Gabriel San Roman
Slingshot: Is OC Becoming More Critical of Cops?
Updated: May 3, 2021
I made my way towards Orange County Superior Court one early morning in 2016 to do some trial reporting. A trio of Anaheim cholos stood accused of attempted murder when they fired on an undercover cop car in a barrio behind Disneyland. I filed into the courtroom early, but not before a bailiff stopped me.
"Are you a witness?" he asked.
"No, I'm a reporter!," I responded.
The trial had everything a journalist could ask for: a superb theatrical performance by defense attorney Joseph P. Smith, the mania of Bruno the police K-9, and a shocking verdict--at least where OC is concerned.
The jury deadlocked on the cop-killer charges. Prosecutors failed to convince mostly white jurors that the cholos knowingly fired on cops during a late-night car chase in 2012. They did return a guilty verdict on the lesser felony charge of firing at an occupied vehicle with gang and street terrorism enhancements added on.
When the bullets have come from Anaheim police guns over the years, officers have had no need to fret over criminal court; the Orange County district attorney's office never prosecutes such cases. And the city's aggressive legal responses to civil cases earned it a hardnosed reputation for paltry out-of-court settlements when attorneys didn't outright stick grieving families with the legal bill in victory.
But the tide appears to be turning.
I covered the case of Monique Deckard, a Black woman who suffered from mental illness and charged at cops with two knives. In 2017, a civil jury found officers 25 percent liable for her shooting death and awarded $189,000 in damages. Later that year, jurors found officer Nick Bennallack liable for excessive force when he killed Manuel Diaz on Anna Drive, a daytime police shooting that sparked the Anaheim Riots in 2012.
The verdict came with $200,000 awarded in damages; Bennallack stayed on the force for several more years (and a few more fatal shootings) before leaving.
Modest sums, for sure. The two cases mirrored the penny-pinching out-of-court settlements of others but came with a stinging rebuke from OC jurors. Anaheim couldn't claim itself bereft of wrongdoing in the incidents, something settlement money buys.
In late 2019, the wrongful death civil trial of Vincent Valenzuela shattered all records. In that case, officers used a carotid artery hold while trying to arrest Valenzuela. He fell into a coma and died days later. A Los Angeles jury awarded the man's two children a whopping $13.2 million, topping all previous payouts in Anaheim police brutality cases.
Any attorney will tell you that it's easier to win a case against the cops in LA than in OC. But would an OC jury ever marry a liability verdict with a sizable payout?
It just did.
Last week, jurors in the Chris Eisinger case found Anaheim police officers to have been 80 percent liable for his death, a verdict that will award his family $1.8 million.
In 2018, police responded to a car burglary call when they happened upon Eisinger, a homeless 35-year-old Black man. A short foot pursuit ensued. Eisinger tripped and fell. After his encounter with police on the ground, he fell into a coma and died days later.
Interim police chief Julian Harvey (now with the Huntington Beach Police Department) insisted that his officers hadn't used excessive force in the arrest, one that Eisinger was said to have resisted. The Orange County district attorney's office cleared the cops and a county coroner ruled the death "accidental" on account of meth and hardened arteries.
Eric Durbin, an attorney for Eisinger's mother, begged to differ, and suggested his death was due to suffocation when speaking with me in 2018 and, then, later likened it to the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. Durbin and attorney Annee Della Donna argued in court that officers applied pressure with knees and body weight while Eisinger struggled to breath. His loud grunts that are audible on body cameras became fainter before falling silent.
The jury placed a majority of blame for Eisinger's death on the police.
"We respectfully disagree with the outcome," said Mike Lyster, city spokesman, in a statement. "At no time did [officers] use force that could be seen as excessive for the challenging situation they faced."
The spokesman also focused on the role of drugs in the encounter, just as the city did with the Valenzuela case, just as Chauvin's attorney did in the Floyd murder trial. It's a copy and paste script for Anaheim, albeit from the unfamiliar vantage point of losing in civil court.
A recent national poll found a majority of Americans believe more accountability is needed to redress police misconduct against Black folks and that officers aren't adequately trained to avoid use of excessive force.
Maybe OC is starting to trend the same way.
After the Eisinger verdict, Della Donna and Katrina Eisinger, the late man's mother, called on district attorney Todd Spitzer to reopen the criminal investigation. Whether that happens or not, the Eisinger case already makes clear that juries in OC aren't so reliably pro-police anymore.
- Gabriel San Román
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Your Mouse Muckraker / Photo by Federico Medina
One of Walt Disney's earliest inspirations for doodling came from where the Mouse-eared masses might least expect it. Elias Disney, Walt's father, fashioned himself a socialist and subscribed to Appeal to Reason. The weekly newspaper anchored in the Midwest became a staple of the Socialist Party of America. A young Walt found copies around his Marceline, Missouri home growing up. Cartoonist Ryan Walker's lampooning of capitalist bosses jumped off the page, if only for the sketches and not the politics. Elias drew more direct inspiration from Appeal to Reason; he supported socialist Eugene Debs, one of its noteworthy contributors, for president. As Walt began his conquest of Hollywood, his father remained faithful to the socialist creed. In California, Elias backed author Upton Sinclair's unlikely, and unsuccessful, gubernatorial campaign. Sinclair ran on an EPIC platform in 1934 pledging to "End Poverty in California." Politics color the correspondences between father and son, including an exchange featured in the friendly biography, Walt Disney: An American Original.\
"Dad, how do you feel about having voted fifty years for candidates who never won anything?" asked Walt.
"Walter, I feel fine," Elias responded. "We have won. We've won a lot. I’ve found out that things don’t always come about in the form you have advocated. But you keep fighting and they come about in some way or another. Today, everything I fought for in those early days has been absorbed in to the platforms of both the major parties. Now I feel pretty good about that." Savvy answer, Elias!
Now that Disneyland is open again, Disney devotees are flowing down Main Street--at limited capacity, of course. One window along the route is dedicated to Elias and reads "contractor" in homage to one of many jobs he held in life but it could just as easily read "socialist."
Walt wasn't the only Disney with a vivid imagination, after all.
ICYMI: My hour-long conversation with author and activist Andrew Tonkovich as part of UC Irvine's Illuminations series is finally on YouTube! We speak about his new book Keeping Tahoe Blue and Other Provocations, which is available at LibroMobile.
And speaking of SanTana's intrepid indie bookstore, I'll be filing another "Off the Page" column for it this Friday. Stay tuned!
Lead photo: Anaheim police guard city hall on the cusp of rioting in 2012 / Photo by Gabriel San Roman