City of San Fernando Police Chief Tony Vario responded publicly regarding a video that went viral over the weekend where a department officer was seen in the video striking an unarmed man, saying the officer’s actions were “within [department] policy.”
The man was later arrested by police and charged with felony evading, driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI), obstructing a police officer and felony threats against an executive officer. The driver bonded out of custody, police said, and is due back to court on June 6, 2022.
“[The public] is only seeing a short snippet of what happened. They didn’t see the whole incident or know what the whole circumstances were,” Vario said.
“I don’t make my decision just based on what I saw,” said Vairo, when asked specifically about the video. “I have to get all the information; that’s why I have to hear two sides of the story or three sides of the story…all the information before I make a decision on whether that was justified or not within [department] policy and state law.
“That’s what I have to look at, and make a logical decision on what course we’re gonna take. I looked at everything right now, and everything my officer did, and after my review and the discussions I’ve had over the weekend, everything seems to be within [department] policy.”
(To view the video, go to the link https://youtu.be/pKq0vuRc5D4)
In the department release, it said the officer who effected the arrest — who was not identified in the release — did activate his department issued audio recorder during the encounter, and the driver could be heard repeatedly disobeying the officer’s lawful order to submit to an arrest.
Vairo said the identity of the man arrested could not be released by the department “at this time.”
The incident — which began in San Fernando and concluded in Mission Hills — took place on Dec. 10.
According to Lt. Nichole Hanchett, police were stopped at a red light at the intersection of Hubbard Street and Laurel Canyon Boulevard at approximately 10:45 p.m. when they observed a vehicle described as a black Ford Fusion approaching their marked patrol vehicle at a high rate of speed.
The driver then abruptly swerved around the stopped patrol vehicle and made a left turn onto eastbound Laurel Canyon Boulevard, nearly striking the officers’ patrol vehicle in addition to other vehicles on the roadway, Hanchett said.
According to the SFPD, police officers followed in an attempt to conduct a traffic stop for the observed traffic violations. The driver suddenly stopped, forcing them to brake and avoid a collision. The driver then immediately accelerated at a high rate of speed and drove in between the marked lanes away from officers.
The officers continued their pursuit. Hanchett said the driver failed to yield to the officers and continued to actively evade them for approximately 4.9 miles, and an approximate total of eight minutes.
During the pursuit, according to police, the driver reached speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour on surface and residential streets.
Besides speeding, Hanchett said, the driver committed multiple vehicle code violations including failing to stop at a red circular traffic light, failing to yield to traffic and lane straddling.
In addition, the driver was seen repeatedly displaying a hand gesture signifying his status as a criminal street gang member, police said.
Hanchett said the driver finally stopped at his residence in the 11000 block of Orion Avenue. Once stopped, the officers ordered the driver to exit the vehicle, turn away from them and place his hands in the air. The driver exited the vehicle and instead, faced towards the officers.
The officers ordered him again to turn away from them and he instead continued to walk towards the officers, Hanchett said. The driver — described as standing 5-feet 9-inches tall and weighing 260 pounds — was wearing baggy shorts and a baggy blue sweatshirt that covered his waistband. The officers could not see from their vantage point if he had a concealed weapon, according to Hanchett.
Police say the driver continued to walk towards the officers, who ordered the man to turn away from them, drop to his knees and place his hands on his head. The on-scene watch commander deployed the less lethal bean bag shotgun, and trained it on the driver. The driver acknowledged the bean bag shotgun and said words to the effect of, “(Expletive) you pigs! You think that thing scares me?” while taking small steps towards the officers, Hanchett said.
Fearing the driver might be concealing a weapon, the watch commander fired one bean bag round that struck the man in his upper abdomen, according to Hanchett.
The driver was not affected by the bean bag strike and began to laugh loudly, according to police. He then placed his right hand on his abdomen and his left hand near his waistband area and turned away from the officers.
Because the officers could not see his hands from their vantage point and the man had turned away from them, one SFPD officer simultaneously struck the driver one time in the face as he tackled him, Hanchett said.
The strike and the officer’s body weight caused the driver to fall to the ground. Once on the ground, the officer struck the driver twice on the right side of his face with his right fist and was able to take him into custody, police said.
The Los Angeles Fire Department was notified and first responders treated the man for a small laceration to his eyebrow and the bruise caused by the bean bag shotgun, police said. The driver refused to cooperate with any field sobriety testing or to provide a breath or blood sample, Hanchett said, so officers obtained a search warrant for a blood draw.
The man was transported to a hospital, Hanchett said. While at the hospital, according to police, the defendant threatened the officer by stating that he knows people who would harm the officer and the officer would end up like fallen SFPD Officer Jessie Perez, who died July 19, 2002, from a gunshot wound. He also challenged the officer to a fight and told him to remove his uniform and meet him at San Fernando Recreation Park, police said.
“The gentleman who was arrested that night — I actually happen to know him,” Vairo said. “We’ve dealt with him a few times over the years. He’s a good guy who’s turned his life around.
“Obviously he made a mistake. He put us in a position to chase him. He was being reckless and endangering the community. We have an obligation to make sure he doesn’t hurt anybody.”
Vairo said the man “later apologized to officers for his actions,” and that when he came to the department the next day to get his vehicle released, he apologized again.
“You have to get all the information, and that’s what the public needs to do,” Vairo said. “We try to be as transparent as we can. Sometimes it’s hard, because law enforcement can’t always talk about everything [pertaining to an incident or arrest]. We have personnel issues or certain restrictions we have to deal with, because it’s a criminal investigation.”
Ed. note: Chief Vairo is retiring from the department at the end of the month. He recently sat down with the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol for an exclusive Q & A interview on his impending departure from law enforcement that will be published next week.