Judge reinstates Grover Beach officer fired over Taser use
April 11, 2013
A San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge has ordered that the Grover Beach Police Department reinstate an officer it fired for using excessive force during a 2010 Taser incident. [Tribune]
Santino Lopez responded to a reported kidnapping of 6-month-old baby at an Arroyo Grande home on February 9, 2010. A distraught mother told Lopez, a 15-year veteran and former police officers’ association president, that an old man kidnapped the baby and was hiding in the garage.
Lopez did not know it at the time, but the mother had been staying at the man’s home. The mother and the man, Peter Hewitt, just had an argument at a Grover Beach supermarket, after which Hewitt drove home with the baby.
When Lopez entered the garage, he saw Hewitt sitting in a van with the child. Lopez pulled the baby away from Hewitt, and two other officers tried to get Hewitt out of the van.
According to Lopez, Hewitt resisted the officers, using a lot of strength. Lopez then dispatched his Taser toward Hewitt’s back, but it malfunctioned and did not shock him.
After an investigation into the incident, the police department concluded that Lopez misrepresented the situation and that there was no need to use the Taser. In November 2010, Police Chief Jim Copsey fired Lopez for dishonest conduct and for firing a Taser at a compliant elderly suspect.
Lopez appealed his termination, but City Manager Bob Perrault upheld the firing, despite a recommendation by former San Luis Obispo Police Chief Jim Gardiner to overturn the ruling.
Lopez then sued the city and Perrault. Last December, Judge Dodie Harman ruled that Grover Beach failed to prove that Lopez used excessive force and ordered the city to reinstate him with a more appropriate punishment.
“While in hindsight, and with a calm viewing of a video tape that does not record at the same rate and perception of a human eye, it may appear that the struggle was not as serious as the officers described,” Harman wrote. “There clearly, based on the testimony, was more happening at the scene than is viewing on the video and the court cannot say that the use of the Taser, in this situation, was unreasonable.”
Grover Beach reinstated Lopez on February 1, and he has since remained on paid administrative leave. Lopez will also receive back pay from from the date of his termination. He makes $69,936 annually, excluding benefits.