Good Samaritan Backfire
By: Peretz Partensky
I live in a new gilded age in a golden city. But sometimes the cracks show, even here. The façade crumbles and you find yourself naked, in solitary confinement, in a wretched, feces-stained prison.
How? As a result of my efforts to help injured bicyclists by calling 911, I was, in short order: separated from my friend, violently tackled, arrested, taken to county jail, stripped and left in a solitary cell. I am writing this story because, if it could happen to me, it could happen to you, and I feel the need to do something to help prevent this brutality from propagating.
I moved to San Francisco 9 years ago for graduate school at UCSF and currently run a company that brings transparency to the food industry and employs 12 people. It may appear to be self-serving for me to say so, but I am a rational and peaceful person whom no reasonable being would deem a threat.
South of Market, San Francisco?—?after midnight July 25th, 2013
My friend Ben Woosley and I were hanging out at Driftwood Bar on Folsom Street. We were talking work; we had three drinks over the course of three hours. We left the bar at 12:45am and walked towards my house, a block away.
The accident had happened just seconds before…
The bicycle had flipped forward and lay unattended in the street. The girl’s foot was bare and mangled, her chin bleeding. There was blood on her jacket, a puddle of it on the ground. Her name was Rebecca. “Where am I?” she kept asking. She was lucky to have been wearing a helmet. Josh, who had been giving her a ride on his handlebars, was wincing and bracing his shoulder.
Neither of them had working cell phones. When they asked me to, I immediately dialed 911. According to the record, it was 12:49am.
While I relayed the situation to the operator, Ben and the first bystander were helping Rebecca elevate her foot. Ben held her hand and supported her body on the ground. Rebecca borrowed his phone to call her friends and family.
Four minutes had passed when I spotted a fire truck and several police cars in the distance and stepped into the street to wave them over. “They arrived,” I told the 911 operator. She thanked me and told me to expect an ambulance to follow.
I identified myself as the caller to the half dozen police who poured out of squad cars and stepped back onto the sidewalk in front of Radius restaurant.
Sgt. Espinoza, short, stout, grey and assertive, asked Ben and me whether we had witnessed the accident. We said that we hadn’t, but arrived shortly thereafter. I was standing 15 feet from the scene beside Officer Kaur, a stocky female of South Asian complexion. She turned to me and abruptly said that I was not needed as a witness and should leave immediately. I told her we were headed home, just across the way, when my friend and I encountered the accident; and that I’d recently broken my elbow in a similar bike accident here and deeply cared about the outcome.
The firemen were examining Rebecca and Josh. Ben was still supporting Rebecca’s back when Sgt. Espinoza and Officer Gabriel grabbed him from behind without warning, putting him in an arm lock and jerked him backwards over the pavement. They told him sternly that he had to leave now that trained medical professionals had arrived, implying that he was interfering and justifying their violent actions. The officers dragged him across the sidewalk, propping him against the building. Rebecca was still holding Ben’s cellphone when she lost his support. “Where are they taking him?” she asked perplexedly.
It all happened within 5 minutes of the police’s arrival. The sirens and emergency vehicles, the sudden arrival of over half a dozen uniformed personnel, two of whom had grabbed my friend, transformed an intimate street scene into something chaotic. Officer Kaur shouted at me to cross the street. It was very sudden and I was, admittedly, in shock. I stammered that I intended to head home, but that my friend was over there. I pointed at Ben against the wall, and said I’d like to take him home with me.
Without warning, I was shoved from behind by Officer Gerrans and then collectively tackled by Officers Gerrans, Kaur and Andreotti. As they took me to the ground, one of the officers kneed me in the right temple. On the pavement, I begged them to watch out for my recently broken right elbow. Knees on my back and neck pinned me to the ground. I was cuffed and left face down.
I was not told that I was under arrest, what the charges were, nor read my rights. I rolled over onto my back so that I could see the arresting officers and ask them their intentions.
Officer Kaur pulled me up so that I was in a sitting position, and then stepped onto my handcuffed hands, grinding them into the pavement. I was so suddenly transported to a distant reality, that I was still coming to terms with its operating principles. “Is this protocol?” I inquired and instinctively wriggled my hands from under her boots. Officer Kaur had full control of me physically. Again, she stomped her boots on my hands, demanded that I “keep [my] hands on the ground,” pushed me back face down, and walked away.
I could again see officers alongside Ben. He was propped with his back on the building but not cuffed.
When Officer Kaur walked away, I spoke with the remaining officers. I told Officers Andreotti and Gerrans that I appreciated their prompt arrival and respected their jobs. I mentioned that I’ve had only positive interactions with the SFPD until that point. I said that, strange as it may seem, I accept my current lot and await the course of justice to set the record straight.
We had a cordial conversation. They noticed I was shivering and propped me on the door of Radius restaurant. Then they asked me what I do for a living. I said that I write software that helps restaurants source food and indicated that the restaurant behind me uses our product.
What they said brought to light a fundamental rift between the residents of San Francisco and the police:
“Ah, you’re one of those billionaire wannabees in this neighborhood.”
What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate
Rich SOMA, poor SOMA. My instinct was to make this distinction go away, to show them I know our neighborhood is more complicated than that. To connect on human terms. I told them that it was an early stage startup; I’m doing this because I feel it’s a way to make the world around me better, to bring people joy through better food. I live here, right on this block, in a loving home with 16 roommates. I love this community. I asked them where they lived. And they responded in unison: “Far away! We can’t afford to live here.”
They exposed a growing tear in our city’s social fabric. A class conflict brought on by rising housing prices and economic disparity, resulting in a commuter policing class that resents the residents they’re meant to protect and serve.
As I sat cuffed and propped against the wall, another officer came over and reprimanded me for obstructing police work. If this were indeed the case, I said, I would agree. But I hadn’t interfered with the medical response, nor could I have. I was 15 feet away from Rebecca and Josh when I was tackled. I had good intentions, I said. I had called 911 and was following the operator’s instructions to remain on the scene until the ambulance arrived. That was all.
The small talk continued. They said I had nothing to worry about. I had done the right thing. I’d probably be taken to the police station around the corner and released. I asked whether I should communicate this to Ben or other friends, in case I needed help getting bailed out. They said that this process should be quick, quicker than my friends’ ability to help, and that I’d be out in no time.
I took them at their word. Then they took me to county jail, where I spent 12 hours, mostly in solitary confinement.
Transport to Jail
Officer Kaur and her partner Officer Durkin loaded me into the back of a caged van. It drove a short distance. When the van stopped, Officer Kaur shined her flashlight in my face and asked me whether I was “going to be a problem.” There were lots of people who’d be happy to “take care” of me inside if I was, she said.
Left alone in the van, I pulled out my cellphone with my cuffed hands and texted my roommates that I was under arrest. The timestamp of these texts is 1:27am, 38 minutes after I first placed the 911 call.
When she returned, Officer Kaur had a deputy with her. Shining a flashlight in my eyes, she pointed out that he was big and strong.
“This is the guy,” she told the deputy. “I think he’s going to be a problem. Are you going to be a problem?”
It felt aggressive, almost goading.
I tried to ignore her tone and addressed him directly: “Hello, sir.”
He said, “Oh yeah, he’s going to be a problem.”
San Francisco County Jail, 7th and Bryant
San Francisco County Jail is less than 500 yards from my home. They fingerprinted and photographed me, stripped my shoes and vest, and placed me in cellblock 1SB with three other characters in various states of drug or alcohol induced inebriation. There was a phone, but it only called numbers in the 415 area code. In this era of cellphones, I can remember several of my roommates’ numbers. None of them began with 415.
The thick Plexiglas door of the cell was covered with stickers of bail bonds agencies with 415 area codes. These are the same agencies that occupy most storefronts on Bryant Street between 6th and 7th street. Most of the glass surfaces within the jail proudly display these phone numbers.
I was still under the impression that I’d be in jail for a brief interlude. I made small talk with my cellmates. A couple of hours passed. I started to wonder whether the circumstances had somehow changed. I began to ask the passing deputies questions. “Sir, how long should I expect to be here?”
They answered dismissively.
“As long as it takes.”
“We’ll keep you here as long as we want to.”
If sobriety was the issue, I volunteered to take a Breathalyzer test. They laughed. “You’re in jail.”
Given the circumstances of my arrest and what the officers initially told me about the expected timing of release, I became dissatisfied with the lack of information. I wasn’t going to get any straight response from the deputies. I asked to see a doctor.
Request to see a doctor
From the vantage point of the cell, I could see a few people in lab coats. I was physically hurt; my right temple was bruised and throbbing. When I began writing this account 36 hours after being released, I was still having trouble opening my mouth wide or chewing food without pain. My neck was sore from the officers’ knees. My arms bruised from being tackled, my wrists sore from Officer Kaur’s stomping, my broken elbow held together by metal pins reinjured.
I told commanding deputy, Terry, that I would like to see a doctor.
“You’d like a lot of things, but this is a jail,” he said.
“Actually, I just want one thing. I’d like to see a doctor.”
“There is nothing wrong with you.”
“I’m not feeling well, and I’d like to see a doctor.”
He said there were no doctors currently on staff, and I told him that I was willing to wait for one. Deputy Terry said I had already seen a doctor, when I was booked. “He was the one that asked you whether you were on any prescribed medications.” I hadn’t realized.
In retrospect, asking to speak to a doctor was perhaps a mistake. I mean, in retrospect it was unambiguously a mistaken means of getting clear information and accelerating my release. Thinking that there was someone I could speak with on the night shift in San Francisco County Jail, who would respond to my questions, and give me honest answers, was an insane delusion. But in the middle of those events, without time to reflect, it was the circumstances around me that seemed insane.