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.

"I think it makes him appear biased," Haddad said. "There's an obvious reason why the city would keep going back to someone like that."

During the past three years, Cameron has earned more than $22,000 providing expertise for attorneys defending Jesse Serna, the SFPD's most notorious officer in cases involving allegations of excessive use of force. And yet another Serna brutality case scheduled for trial this year may result in even more expert testimony fees.

According to a 2007 San Francisco Chronicle story, Serna reported using force more than any other officer. He had been involved in three lawsuits that ended up costing the city $195,000. That was before three further cases went to trial involving three different 2006 brutality allegations against him. In each case, Cameron was enlisted as an expert in police use of force.

On Dec. 17, 2006, UCLA medical student Alemozaffar claims he was getting pizza in North Beach when Serna pinned him facedown and repeatedly smashed his head on the pavement. Officers zip-tied Alemozaffar's hands and then repeatedly Tasered him. The city agreed to pay Alemozaffar, now a Harvard doctor, $385,000.

Just four months before, Barry Bonds' personal trainer, Greg Oliver, was on Broadway hailing a taxi when he saw seven police officers respond to an incident where three men had attacked another man. Oliver said he tried to tell police that they were restraining the victim instead of the assailants. Serna turned on him, hitting Oliver twice with his baton, throwing him to the ground, and then pulling him up by wrenching his wrist.

"They're trained to take the person to the ground because it's a more controlled position," Cameron said, according to a trial transcript. He added that in many cases, it's it's safer to handcuff someone after you've thrown them to the ground, because it's harder for them to maneuver and escape or attack.

Cameron, it should be noted, also provided testimony favorable to Oliver. "If he [Oliver] was pushed back and he said, 'That's the perpetrator, that's the victim,' and he didn't move toward either officer, and he wasn't in close proximity to the enforcement action, then there would be no reason to strike him with a baton," he told the jury. Ultimately, the jury deadlocked and the case was dismissed.

On Aug. 26, 2006, a squad car with Serna in it sideswiped baggage handler Jonathan Meas, who then kicked at the vehicle. The officers tackled Meas and arrested him. He has sued the city for $1 million. The case is expected to go to trial this year, again with Cameron as expert witness.

Though currently employed by the SFPD, Serna is now working in a "non-public-contact" position, which typically means he isn't patrolling, responding to calls, or making arrests, according to a spokeswoman.

While Cameron may be largely unknown outside the legal and law enforcement communities, that could change in May, when Mehserle is expected to stand trial for Grant's death. Cameron's expertise in police defense techniques appears poised to take center stage; Cameron has been hired as an expert witness by Mehserle's defense.

Cameron told SF Weekly that he couldn't talk specifically about the case because of a gag order imposed by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson.

But an interview he gave to the Chronicle last month, before he was retained as an expert, revealed his thinking. Cameron told the Chron that he had watched footage of Grant's death and was convinced the officer had meant to draw his Taser instead of his gun.

"The Taser is a great controlling device," he was quoted as saying. "But if you grab the wrong device, you kill somebody."

At a Jan. 30 bail hearing, Mehserle's attorney, Michael Rains, described a defense strategy centered on insisting that the officer had accidentally pulled the trigger on his gun. (Cameron was able to tell SF Weekly that, generally speaking, "officers in the past have drawn a firearm when they thought they were drawing a Taser, and shot somebody.")

It just so happens that Cameron wrote and revised use-of-force policies and procedures for BART during his time as a police officer with the agency from 1972 to 1981. Some policies drafted during that time were still in place when Grant was shot and killed by Mehserle.

Cameron insists that his role in creating those protocols decades ago has no bearing on the case. "I wrote a policy that comported with the standards of the time, which was pretty much the penal code. ... I would expect, if I'd written a policy for any agency, that it would be totally different now than any agency would have had 40 years ago."

Cameron's main job back then was to adapt ordinary police procedures involving use of force to situations where officers apprehend suspects in train tunnels, platforms, vehicles, and on tracks that happen to have a deadly third rail. "My job was basically to say when we can use force, why we can use force, and say, 'Here's the techniques that we can use to do it,'" he said.

According to an August 2009 outside review of BART conducted in the wake of the Oscar Grant shooting, operational directives in place since the 1980s said that officers should be provided with all information available about the call; that at least three officers should be dispatched to the scene, and that they should work as a team to disembark passengers; and they should search the train using a "leapfrog" tactic, going from door to door as a team.

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