ongoing investigation.
As for the leaker, who he or she is, what was the motivation behind sending the video to Channel 4, Gonzalez said he can only speculate. He’s not exactly certain what the motivation was. But he knows it was a fellow officer who leaked it, and he’s determined to find out who it was.
“It does, however, rise to the level of a potential criminal offense. It’s tampering with evidence, much less a violation of department policy. I have a very transparent policy here. I don’t hide anything. But these types of leaks can potentially hurt a case that we’re investigating. ”
Gonzalez said the investigation into Galindo’s alleged excessive use of force will be treated like any other case.
He did say, however, that people shouldn’t forget the actions of the alleged perps.
“The officers thought he (Aguirre) started being combative and aggressive towards the officer when he was escorted out of the residence.”
How long does Gonzalez think the internal investigation into the Galindo affair may take?
“It involves all the officers. Usually it will probably take between 30 days or so. It takes time for us to make sure that we’ve conducted a very thorough investigation. The good thing about it also is that we are working with the Civil Service Attorneys. Then you’ve got to follow-up and follow through the Civil Service processing, and take it from there. We want to resolve this as quickly as possible, in my point of view. That’s one task that’s assigned to the attorneys, and we need to resolve this as soon as possible, as quick as possible, and move forward.”
Gonzalez said he’s also taking steps to ensure something similar doesn’t happen again in the future.
“Also, one other thing that I'm doing, I'm bringing in a ‘Use-of-Force’ expert to conduct training with all of our officers, to make sure they understand what’s reasonable and what’s not reasonable in the department.”