David R. Baker
San Jose Police Chief Rob Davis on Sunday promised a swift investigation into a videotaped incident in which officers used a baton and a Taser stun gun while arresting a college student, who said he was struck even after he was handcuffed.
The video, captured on a cell phone, shows an officer repeatedly striking San Jose State University student Phuong Ho, 20, with a baton while arresting him Sept. 3 at his home for allegedly threatening one of his roommates.
“I don’t know how you could watch that video and not be concerned,” Davis said. “The biggest question in my mind is: What led up to this? In my mind, even if the officers had justification for using force, is this level of force justified?”
In an interview with The Chronicle on Sunday, Ho said that he still doesn’t understand why Officer Kenneth Siegel kept striking him with a baton, even after he was lying on the floor, handcuffed.
“I had no weapon, I was on the ground, I was no physical threat to them,” said Ho, an applied mathematics student from Vietnam.
Another officer, Steven Payne, used a Taser on Ho before he was handcuffed.
An attorney for Siegel said Sunday that the video doesn’t cover the entire incident, leaving out details that would show why the officers acted the way they did.
“I think once all the pieces of the puzzle are put together, people will realize that this was a justifiable use of force,” said attorney Terry Bowman.
The incident was first reported Sunday by the San Jose Mercury News, which had obtained the video – shot by one of Ho’s roommates – from Ho’s attorney. Davis said the newspaper gave department officials a copy of the video Thursday.
The department subsequently placed Payne, Siegel and two other officers who were present at the incident on paid leave while investigators try to determine exactly what happened, Davis said.
He said he hopes to send the case to Santa Clara County District Attorney Dolores Carr by Friday, allowing her office to decide whether criminal charges should be filed against any of the officers.
“My goal is to get it done as quickly as possible,” Davis said.
The incident took place in the evening of Sept. 3. Ho told The Chronicle that he and one his roommates got into an argument in the kitchen of their house after the roommate spilled soap onto a piece of steak Ho was eating.
At one point in the argument, Ho picked up a steak knife. Ho told The Chronicle that he wanted to use the knife to cut the steak – not to threaten his roommate – and he quickly put it down.
Ho acknowledged that he told his roommate that if they had been in Vietnam, Ho might have killed him. Ho said it wasn’t a literal threat but was meant to show the roommate that “this is a serious matter.”
Police were summoned to the house. Ho said one officer entered his bedroom, looking for identification because he couldn’t understand the young man’s accent. Ho said he took a step to follow the officer into the room, but that another officer pushed him against a wall, telling him to stay put.
Ho’s glasses fell off, and when he tried to retrieve them, one of the officers hit him on the back, Ho said.
San Jose police officials said in a news release that Ho had been uncooperative with officers. Ho said he was trying to comply with their orders.
In the grainy video, one officer can be seen swinging a baton, while another appears to bend down and jolt Ho with a Taser. A sound like handcuffs closing can be heard, and then the officer with the baton hits Ho again.
Davis said it was “difficult to tell” whether Ho was handcuffed at that point. Ho said that he was handcuffed before the final baton blow.
Ho said he did not immediately file a formal complaint with police because he did not understand his rights.
“We need to do something in the Bay Area so police brutality doesn’t happen to other people,” Ho said.