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.

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.

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.
Video taken the night Oscar Grant 
was killed. The fourth panel shows Mehserle firing his gun. Cameron 
believes it was an accident.
Video taken the night Oscar Grant was killed. The fourth panel shows Mehserle firing his gun. Cameron believes it was an accident.
Cameron demonstrated submission techniques last week at the 
Northern California Regional Public Safety Training College in  Sacramento.
Kyle Monk
Cameron demonstrated submission techniques last week at the Northern California Regional Public Safety Training College in Sacramento.
Cameron is one of California’s leading paid trial experts on the 
subject of police use of force.
Kyle Monk
Cameron is one of California’s leading paid trial experts on the subject of police use of force.

"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.

"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.

"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.

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.

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."

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.

"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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