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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.
"Most of the guys I was with were Cal grads," he says. "They'd studied things like engineering or chemistry. When they'd ask me a question about defensive techniques, I would say, 'What art did you study?' One guy said, 'I studied engineering.' We were talking two different languages."
He started giving impromptu postshift classes in the gym on how to take suspects into custody without hitting them, or how to wrench a suspect's wrist so that he couldn't move without feeling pain. Cameron adapted his martial arts training so that he could move an opponent into a position where the officer could handcuff him, rather than merely smack him down onto the mat.
Guys on the next shift — it was mostly guys back then — saw the sessions and expressed interest.
"The sergeant heard about my little training program, and he said, 'I'm going to try to certify this through Vista Community College.' I said, 'Sure,'" Cameron recalls.
In 1972, Cameron took a job with BART, which was on the verge of turning its force of security guards into a full-blown police department. He was given the task of writing police policies and procedures in the use of force. He also continued his side business training officers, including those on forces outside of BART. When he was invited to do an extended training stint in Hawaii, he realized he might be able to devote himself full-time to teaching, in the spirit of his childhood mentor. In the late 1970s, San Francisco was also interested in having its officers learn arrest and control techniques that helped cops protect themselves and the public without piling up brutality complaints.
Cameron presented himself as just the man for the job. In 1979, the SFPD entered into a consent decree designed to promote diversity in hiring, creating an even greater demand for training officers in arrest methods that minimized the need for violent force.
"One of the females from the consent decree, she was very small," Cameron recalls. "When she was in my class she said, 'That's all well and good, but I'm very small. You're a larger man.'" He showed her an arm bar takedown, where an officer grabs and scoots behind a suspect, pinches the nerve inside his biceps, and pulls the suspect onto his back. "She was able to take the guy down and move him into position to be handcuffed," he says.
Cameron recalls former police Chief Heather Fong as a more difficult study. "She was almost going to flunk the class," he says of an 80-hour weaponless defense class she was enrolled in. But "she crammed like hell, and she passed."
As Cameron became established as the SFPD's trainer of defense instructors, the city attorney's office began seeing him as a source of advice about cases where the city had been sued based on allegations of excessive force by police officers. Since 1996, Cameron has been paid $331,431 as an expert witness in 114 cases, according to the city attorney's office.
Joanne Hoeper, the city attorney's chief trial deputy, says Cameron is one of the best expert witnesses around on use of force. "If you look at the résumés of many people who hold themselves out there as police practices experts, they've had a not very distinguished — sometimes affirmatively undistinguished — career in law enforcement," she said. "And when they retire, this is what they do. Mr. Cameron is training police officers. He is training the trainers of police officers. He's out there actively doing this job every day."
Hoeper said she and her colleagues don't ask Cameron what to say when they approach him with a case. "We basically say, 'Look, Mr. Cameron, this is what has happened. Tell us if you see a problem with what the officer did.' We rely on him to give reliable, objective analysis of what the officer did."
But attorneys who've gone up against Cameron say he's hardly objective. "It's been my experience with Don Cameron that, more often than not, I mean a lot, he's more on the side of police than otherwise," said Walnut Creek attorney Andrew Schwartz, who has won judgments against San Francisco police. "That's just his worldview."
Oakland attorney Michael Haddad recalled a 2001 case where Vacaville police shot and killed a mentally ill man who was wielding a length of pipe. Haddad got Cameron to acknowledge that, of the more than 100 cases he had testified in during the previous four years, only two involved asserting that an officer had used excessive force.