The police sergeant who shot and killed Jessica Williams has a record of complaints filed against him with the city’s oversight agency, including one in which he was accused of providing inaccurate information on a search warrant that lead to the arrest of an innocent suspect, the trashing of the young man’s house, and a cop bursting through a door with a gun drawn only to find a father caring for an infant.
Sources tell us the Sergeant Justin Erb is no stranger to the Office of Citizen Complaints and has been investigated several times. Since the files are confidential, there’s no way to know how many, if any, of those complaints were valid or led to discipline.
But we do have some details on at least one complaint.
The outcome of one case, in which Erb was completely exonerated, is a reminder of why critics say the OCC is not aggressive enough in holding officers accountable for misconduct.
The story begins in 2011, when someone punched a man on the 19 Polk and stole his iPhone. According to an incident report obtained by 48hills, the victim started to chase the attacker, who exited the bus, but backed off and called police from another cell phone he was carrying.
Muni video recorded the incident, and showed pretty clear images of the suspect and two accomplices. The main suspect was wearing a black hat, a gray sweatshirt, and blue jeans with holes near the knees. The case was assigned to Erb.
Police records show that Erb showed the three images to others at the Bayview station, but nobody could identify the primary suspect. The victim came in and viewed a photographic lineup; he couldn’t pick out the alleged robber either.
We are not naming the juvenile; that’s standard practice in these cases. For the purpose of this story, let’s call him “J.”
In fact, according to police reports, the victim said he was “leaning toward #3,” a picture that was not of “J.” He asked to look at “J”s photo again, and then said he was pretty sure it was somebody else.
Eventually, one Bayview officer claimed to recognize “J” as the primary suspect – and although the victim never identified him, Erb filled out an arrest and search warrant for the house where “J” lived.
Erb then went to the District Attorney’s Office, where, according to the OCC complaint and police records, Assistant DA Jacobs declined to sign off on an arrest warrant. Instead, the DA said Erb should pursue a search warrant, and further legal action would depend on what he found.
But when Erb presented the search warrant request to Judge Lillian Sing, which he swore was true under penalty of perjury, he checked the box saying that an arrest warrant had already been issued for “J.” He also said that the victim had requested “to look at ‘J’s photos a second time.” He failed to note in his warrant request that after viewing that photo, the victim went back and said he thought the robber was somebody else.
On the basis of what Erb presented, Sing signed the warrant.
A week after the warrant was issued – and 41 days after the robbery – Erb and ten other officers arrived at the San Francisco Housing Authority apartment where “J” lived. They smashed in the door with a battering ram, and entered, guns drawn.
Once inside, the officers kicked down the door of a bedroom, broke a hole in the wall (to search for “contraband”), smashed a window, and charged into a room where a brother of “J” was taking care of a nine-month-old infant.
“J” and his two brothers, one of whom police said had thrown some bullets out a window, were arrested. No guns were found in the house.
The search turned up a pair of torn jeans, some shoes, and what the officers described as a “black hat.” But according to the OCC complaint, “the ‘black hat’ seized was actually not black, nor was it a hat. It was a furry grey hood, the kind one attaches to a jacket.”
The cops also found three cell phones, which isn’t surprising when three brothers were at the house. Police records show that the victim’s cell phone was never found.
One officer noted in a report that she had been holding a “box spring” for some reason, and it “slipped from her grasp,” breaking a window.”
By the time the search was completed, the unit was so badly damaged that the Housing Authority had to relocate the family to another apartment.
The record of the arrest of “J” is very clear: The moment the District Attorney’s Office saw the file, and watched the video, Assistant District Attorney Tiffany Gipson decided that “J” could not be the robber. She asked the court to release him, and the case was dismissed the next day.
That’s important: It wasn’t the defense lawyers who demanded “J” be released; the DA realized immediately that there was no case here and had him released on her own.
“This was disgraceful behavior on the part of the SFPD,” Kate Chatfield, a lawyer who represented “J” in his OCC filing, told me.
The OCC found that Erb had done nothing wrong.
Chatfield finds that astonishing. “Would the OCC and the police department have responded so cavalierly had this been a white family whose house was destroyed, who were held at gunpoint in their home by the police, whose son was falsely arrested, and whose child in a crib could have been shot?” she asked. “Or would these officers not have acted this way in the first place if the family had been white?”
OCC investigations, like all documents involving police officer discipline, are strictly confidential. But the OCC issue summary reports with names redacted, and when I looked at cases closed around the period when this one was closed, I found a report that is almost certainly the same case.
According to that investigation, Erb admitted that he had presented false information, under penalty of perjury, to the judge. But he said that he “forgot to revise the search warrant” application to remove that claim. The OCC called that a “clerical error” and said there was not enough evidence to prove that Erb intended to mislead the judge.
The damage to the house? Necessary in the conduct of the search. Charge dismissed.
No disciplinary action was taken against Erb or anyone else.
Erb did not respond to phone messages seeking comment.
The SFPD has a system in place to identify officers who have a history of use-of-force complaints; the “early warning” system is supposed to allow management to more strictly monitor and provide more training to cops who seem to be breaking the rules a lot.
But there’s no flag is a complaint against an officer isn’t sustained (unless it leads to a successful lawsuit or legal settlement). And the OCC has a pretty weak record on sustaining complaints: in 2015, the most recent data available shows that the agency closed 492 cases, and sustained 35. That means 93 percent of the cases were in essence dismissed.
It’s hard to know much more about Erb’s record – we are told that several other complaints have been filed, but the secrecy in place makes it impossible to tell if those complaints were sustained or if Erb was cleared in every instance. The Blue-Ribbon panel on police bias points to the lack of transparency as a major problem at the SFPD, but every effort to get the state law changed to allow more public access to investigations has stalled.
And so far, the district attorney has not charged any police officer in the recent spate of fatal shootings with an sort of crime.