San Diego police said they have launched an internal investigation after two of their officers were recorded on video repeatedly punching a man during an arrest this week.
The witness who recorded the incident Wednesday said she recognized the man being hit in the head and legs as a "harmless" neighborhood vagrant. She said she couldn't believe what happened after officers investigated the man, whom they accused of urinating in public.
"I see him around all the time. He's harmless. He's just homeless," the woman, Nicole Bansal, 34, of La Jolla, said Thursday. "He's very easy to recognize, because he always has a big orange life vest on."
A police spokesman, Lt. Shawn Takeuchi, said Thursday that the Internal Affairs Unit is investigating and reviewing body camera video of the incident, which began about 9 a.m. when officers on patrol "witnessed a man urinating in public." They then tried to speak to the man. Police declined to name the man or say whether he is homeless.
"The man would not stop to speak with officers therefore an officer held the man to detain him," Takeuchi said in a statement. "Despite the officers repeatedly telling the man to 'stop resisting,' the man would not comply. One of the officers struck the man several times."
The man was taken into custody and taken to a hospital, police said. Once he was released from the hospital, he was booked on charges of resisting arrest and battery of a police officer.
The officers have not been publicly identified.
Bansal said she saw two officers get out of a police cruiser and approach the man, who is Black. She said she grew uneasy, took out her cellphone and recorded the encounter for more than 4 minutes from her driver's seat.
"They did not try to de-escalate. ... If they had just approached the situation calmly and tried to de-escalate, we wouldn't be here," she said. "That man didn't go out to take those guys down. The cops went there with that intention to take him down ... and the resulting fight is what ensued."
In Bansal's video, an officer in front of the man appears to be holding a stun gun, while a second officer grabs the man's arm from behind. The man, who has a vest around his neck, appears to flinch at the officer he is facing, while the officer almost simultaneously holsters a weapon.
That officer then lunges at the man, and a struggle ensues.
The video shows an officer punch the man in the face and head at least three times. The same officer also strikes him with his forearm. A second officer punches the man in his legs about a half-dozen times. Officers are heard repeatedly yelling "stop resisting" and "put your hands behind your back."
The man appears to punch an officer in the face and attempts a second punch but misses. He also yanks an item off the officer's belt and tosses it.
The struggle among the three men lasted about 2 minutes and 45 seconds before two more officers arrived to help with the arrest, the video shows.
A San Diego police de-escalation policy instituted last June requires officers to "try to establish an effective line of communication" while taking into account factors like age, medical or physical conditions and "known or perceived disabilities, including mental illness."
Bansal said what she witnessed shook her and amounted to criminalizing homelessness. When she stopped recording, she called her husband for support.
"These people are meant to serve and protect the community. They have a right to also serve and protect that man. He's a member of this community," Bansal said. "I've lost a lot of faith ... in the police as I see these videos on social media. But I still never thought I would be on the receiving end of witnessing something like this."