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.

However, the report noted, "these protocols were, in large part, ignored during the New Year's Day incident." Protocols in place for reporting on incidents where officers use force, meanwhile, were "substandard," the report said. BART's reporting system didn't require officers to explain in detail what happened, and allowed them to wait until witnesses had left the scene before assembling a report — making information less useful for improving policies, and evaluating whether to retrain or fire officers.

The report also said that BART's policy manual has not been completely updated since Cameron's time: "The whole manual needs a complete review, and all the policies should be updated on at least an annual basis."

Cameron says the agency should have been updating its policies all along.

Don Cameron shows the right way to apply a hold.
Kyle Monk
Don Cameron shows the right way to apply a hold.
Cameron has been retained as a defense witness for ex-BART cop Johannes Mehserle, who is accused of murdering an unarmed passenger.
Cathleen Allison
Cameron has been retained as a defense witness for ex-BART cop Johannes Mehserle, who is accused of murdering an unarmed passenger.

Though it hasn't received the same level of public scrutiny as the BART shooting, a trial scheduled to begin soon in the Yolo County town of West Sacramento promises to echo the Mehserle case in one key respect: It might feature Cameron explaining seemingly indefensible acts by police. In this case, he has testified on behalf of two cops who allegedly bludgeoned an unarmed man into a coma.

In June 2005, brothers Ernesto and Fermin Galvan were chatting at 3:30 a.m. near Ernesto's apartment when police stopped them for questioning. According to police, Ernesto resisted; they later claimed he was violent and impossible to control. But Fermin said the officers attacked them when Ernesto wouldn't submit to a search.

Within minutes of confronting Ernesto Galvan, two officers had the 135-pound Mexican immigrant on the ground, repeatedly hitting him about the head with their batons.

When he arrived at the hospital, Ernesto's skull was squishy like a cracked gourd, with fractures from seven blows from a baton; eye injuries; and severe brain trauma. He was given a 10 percent chance of survival. He was in a coma for more than a month, and awoke with brain damage.

Ernesto was charged with resisting arrest, and battery on a police officer. (Police said he refused to show his hands when asked, and struggled when they attempted to detain him.) The Galvan family alleged his human rights were violated, and sued in federal court for $13 million. Two years later, he was deemed to have recovered sufficiently to stand trial.

And the Yolo County district attorney retained Cameron to testify that the two police officers who beat Ernesto Galvan used reasonable force.

In trials involving use of force, it's typical for attorneys to present experts with hypothetical situations based on facts in the case, and then establish those facts with testimony from other witnesses.

In a transcript of the trial testimony, Galvan's attorney, Anthony Palik, seemed intent on compelling Cameron to admit that when they deliver repeated baton blows to the head, cops go too far. Cameron, however, wouldn't crack.

"What about two batons against an unarmed man with bare hands and feet? Are you saying that's appropriate?" Palik asked.

"Yes, sir, I am," Cameron replied.

"And you were saying that an unarmed man who is kneeling on the ground, that would be appropriate as well. Is that true?" Palik said.

"If the person was continuing to swing at the officers in an attempt to assault them, it's perfectly appropriate," Cameron said.

"And he's not trying to get up from the ground. It's still appropriate?" Palik said.

"Yes, sir," Cameron answered.

The 2007 trial resulted in a hung jury, and Galvan is scheduled to be tried again. Cameron would not comment, other than to acknowledge that he has been retained by the Yolo County district attorney in the retrial. But his extreme-seeming testimony raises questions about the very system that pays him. Why should we task jurors with evaluating Cameron's seemingly guileless charm, his impressive résumé, and his cool recitation of standards and procedures, and then demand that they determine whether he's offering the straight dope? Or is he merely an ex-cop, fascinated by fighting techniques, being paid for his performance on the stand?

Golden Gate University School of Law Professor Robert Calhoun says Cameron is a symptom of a faulty aspect of American jurisprudence. "The idea that the witnesses are identified with a particular party is a very much unique aspect of our system, and sometimes an embarrassing aspect of our system," he said. "You get what looks like paid-for testimony."

The problem of bias is most acute in nonscientific, practical-knowledge fields such as police defense techniques, where standards, protocols, rules, and case law all boil down to relatively vague admonitions that officers should act reasonably when detaining suspects. This lack of precision potentially gives dueling witnesses ample leeway to come up with opposite interpretations of the facts.

Of course, it isn't just attorneys for cops who hire the likes of Don Cameron. Plaintiffs' lawyers also seek their own expert witnesses. "Here's the deal: If you're defending police officers for a living, you're going to want to hire an expert witness who sees things the way your client saw them. That's what a lawyer does," Schwartz says. "In this business, you can often get people to say whatever you want them to say. You wouldn't go to them to find out the truth. You go to them to advocate for your opinion. That's the lawyer's job."

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