Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: When good Samaritan efforts go awry

A man who admitted to have been drinking is shown approaching a motorcyclist. The man subsequently punched the rider, who then subdued the man.
A man who admitted to have been drinking is shown approaching a motorcyclist. The man subsequently punched the rider, who then subdued the man. NDN video

You can’t log on to Facebook without seeing photos or videos of bad people caught in the act of doing bad things.

Last week, there was a widely shared clip of brutish bald man accosting a motorcyclist who was wearing a GoPro camera. At first, it seems like a one-sided attack. The big lout is beyond reason, face twisted with road rage as he punches the biker. But then the cyclist responds, subduing the jerk by pinning him to the concrete.

The expression on the bully’s face as the tables are turned is classic, but it also distorts reality. It creates the impression that our cameras and smartphones always will vindicate and protect us. It creates the impression that we all can be citizen journalists poised to right wrongs, no matter the circumstances.

It’s now second nature for people to reach for their devices to record events as they are happening. Sometimes these encounters shine a light on what otherwise would be crimes without witnesses. It was a good Samaritan video that held accountable a cop who shot an African American man to death and then lied about it in North Charleston, S.C., last April. That officer, Michael T. Slager, was charged with the murder of Walter Scott after initially saying he shot Scott because he feared for his life. A video from a bystander exposed that deception by showing Slager shooting Scott in the back numerous times as Scott ran away.

We want good Samaritans to step forward in times of crisis. But sometimes, the story of the good Samaritan goes awry. Sometimes, a good Samaritan can wind up feeling violated, abused and abandoned for his or her troubles.

That’s what happened to Rose Cassidy, a retired state worker, who was on a simple shopping trip to a Sacramento Lowe’s one week ago today when she spotted a man hurrying out of the store with a clerk following him. To her eye, it was a case of shoplifting in progress.

According to Cassidy, the Lowe’s clerk asked to see a receipt for the garden tool the man was clutching in his hand. Cassidy said the man responded to the clerk in a rude and abusive way. He said he had a receipt but refused to show it to the employee.

That’s when Cassidy decided to pull out her smartphone and photograph his license plate number. She said she planned to give the photo to the proper authorities.

That’s when her good Samaritan efforts went sideways. According to Cassidy’s account of what happened next – a story corroborated by one witness who spoke to me on the record and one who didn’t want to be identified – the man spotted Cassidy photographing his license plate, stopped his vehicle and went after her.

“He assaulted me,” Cassidy said. “He grabbed me. (We) were struggling. I was not going to let him get my phone, but he made physical contact with me. He grabbed my phone and threw it to the ground.”

Sharon Jaramillo, a Sacramento house painter also at Lowe’s, said she was shocked as the scene unfolded. “(The man) was yelling,” Jaramillo said. “It got nasty. It escalated really quickly. ... He got irate with (Cassidy) and knocked the phone out of her hands. ... My girlfriend went over and got in his face, and I went to pull (Cassidy) back.”

Jaramillo described the man as stocky with dark hair, slightly less than 6 feet tall. She said he grabbed Cassidy from behind. “He smacked her phone and it went flying to the ground.”

During the altercation, Jaramillo said the man was shouting gender-specific insults at Cassidy and the clerk who had asked him for a receipt. They were the kind of ugly slurs that are used against women but can’t be repeated here.

Both Jaramillo and Cassidy said the man got into a truck that was parked in front of the Lowe’s doors – not in a parking space. Jaramillo said she also thought it was a case of shoplifting in progress.

Cassidy’s intentions seemed sincere. She was doing what people do every day now in the age of cellphones with cameras. But in this case, it turns out the man had purchased the garden tool. It turns out, this was not a case of shoplifting.

“We have him on video buying (the item),” said Joe Sauls, manager of the Lowe’s on Power Inn Road.

Here’s where key details of this story differ. Sauls said the item the man had purchased set off the store alarm, which sometimes happens. Sauls said a store clerk had followed the man to ask him if she could deactivate the alarm sensor. Sauls said when the man informed the clerk that it wouldn’t be necessary, the clerk was satisfied. “The clerk said, ‘OK, have a nice day.’ ”

Sauls said he did not witness a physical confrontation in the parking lot and couldn’t corroborate that part of the story. But he did say that even if it had been shoplifting, his clerks are instructed not to engage in confrontations.

Cassidy was deeply disappointed that Lowe’s employees declined to call the police on her behalf after she had taken a photograph thinking she was helping them to deal with a shoplifter.

Sauls said he is not unsympathetic to Cassidy but that his employees didn’t call the police for two reasons: Cassidy was capable of calling them herself; and if a confrontation did occur, it took place in what he described as a public parking lot. If there had been a confrontation inside the store, Sauls said he could see his employees calling authorities. But they were not going to get involved in something that occurred outside the store.

“No one asked her to (photograph the license plate),” Sauls said. “It’s not something that we would ever do.”

To be clear: The most serious injury Cassidy suffered was a slight cut to her finger. The outer shell of her phone was damaged. She said her phone still works, though she never did get the photograph she was trying to shoot.

Lisa Bowman, spokeswoman for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, said the case has been assigned to a detective who will investigate further. She would not identify the man in question but did confirm that deputies had interviewed him. She said there was a dispute between his version of events and Cassidy’s. Consequently, it’s difficult to speculate where the case will lead.

Where should it lead?

“If this gets blown off, it’s like they are saying, ‘Oh, she is just exaggerating,” Cassidy said. “I want to press charges. I have to follow through on this. ... If he wasn’t shoplifting, why does he have to come up and assault me? It’s not against the law to take a picture.”

She’s right. It wasn’t against the law to take that picture. And I think Cassidy’s heart was in the right place with what she was trying to do. People should be encouraged to help others when they witness something they think is wrong.

But the reality is that while a smartphone can be a powerful tool for justice, not all good Samaritan stories end cleanly, with a video of the bully pinned to the concrete.