December 31, 2021 — Toby Keith’s anthem to military valor, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” was on the radio in Officer Alex Cowan’s police car the day his dash camera recorded him beating a naked, mentally ill man in Ukiah. As Cowan’s colleagues iced their bloodied hands in the aftermath, the singer crooned, “A mighty sucker punch came flyin’ in from the back. Soon as we could see clearly through our big black eye, Man, we lit up your world like the Fourth of July.”
The police videos were released Thursday, as a civil lawsuit in federal court winds its way towards trial.Gerardo Magdaleno, who suffers from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, ran out of psychiatric medications on April first of 2021. He was standing on South State Street, alone, unarmed, and wearing nothing but a wristwatch when Ukiah Police Officer Saul Perez pulled up and shot him with a taser within less than a minute of telling him to get on the ground.
According to an amended complaint filed in the US Northern District Court of California last month, Ukiah police officers tasered the severely disabled man four times, punched him 54 times, kneed him four times, once in the groin, kicked him in the head, and emptied an entire can of pepper spray in his face, which amounts to 20-25 applications.
Multiple bystander cell phone videos of the incident immediately began circulating on social media. But on Thursday, video from Cowan’s dash camera and Officer Perez’ body camera were distributed to the public..
The civil lawsuit names Officers Saul Perez, Jordan Miller, Alex Cowan and Lieutenant Andy Phillips as defendants. Former Ukiah Police Chief Justin Wyatt and the City of Ukiah are also being sued. Previously, only Perez, who was the responding officer, had been identified.
The lawsuit claims discrimination on the basis of a disability, wrongful arrest, excessive force, and inadequate training. Magdaleno’s attorney Izaak Schwaiger wrote that the City of Ukiah and former Chief Wyatt failed to train officers properly to accommodate the needs of the mentally ill, ”despite police interactions with mentally ill individuals being a commonplace occurrence.” He is seeking damages, attorney’s fees, and “injunctive relief requiring the City of Ukiah to adopt national best practices with regard to policing people with disabilities.”
Much of the complaint is a description of the videos, including a tally of the blows, taser strikes, and pepper spraying.
During an interlude that Perez described on his police radio as “a standoff,” Magdaleno stood up, looked at the sky, and began to whistle. Officer Miller arrived, did not turn on his body camera or his dash camera, and immediately shot Magdaleno with his taser.
“You got a taser?” Perez asked him. “Go ahead and deploy it. Yeah. Zap him. I already hit him once.” Miller hit him twice, and both officers shouted at Magdaleno to “get on the ground! Get on the fuckin’ ground!”
Cowan arrived just as Miller was administering two knee strikes to Magdaleno’s buttocks. He got out of his car, ran over to where Perez and Miller were holding onto Magdaleno’s arms, and punched him in the back of the head.
The day after the incident, the Ukiah Police Department issued a press release containing several characterizations that are not supported by the department’s own videos, including a claim that there were “numerous citizens, including children in the immediate area.” The blows to the head were described as “distraction strikes,” and the statement assured the public that “the technique was ceased” as soon as Magdeleno was handcuffed.
But Cowan’s dash camera showed the three officers kicking and punching Magdaleno as he lies unresisting on the ground, being handcuffed. Miller and Perez lift him off the ground briefly, one on each arm, and Cowan shoots him in the back with a taser. Lieutenant Andy Phillips arrives and the men flip Magdaleno onto his stomach. Miller throws himself onto Magdaleno while the other three immobilize him. He proceeds to punch him four times and slap him twice, all in the back of the head. Shwaiger’s complaint registers that the three officers and one lieutenant held him on the blacktop for almost four minutes, during which Magdaleno uttered a phrase that has become familiar in police encounters that end badly.
“Let me breathe,” he implored the officers who were wrapping him in a leg restraint and removing the taser barbs. “You can breathe,” an officer assured him, then added a piece of medical misinformation: “You can talk, you can breathe, bro.”
The officers were not unharmed. Miller and Perez suffered multiple abrasions on their hands, which paramedics treated at the scene.
“I’m pretty sure I hit his fuckin’ tooth, dude,” Perez remarked. “It hurts so bad.” A colleague congratulated him on his “smart move,” in waiting for backup to arrive before tackling Magdaleno. “Yeah, I didn’t want to take him by myself,” Perez laughed.
Assistant City Manager Shannon Riley said Ukiah city staff are not able to discuss the matter, since a civil lawsuit is pending in federal court. It is one of many lawsuits that have been filed recently against the city, the police department, and individual members of the force.
Izaak Schwaiger, Magdaleno’s attorney, has sued the City of Ukiah in the US District Court before, along with former Ukiah Police Sergeant Kevin Murray, alleging he attacked a disabled veteran named Christopher Rasku.
In a separate matter, Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster has charged Murray with sex crimes, burglary, and possession of methamphetamine, in multiple incidents between 2014 and 2020. In yet another court case, former Detective Isabel Siderakis is suing the city, the police department, and Kevin Murray for discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation, claiming among other things that Murray attacked her during an out-of-town training and the department failed to take her complaints seriously.
And earlier this month, Madisyn Carley, the daughter of new Ukiah Police Chief Noble Waidelich’s ex-girlfriend, filed a civil suit against Waidelich for domestic violence alleged to have occurred between 2011 and 2015. The matter was investigated by the sheriff’s office, but Eyster declined to prosecute, citing the lack of credible evidence.
Riley said the Magdaleno matter is still being handled by an independent investigator. When he concludes his investigation, he will turn it over to the District Attorney, who will decide whether or not to prosecute it as a criminal matter. And the county is using Measure B funds to hire a part-time mental health worker who has been helping the Ukiah police for a few weeks now. The city has hired Dale Allen, of San Francisco law firm Allen, Glaessner, Hazelwood and Werth, to defend it in the Magdaleno case. Reached by phone yesterday, Allen said that during the course of litigation, he expects the officers to explain the use of force, what they did, and why they did it. He declined to say how much the city has paid him or what his hourly rate is, citing business privacy.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for September of 2022. Allen said there is a “huge, huge backlog of cases due to covid.”
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KZYX reporters cover local news for Mendocino County, California, Monday through Friday in six and a half minute reports. Featuring Sarah Reith, Michelle Blackwell, Eileen Russell, and Marty Durlin.