Arthur Higgins sat in the backseat of the car and lit up a cigarette just moments before an officer grabbed him, pepper sprayed him and drew his baton. Seconds later, Higgins was on the sidewalk getting punched and kneed by three officers.
His offense: sitting in a car that was parked in a bus zone.
“I was afraid that I might get killed,” Higgins told The Standard in a recent interview. “I was afraid that I could get killed because nothing that he had done up to that point had made any sense. It didn’t have any justification.”
Video: Watch footage of the traffic stop
In the two years since his violent encounter with police in North Beach, a police watchdog investigation has found that officers used excessive force against Higgins and one of the other two Black men in the car that night. The case will likely cost taxpayers $375,000 to settle a lawsuit that Higgins brought against the city, and is also viewed as a prime example of why San Francisco should prevent police from using traffic stops to investigate people for unrelated crimes.
On Wednesday, the Police Commission considered a new policy designed to address the police practice known as a “pretextual stop.” The city could ban officers from making traffic stops for minor offenses, like driving with a broken tail light, and then asking the people in the car questions about other potential crimes. Police say pretextual stops are a useful method for officers to remove guns and drugs from the streets. But critics argue the practice is ineffective and erodes trust between police and communities of color.
A coalition made up of dozens of community groups are now calling for an end to pretextual stops. Deputy Public Defender Brian Cox, one of the group’s leaders, said the footage from Higgins’ case shows why pretextual stops should be banned.
“This is something that we should definitely try to prevent from happening in the future,” Cox said. “Being double parked in a bus zone is a parking infraction, there’s a lot of ways of solving that problem that don’t involve asking questions, detaining and using force. I think just the results of what happened here speak for themselves.”
A 2021 investigation by The New York Times found that police across the nation killed more than 400 unarmed people during minor traffic stops in the prior five years. While it’s unclear how many traffic stops have escalated into police using force in San Francisco, Black people were four times more likely to be pulled over than white people last year. Too often, advocates say, minor traffic stops end with Black people being injured or even killed.
Higgins was in a car with his friends outside of the Condor Club on Broadway and Columbus Avenue at 2:50 a.m. when police pulled them over. He went to the hospital in the early morning hours of Labor Day 2019 with a laceration to his head, nerve damage to his hand and a back injury that prevented him from raising his arm, he told The Standard. Police booked him into jail on a charge resisting arrest and battery on a peace officer, but prosecutors declined to charge him.
The Department of Police Accountability later found that the officers used excessive force and misrepresented the encounter in official statements, falsely accusing Higgins of tackling an officer.
Juan Lara, the Central Station officer who pepper sprayed Higgins and used his baton against him, explained his side of the story in a DPA interview. He said he intended to check if the driver had a license and ask him to move along, according to a DPA report. But then Lara saw cannabis in the car and—given the time of night and location—he suspected Higgins and his friends might be armed drug dealers.
Lara said he grabbed Higgins by the wrist without warning, “because I needed to see if he would listen to me.”
“If you don’t have anything to hide, you’d be like, ‘Uh, alright, I’ll get out,” Lara said, adding that Higgins forcibly tried to move his arm away. “If he would have just allowed me to pat search him, sit him down, I would have gladly explained to everyone why they were stopped and why we searched them.”
Police also pulled the driver, Larry Tiller, out of the car and brought him to the ground without giving him time to comply before using force, according to the DPA.
Officers say they found $221 in one-dollar bills, an open bottle of alcohol, marijuana and baggies, and a digital scale in the car, according to the DPA report. They also found a bag containing suspected cocaine.
Higgins was the only person booked into jail that night. Tiller was cited and released for parking in a bus zone, having marijuana in the car and resisting arrest. The third passenger, Lorenzo Bell, was cited and released for having an open container.
The DPA investigation later sustained excessive force allegations against officers Lara, Terrell Gunn and Brandon Smith for their encounter with Higgins, as well as Officer David Cheng for using force to take down Tiller. The DPA also found that the video contradicted statements made by Lara and Gunn.
“This routine traffic infraction detention escalated quickly and needlessly,” the DPA concluded. Investigators also found that it was “an illogical leap to conclude that the car occupants were armed and dangerous drug dealers” simply because Tiller acknowledged there was cannabis in the car.
Tracy McCray, acting president of San Francisco’s police union, said officers are trained to stop people based on behavior, not the color of their skin. While the union has not taken a formal position on the policy before the Police Commission, McCray said that pretextual stops help remove contraband, unsafe drivers and criminals off the streets.
Still, the police union president was troubled by footage from the Higgins case. McCray said the officer who grabbed Higgins made tactical errors approaching him and did not properly communicate with his partner. She added that the problems are more a reflection of bad training than a need to ban minor traffic stops.
“People park in the bus zones day and night,” McCray said. “So we should just ignore it because of one stop that didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to turn out?”
McCray said the officers are challenging their disciplinary cases. Police records show all four remain on the force at district stations.
A police spokesperson declined to comment on the incident, citing open investigations into the matter. A spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office said the proposed $375,000 settlement is an “appropriate resolution given the inherent costs of ongoing litigation.”
Higgins feels fortunate to be alive, but said the encounter made him more anxious about leaving the house. He also lost his job as a maintenance worker at an apartment building because he missed several days and could not keep up with the physical requirements.
“I felt like anything can happen for no reason at all,” Higgins said.
He now works as a cook at a bowling alley and hopes to put the settlement money toward opening up a food truck offering healthy “superfoods” sourced from local vendors.
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