Vallejo cop caught on tape smacking down victim
VALLEJO, Calif. (KGO) -- The ABC7 News I-Team has uncovered a new complaint of excessive force against Vallejo police -- the incident, caught on camera. The department is already reeling after a violent year, including six people shot and killed by officers.
The more I dig, the more questions I have. This story began when a package arrived in the mail from someone inside the department. It was a DVD, a police report, and a letter complaining about a "cowboy attitude" by officers and command staff.
Imagine you're a police officer on patrol. It's a warm summer day when the call comes in -- a 22-year-old complaining his roommates beat him up and kicked him out of the apartment.
Officer Mustard: Are you injured?
Blake Robles: Yeah, they punched me in my face, they choked me out, ripped my clothes, tried to steal thousands of dollars' worth of my stuff. It's all out in front of the house.
The victim is upset how long you took to arrive.
Robles: And you guys took 45 minutes to get out here.
Ofc. Steve Darden: OK, well, listen to me, first of all, I'm not on your time watch. Second of all...
Robles: I know, I'm not on your guys' time watch, you guys take for f**kin' ever.
Darden: Second of all, second of all.
Robles: U.S. soldier, bro, know who you're talkin' to.
Darden: OK, are you gettin' in my face?
Robles: Know who you're talkin' to. Are you gettin' in my face? You stepped forward to me, I did not step forward to you.
Darden: I'm trying to talk to you.
At this point, what would you do? Do you try to defuse the situation, perhaps explain why it took 45 minutes to arrive? Do you direct the victim to step back, have a seat on the curb, and assure him you're there to help? Or do you smack him in the head?
Darden: I know who I'm talkin' to and you're down, you understand that? So, you're talkin' to a United States Marine, you understand that?
Robles: You're talkin' to a US Soldier.
Darden: OK, you're talkin' to a Marine, so I suggest that you never step up and get in my face again when I'm talkin' to you, do you understand me?
The I-Team tracked down the victim on the video, Blake Robles.
"And seeing this now brings back the anger and frustration that I felt that day when the people that were there that were supposed to come to help me were there to attack me," he said.
Robles had never seen the video before, and it brought back a flood of emotion.
Darden: So, let's start over.
Mustard: The act can stop.
Darden: Let's start over.
Robles says when he was on the ground, the two officers pressed their knees into his chest and that he briefly blacked out.
Darden: Would you like to start over or, or do...
Robles: I'm done, I'm done.
Darden: Or do I need to further introduce myself.
Robles: I'm done, I'm done, I'm completely done.
Darden: I don't need to further introduce myself?
Robles: I can't breathe.
Mustard: Stand up son.
The officers accused Robles of faking it.
Darden: What was all that moaning and stuff you did on the ground?
Mustard: Just posturing for effect.
Darden: Was that 'cause my knee was in the center of your chest and you were having a hard time?
"What was that moaning, you son of a bitch?! That was me not being able to breathe!" Robles said. "Whether you're in a bad mood, whether you're angry, whether they feel you're being disrespectful, it doesn't matter. They are there to protect and to serve us, and that day I was not protected, I was not served and I've never felt safe from the police department since then."
The incident was captured by what's called a VIEVU camera, clipped to the shirt of Ofc. Steve Darden, a 17-year veteran of the Vallejo Police Department.
"You wanna know what happened? OK, I'll tell you what happened," Darden said.
But, Darden does not want to talk about this case. By email, he refused the I-Team's request for an interview.
Darden's best known outside the department for his rap music after he recorded a tribute to Vallejo Ofc. Jim Capoot who was killed by a suspected bank robber in 2011.
Police Chief Joe Kreins declined to be interviewed when Dan Noyes caught him outside police headquarters. He said he wasn't chief at the time of the incident -- he arrived last September from Novato.
But the package arrived at ABC7 just last month, sent by someone inside the Vallejo Police Department who is concerned about the conditions there right now. Along with the DVD and police report, the source wrote a letter describing a pervasive "cowboy attitude" in the department.
The source described what happened to Robles and wrote, "Criminal behavior is being allowed and nothing is being done to stop it." "Internal Affairs ... does nothing to hold officers accountable and spends more time bullying citizens who try to file complaints."
The source also wrote that "the shift supervisor ... played the video in briefing and laughed about it."
Dan Noyes: Did that happen?
Lt. Lee Horton: I don't believe that happened, I believe that's completely inaccurate, but you know this was a year and a half ago, I wasn't there for every step of this.
Horton oversees the Vallejo police professional standards division. He refused to comment directly on the video or to say what, if any, discipline Darden received for the incident.
Horton: By law, I can't discuss the man's personnel file or his disposition of discipline or anything like that with you.
Noyes: You're asking me and you're asking the public to trust you, that you handled this properly. I'm not sure there's a lot of trust here. So, I just need to know, I'll give you one last shot. Was his behavior, that officer's behavior on that video appropriate?
Horton: Well, I can answer the question for you this way. If I'm telling you that we conducted an internal affairs investigation, there was a disposition with the officer, that's the answer to your question.
Horton also would not discuss Darden's version of events he wrote in the official police report: "I conducted a 'front reap throw,' exerted forward force with my right palm into the upper portion of his chest while sweeping his legs in the opposite direction."
But, he didn't hit Robles in the chest, as he wrote. The video shows Darden's gloved right hand strike the left side of Robles' head, knocking him to the ground.
Cyndi Mitchell joined activist group Copwatch after Vallejo police killed her brother Mario Romero. She claims police planted a pellet gun on him to justify the shooting.
"There's a lot of aggression and I believe it's because there's no accountability," she said.
Copwatch held a rally against excessive force in Vallejo just last week.
Mitchell says Darden's actions on the video match his reputation on the street.
"He's not able to properly serve the people of the community because he has a big ego, a chip on his shoulder," she said.
For some perspective, the I-Team took the video to the head of the criminal justice program at San Francisco State University.
"Police officers know if you don't take control of a situation pretty early on, it can easily escalate," Jeff Snipes said.
Snipes says Darden's use of force falls within general police guidelines, but agrees he let the confrontation turn personal very quickly.
"Perhaps he [could have] stood at a little bit more of a distance at first and tried to use some positioning, verbal commands," Snipes said. "'Please sit on the curb,' or something like that and see where it went from there."
Robles went to the hospital after the incident -- he says his ribs were sore for weeks, but he never considered suing the police.
"I don't want money, I want a solution, I want the people of Vallejo to be safe, and they're not safe right now because when officers like this are coming out to calls and they're treating victims of cases like this, no one is safe," he said.
Under the public records act, the I-Team asked Vallejo police for all VIEVU recordings in which Darden had any physical contact with the public in the past three years. The department denied the request, saying all the videos are a part of Darden's personnel file. The I-Team has filed an appeal with the Vallejo Police Department lawyers.
vallejo, caught on tape, i-team, dan noyes
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