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Legal Weapon 

Don Cameron trains cops in how to use force, and then defends them in court when they're accused of going too far.

Wednesday, Feb 10 2010
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A half-century ago, when Don Cameron was growing up in the San Francisco neighborhood of St. Francis Wood, his family would summer at Yosemite National Park in cabins near the Merced River.

One day, Cameron recalls, "we were walking on our little path through the forest, and I saw through the trees that four or five Oriental guys had taken a piece of canvas and had stuffed it with pine needles." The men, who apparently worked in the kitchen of the park's hotel, had created a dummy to practice a form of wrestling in which they'd grab opponents and deftly throw them onto a mat they'd brought. "It just fascinated me," he says. "My sister said, 'Come on.' I said, 'No, no, no.' Every day I'd run out there at the same time, and I'd watch them and watch them."

After a few days, a man who seemed to be the wrestlers' leader beckoned to Cameron. He spoke only Japanese; he took Cameron by the hand, grasped his leg, and demonstrated to the boy how he could fall to the mat without hurting himself. Thereafter, every day when the men were done training, the master would take 15 minutes to instruct Cameron in the art of judo, Japanese for "the gentle way." Cameron knew him only as "Sah," the exclamation the teacher would make when he slapped the mat during a fall.

"Every year when we went to Yosemite, as soon as we got into the cabin I'd run into the forest where the mat was, and he'd be there, and he'd show me more stuff," Cameron recalls. "When I was 12, I ran out there, I looked around, and there was no mat. I never knew what happened to him, or who he was, except that I called him Sah."

From that empty clearing, Cameron set upon a path that would make him a Rosetta Stone for understanding what happens when someone gets his ass kicked by a cop. For most of us, that's a brutish prospect. But to hear Cameron tell it, done correctly, it's absolutely justified.

If a police ass-kicking goes well — and the former Berkeley and BART cop has dedicated a lifetime to trying to ensure that it does — a suspect will be on his seat in handcuffs before even trying to throw his first swing.

Cameron teaches about 1,000 police officers per year at six law enforcement training centers the art of taking down and handcuffing unruly suspects with minimal force, using techniques adapted from judo and other martial arts. He has taught weaponless defense to San Francisco Police Academy instructors since the 1970s, and helped write California's standards on police use of force.

But street confrontations don't always go by the book. If a police ass-kicking goes badly — if the cop is overly nervous, if the suspect is armed or persistent in fighting back, or if the cop is simply a vicious bully — Cameron may very well become a factor in that type of incident, too. He has turned his expertise as a police defense trainer into a lucrative business, testifying at trials that officers accused of brutality had simply done what they had to do.

Cameron is one of California's leading paid trial experts on the subject of police use of force, and the city's go-to guy in brutality lawsuits against the police department. He has consulted as an expert witness in more than 100 such cases over the past 13 years. Among the cops he has vouched for is Jesse Serna, the notorious officer who in 2006 was accused of brutalizing and Tasering medical student Mehrdad Alemozaffar; beating Barry Bonds' personal trainer, Greg Oliver; and tackling and breaking the arm of airport baggage handler Jonathan Meas after Serna's car had accidentally hit the man.

During hundreds of hours of testimony, Cameron has managed to rationalize what victims describe as vicious beatings into benign-seeming narratives about officers who merely followed police protocols and court-defined standards of reasonable force.

In some of these cases, Cameron seems to explain away behavior that is in no way gentle. He has been retained by attorneys for Johannes Mehserle, the ex-BART police officer facing murder charges in connection with the Jan. 1, 2009, eshooting of Oscar Grant, an unarmed passenger, at the Fruitvale station. Cameron has been quoted as saying that it looked like an accident. Cameron is also slated to serve as an expert witness for the prosecution in the West Sacramento retrial of a man charged with assaulting a police officer. That criminal trial is a prelude to a $13 million lawsuit in which the arresting officers are accused of repeatedly smashing the unarmed Mexican immigrant's skull, putting him into a weeks-long coma that left him with brain damage.

"I don't know if he's ever seen a shooting or a use of force he didn't like," San Francisco criminal defense attorney John Scott said of Cameron.


After his Japanese mentor stopped showing up at Yosemite 52 years ago, Cameron went home to San Francisco and sought out judo books and judo classes, and moved on to jujitsu and other martial arts. While handy, the magical-seeming ability of jujitsu experts to pull opponents effortlessly to the ground wasn't essential to the police work Cameron found himself doing in Berkeley in 1966.

The public's and the courts' concepts of police brutality weren't nearly as refined then as they are now, he says. "If you got sued as a police officer in the 1960s, you'd have had to walk up to them [the suspects] from behind and shoot them five times in the head," he says. "I could punch people and take them down to the ground, and when they stopped fighting, I would put handcuffs on them."

After the Bloody Thursday riots in Berkeley in May 1969, when nearly 800 law enforcement officers confronted People's Park protesters, killing one and sending more than 100 to the hospital, it became evident that local beat cops could use better training. At the same time, Cameron says, his colleagues wanted to learn more about his martial arts skills.

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Matt Smith

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