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.

But even some lawyers suffer moments of skepticism about the sanctity of such an exercise. "You hear this among lawyers all the time; experts are referred to as whores," Scott said. "This isn't something new that I made up. It's just part of the vocabulary of trial lawyers in referring to experts, and it has been since I've been a lawyer."

Haddad suggests that the narratives produced by police-friendly trial experts become a subtle and pernicious instrument of policy. "In fact, it encourages bad officers to continue being on the force when you have a quote-unquote expert telling them everything they did was right," he said.

However, if Cameron found himself at a gathering of people cynical about his line of work, he'd actually agree with many of their concerns. The only difference is that he fancies his own work a rare oasis of integrity in an expanse of charlatans.

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.

"There are experts who will testify for plaintiffs, and it doesn't matter what the fact pattern is, and they will say the police were wrong," he said. "These other guys are in it to make money, and they will say, literally, things that don't comport with standards."

He describes an example of an officer wrestling with a suspect when the cop's partner arrives on the scene. The suspect tries to get up. The partner kicks him in the ribs, knocking him back down.

"If I came in as a plaintiff's expert, and I didn't have the actual backing to do it, I might say, 'No, police officers can't kick people in the ribs. They have combat boots on.' And the jury's thinking, 'Well, yeah,'" Cameron says. He adds that case law and police standards say that in certain situations, officers can indeed protect themselves by kicking suspects to the ground.

"You can have a fairy tale and make things up, and say, 'It's not right to kick somebody who's smaller than you with your foot.' But you can also say, by the state's standards, and by case law, 'It's appropriate.' But then you can have someone on the other side who's talking about a fairy tale." I've caught the judo master and professional talker on a favorite subject — how a cop should deliver his ass-kickings in the most elegant way possible.

He describes training correctional officers in Hawaii who'd been in the habit of subduing prisoners with slaps to the head, but changed their ways to restrain prisoners with artful wristlocks and other forms of restraint. He recalled two women in one of his local classes who thought they'd figured out police defense for themselves.

"Their answer to everything was ball grabs," he said, adding that he persuaded them that police-tailored jujitsu is more effective.

As Cameron told story after story about his own gospel of precision ass-kicking, it was impossible not to be drawn in by his proselytizing verve. Every time he taught an officer to spin around behind a suspect, drag him effortlessly to the ground, then move back into a position to apply handcuffs, Cameron, it seemed, was sharing with that cop his Yosemite epiphany. And when he convinced members of a jury that an officer accused of excessive use of force was merely doing his job, he was sharing with them his profession's faith in the idea that cops have to use a certain amount of muscle to protect themselves and the public.

As I listened to Cameron's reminiscences, I could almost see shafts of light filter through the sequoias and illuminate a 10-year-old boy who, 50 years ago, couldn't tear his eyes from the sight of grown men delivering to each other a type of whoop-ass so exquisite and precise that watching it felt like religion.

Cameron's epiphanies might not seem so beatific if a cop has you on the ground in a choke hold he learned from that same entranced boy among the trees. Less still if Cameron is on the stand, telling a jury the officer's use of force was legit.

As it happens, Cameron himself is a critic of the very system that provides much of his living. He has given serious thought to coming up with a better, gentler way. He proposes a more just and efficient system whereby a court-appointed panel of neutral experts would analyze allegations of police abuse.

"It would be: Here are the fact patterns. Here are the case law standards. Was the officer right? Was the officer wrong? They'd call the attorneys in and say, 'Our independent, nonbiased board says you lose, and you win,'" Cameron said.

Presumably, the Johnny Appleseed of whoop-ass would be among those discerning truth from falsehood.

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