Not a positive moment for the reputation of the Salem Police Department, to put it mildly. Last week a jury awarded $3,150,000 to Christopher Garza after a Salem police officer, David S. Baker, treated him badly in 2021.
An Oregonian story by Maxine Bernstein tells the tale in "Jury awards $3 million to Salem man falsely arrested by an officer who used excessive force." (The Salem Reporter reprinted this story.) Excerpts:
A jury Thursday awarded more than $3 million in damages to a Salem man wrongly accused by a police officer of stealing a car and then shoved against a patrol car and handcuffed after he walked away.
The eight-member jury ordered the city of Salem to pay $2 million to Christopher Garza in punitive damages, $1 million in non-economic damages and $150,000 in economic damages after finding Salem Officer David S. Baker used excessive force in violation of Garza’s civil rights and committed battery and false arrest under state law.
Punitive damages are awarded to punish the city and officer and to deter similar wrongdoing. Non-economic damages are for the mental suffering, distress or humiliation Garza suffered from the officer’s actions, and the economic damages are for the cost of his medical care, loss of income and earning capacity.
Baker had accused Garza of stealing a car when he pulled up to Garza and two other men who were working on a broken car in the OK Tire lot about 12:30 a.m. on Sept. 17, 2021.
Garza, who is part Native American and Latino, lived in an RV on the property.
He testified that Baker asked him if he was stealing the car. Garza said he told the officer he wasn’t stealing the car and asked who had called police, saying: “Why are you here?
“I felt like he was stereotyping me, like he was profiling me,” Garza, 49, testified. “And I turned around and walked back to the car.”
That’s when Baker grabbed Garza’s arm, shoved him against the hood of his police car, handcuffed him and wrenched one of his arms in the air, injuring Garza’s shoulder, according to court testimony and a video of the encounter. Garza was placed in the back of the police car but released about 10 minutes later with no charges.
Baker, who joined Salem police in 2013, forcefully raised Garza’s arm up and lifted Garza’s feet off the ground after he had handcuffed him with no justification and in violation of his training, Garza’s lawyer, Jason Kafoury, argued.
...“This wasn’t an armed robbery,” Kafoury argued at closing arguments. “It was just three Hispanic guys sitting around with a broken car.”
The jury of five men and three women returned its verdict after deliberating for about 90 minutes following a four-day trial before U.S. District Judge Marco A. Hernandez in Portland.
...“This was avoidable. Officer Baker never had to use any force. And this never would have happened,” Kafoury said. “He was the initiator. He was the controller of every single use of force that happened to my client.”
He said a Salem police sergeant signed off on Baker’s report 18 minutes after it was written, without investigating why force was used against someone who wasn’t charged with a crime.
...Attorney Greg Kafoury, who also represented Garza, said the verdict should send a message “far and wide to police departments that even the citizens of the smallest towns in Oregon care about integrity in police agencies and deserve the kinds of officers who will serve and protect all of us.”
It's unclear whether the City of Salem will be paying the $3,150,000 to Garza directly, or if the money awarded by the jury will come from a liability insurance policy.
Regardless, it sure seems that this shameful incident should spur the Salem Police Department to engage in better training of its officers. Something obviously is wrong when a Latino/Native American man is working on a car with a few other guys and is accused of stealing it, then roughed up for no reason by a police officer.