Investigations

Video captures Sacramento County deputy beating prone suspect with flashlight

Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Paul “Scotte” Pfeifer has been hailed as a hero cop.

The 14-year veteran has won numerous awards in his career, including the department’s highest honor – the Sheriff’s Gold Medal of Valor – for helping save a baby from a three-day hostage situation on Arden Way.

He has been lauded for bravery, honored by the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors and the Carmichael Elks Lodge for helping address the transient problem in the area, feted by the Sacramento chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution and recognized by the California Peace Officers’ Association.

He also has been accused in court of using excessive force at least three times since 2009, each time over his use of a flashlight as a weapon, and captured on video in two separate incidents beating a suspect with a long, metal flashlight. Video of one of those incidents began circulating in December. The Sacramento Bee this month obtained exclusive video of the second incident – shot from the dashboard cameras of two patrol cars.

In the most recent complaint, Pfeifer was sued this month in Sacramento Superior Court by a Carmichael man who says he was beaten, pepper-sprayed and shot with Taser darts in December as two bystanders captured the scene on video.

“On the day in question, for no reason other than an apparent reaction to ‘contempt of cop’ conduct, Deputy Pfeifer tasered, pepper-sprayed and beat plaintiff in the middle of the street, in broad daylight, with his department-issued flashlight,” according to the suit filed by Sacramento attorney Stewart Katz. “The wrongful attack was witnessed by many citizens who were appalled by the conduct, some of whom recorded the deputy’s illegal conduct.”

The plaintiff is John Reyes, 51, who suffered a broken nose, broken ribs, a concussion and a large gash above his left eye, according to the complaint.

Reyes was well known to the department at the time. He has a lengthy history of arrests for drug- and other nonviolent crimes and was on probation when he encountered Pfeifer that December day. In the six months prior to the incident near Fair Oaks Boulevard and Landis Avenue, deputies had been summoned 16 times by citizens reporting that Reyes was acting suspiciously or disturbing local businesses.

Pfeifer did not respond to a request for comment for this story, and a Sheriff’s Department spokesman said he could not comment on pending litigation or personnel issues. Pfeifer was placed on paid leave while internal affairs detectives conducted an investigation. He has since returned to duty and last month became a detective in the department’s centralized investigations division, said sheriff’s Sgt. Jason Ramos.

Ramos said the move from patrol officer to detective is not a promotion but a reclassification of Pfeifer’s duties and is not related to the incident.

The department would not release the findings of the investigation. But Ramos noted that it is not unusual for veteran deputies to face excessive-force accusations and that they are not always substantiated.

At the time of the incident, the department said Reyes resisted being handcuffed, prompting the deputy to use his pepper spray and then his Taser.

“The deputy attempted pepper spray again with no compliance, so the deputy and the subject went to the ground,” department spokeswoman Lisa Bowman wrote in December in an email response to The Bee’s questions.

The lawsuit comes as law enforcement officers nationwide find themselves the subject of intense scrutiny. Omnipresent cellphone cameras allow bystanders to capture police incidents on video, and such videos have led to some departments nationwide equipping officers with body cameras that capture their interactions with citizens.

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department is still testing and evaluating body cameras, but has decided not to use them until courts decide whether the footage is public record.

As a result, the videos available in the Reyes incident come from citizens who stopped in a Starbucks parking lot after the initial confrontation began.

‘Please, please, stop’

Reyes, a former construction worker and handyman, has a criminal record dating back to 1986.

“The deputy has been in contact with this individual before and he is known to quite a few of our deputies that work that area,” Bowman said in her December email.

Whether Reyes’ actions that day warranted the use of force against him likely will be a key part of the lawsuit.

One of the bystanders who recorded the scene said he still does not understand why Pfeifer was hitting Reyes.

“You could hear the thuds,” said Michael White, 52, a nearby resident. He said he was driving down Landis Avenue when he saw Reyes lying in the middle of the street as Pfeifer pounded him and pressed his face against the pavement with his boot.

“He was hitting him pretty hard,” White said.

White, who said he doesn’t know either Reyes or Pfeifer, stopped his car at a nearby Starbucks parking lot and began to record the incident with his cellphone. He can be heard on the video asking Pfeifer why he was beating a man who did not appear to be resisting.

“I think he should be arrested,” White said of Pfeifer in an interview. “I think he should spend some time in jail.”

Reyes, who is now homeless but at the time lived with his mother in a nearby residence, said in an interview that the altercation began because Pfeifer’s patrol car was blocking the street, forcing him to move around it onto busy Fair Oaks Boulevard as he carried home a bag of groceries.

He claims he twice asked the officer – politely – to move his car, then when he was ignored, escalated his request by saying, “Move your f------ car,” and extended his middle finger in a sign of disrespect.

Pfeifer then got out of his car and used his pepper spray, Taser and flashlight as the scene was captured on video, according to the lawsuit.

Reyes was taken to jail and booked for resisting arrest, but the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office declined to charge him.

Three months before the Reyes incident, Sacramento County deputies’ dashboard cameras captured a deputy – identified in court papers as Pfeifer – repeatedly striking motorist Mickey Donohue with a flashlight after he pulled him over in a stolen car. That incident is the subject of a pending federal lawsuit alleging excessive force and seeking $813,264 in damages. Donohue’s lawsuit says the amount is to compensate him for pain and suffering, as well as a $12,989 hospital bill.

In the dashboard-camera videos, deputies appear to hit and punch Donohue, a career criminal, as he sits seat-belted inside the vehicle shouting in pain.

“I asked them to ‘Please, please’ stop,” Donohue wrote in his federal suit against Pfeifer, the department and three other deputies. “I never was resisting.”

Donohue, 49, had recently been released from prison after a 14-year stint for robbery and grand theft. Following the incident, he was returned to prison on a six-year term for car theft, fleeing an officer and drug possession.

Without an attorney, he filed his handwritten lawsuit from Corcoran State Prison and claims in it that Pfeifer “beat me in the head and face with a big metal flashlight.”

“Both officers that beat me were talking to each other and said, ‘I think we screwed up,’ ” the lawsuit claims, adding that Pfeifer then said, “Don’t worry, it will be OK.”

The Sheriff’s Department was not aware of the September incident involving Donohue at the time of Pfeifer’s December confrontation with Reyes, Sgt. Ramos said.

He added that he did not know when the department learned of the dash-camera video showing Donohue being struck by a flashlight.

Donohue’s lawsuit over that incident was filed in July.

Flashlight as weapon

Prior to those two incidents, Pfeifer was one of four deputies named in another excessive-force lawsuit that alleged deputies broke up a loud party in Antelope by climbing over a backyard fence. A 25-year-old woman, who snapped one photo of the deputies as they charged her, was tackled, hit, dragged and pepper-sprayed, her civil lawsuit claimed.

The suit, which was settled with a $20,000 payment from the county, also accused the deputies of deleting the photo from the camera and handcuffing and hogtying the woman, an accounting professional and tax preparer who was hosting a barbecue for her boyfriend.

“He basically threw me on the ground,” Solomia Treshchuk said of Pfeifer in an interview. “They hogtied me, they pepper-sprayed me and hit me.”

Treshchuk said Pfeifer ended up hitting her on her legs with his flashlight while he was trying to get her into the back of his patrol car.

She was charged with resisting arrest. During her June 2008 trial, Pfeifer testified that she was “out of control, resistive, yelling, thrashing about.”

Pfeifer testified that he had to pick up Treshchuk and physically place her in his police vehicle. She was lying across the back seat but wouldn’t pull her feet and lower legs in, Pfeifer told the jury.

“I used my flashlight, and I struck in the lower portion of her legs, in the calf area, in order to overcome her resistance and get her to comply,” he said, adding that he hit her about four times and when she wouldn’t comply, he went to the other side of the vehicle and pulled her in.

She continued to thrash and kick the inside of the vehicle, Pfeifer said, and, after she refused an order to stop, he pepper-sprayed her twice.

The jury could not agree on a verdict, and prosecutors declined to retry Treshchuk.

Treschuk said last week that she still doesn’t understand why she was struck, and that she wasn’t combative with the officers.

“I don’t know why he would use a flashlight,” she said. “I have a lot of family and friends that are in law enforcement, and that’s not what a flashlight is for.

“You can probably crack somebody’s skull with a flashlight. They’re assigned batons. That’s what batons are for.”

The Sheriff’s Department would not comment on any of the times Pfeifer has been accused of excessive force with a flashlight, but Ramos said the use of a flashlight as a weapon is allowed.

“Our department does authorize the use of a flashlight as an impact weapon when the officer determines that its use is reasonable given the circumstances, when the officer is using that in self defense or defense of another person, and when its use is more practical than another option of force that an officer has at the time,” Ramos said. “One example might be in close quarters, rather than using a baton that’s longer when an officer perhaps doesn’t have sufficient room to deploy it.”

Ramos also said he could not address whether three complaints against Pfeifer raise concerns, but addressed use-of-force complaints in general.

“Generally speaking, when you have a law enforcement officer who has spent 10 to 15 years on the job, who is in patrol services and/or specialized units that the nature of them are somewhat more proactive or more aggressive, it’s not uncommon to get some use-of-force complaints over the years,” he said. “Use-of-force allegations are not necessarily tantamount to wrongdoing.”

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam

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