Fatal Encounter With Police Is Caught on Video, but Kept From the Public
By IAN LOVETT
Published: May 15, 2013
LOS ANGELES — When Maria Melendez emerged from Kern Medical Center in Bakersfield, Calif., just before midnight last Tuesday, she said, she heard screams that have kept her awake at night for an entire week.
David Sal Silva with his three daughters. He died after witnesses said he was beaten by sheriff’s deputies in Kern County, Calif., last week.
A half-dozen Kern County sheriff’s deputies were across the street beating a man with clubs and kicking him, she said. So she whipped out her mobile phone and began to video the episode, announcing to the officers what she was doing.
For about eight minutes, Ms. Melendez said, the man screamed and cried for help. Then he went silent, she said, making only choking sounds.
Finally, having hogtied him, a number of witnesses said, two officers picked up the man and dropped him, twice. One deputy nudged the man with his foot. When he did not respond, they began CPR.
“He was like a piece of meat,” said Ms. Melendez, 53, who was visiting her son at the hospital after he was injured in a car accident. “We were telling them: ‘He’s dead. You guys already killed him.’ ”
Responding to a call, deputies had arrived at the scene to find the man, David Sal Silva, a 33-year-old father of four, on the pavement. Their attempts to rouse him resulted in the altercation, the authorities said. Mr. Silva was pronounced dead less than an hour later at Kern Medical Center.
Ms. Melendez said she recorded the entire episode on her phone, as did her daughter’s boyfriend. But before they could send the videos to news media outlets, detectives from the Kern County Sheriff’s Office took their phones before a warrant for them had even arrived, Ms. Meledez and her family said.
Ray Pruitt, a sheriff’s spokesman, said the two phones were confiscated in accordance with search warrants and had been handed over to the Bakersfield Police Department as part of the investigation.
The sheriff has requested that the F.B.I. investigate the episode.
In the meantime, six deputies and a sergeant who were there during the encounter with Mr. Silva have been allowed to return to full duty while the episode is investigated. Two California Highway Patrol officers were also present.
The seizure of the phones has led to accusations that the sheriff’s department is trying to cover up the episode. David K. Cohn, a lawyer representing Mr. Silva’s family, said they planned to file a federal civil rights complaint. He said there was no reason that the sheriff’s office should not have already returned the phones unless they wanted to keep the videos from being seen by the public.
“Now they’ve given the cellphones to the Bakersfield police?” he said. “That just smacks of collusion.”
Sheriff Donny Youngblood of Kern County did not return calls seeking comment on Tuesday. But in a news release last week, the sheriff’s office said Mr. Silva was “uncooperative” and had continued to resist arrest even after a number of officers had arrived.
Laura Vasquez, who was with Ms. Melendez, recalled the encounter very differently.
She said that sheriff’s deputies told Mr. Silva to stay on the ground. When he tried to get up, she said, deputies ran up and hit him in the head with their clubs. Soon, she said, he was crying for help as at least eight officers hit him, kicked him and pressed their knees into his chest and stomach.
“For the first couple minutes he was screaming for help, basically pleading for his life,” said Ms. Vasquez, 26. “Then we couldn’t see him anymore. That’s how many cops were on top of him.”
After everyone had gone home, sheriff’s detectives showed up at the house of Ms. Melendez’s daughter, Melissa Quair, about 3 a.m.
Ms. Quair said she and her boyfriend were kept from leaving the house for three hours. When her boyfriend tried to leave for work, a detective shoved him, closed the door and told him to hand over his phone, she said. Eventually he did.
Ms. Melendez said her phone was also confiscated by sheriff’s detectives at Ms. Quair’s house later the same day. Mr. Pruitt and a sheriff’s detective investigating the case would not discuss the seizures.
Jody Armour, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law, said legal precedents about the power of the police to seize such videos are still emerging as new technology is developed.
In the two decades since the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers was captured on tape, he said, “these videos have become powerful agents of debate, perhaps even change, and we have a public interest in that.”
He added, “It could have a chilling effect on the willingness of bystanders to make these recordings, if they worry that they could be accosted by law enforcement.”