REPORTING FROM EAST COUNTY — An independent investigation into an incident involving a La Mesa police officer who twice body-slammed a handcuffed student at Helix Charter High School concluded the officer did not use excessive force, that his actions were not racially motivated and that he did not lose his temper during the incident.
The findings were disclosed Tuesday to the La Mesa City Council nearly a year after the incident, which occurred when school officials asked a school resource officer to escort a 17-year-old female student who refused to leave the campus.
The altercation between the student, who is black, and Officer Scott Wulfing, who is white, occurred on Jan. 19, 2018. Cellphone footage that has been shared widely on social media shows the officer flinging the student, who was handcuffed, over his hip and onto the cement and then body-slamming her a second time.
A La Mesa police officer forced a 17-year-old Helix High School student "to the ground' after she refused to comply with directions, the chief of police said in a statement.
Scott Tiedemann, a lawyer representing investigator Barry Aninag, told the City Council that concerns about the officer's conduct raised by the city were not supported by the evidence and were deemed unfounded, though he did not share publicly any of the specifics used to reach that conclusion.
Aninag's investigation sought to make a determination about whether any La Mesa Police Department use-of-force policies or procedures were violated and whether race played a role.
The City Council was not given a copy of the report because of privacy laws that govern police personnel matters.
Mayor Mark Arapostathis pressed Tiedemann several times for more information, noting that the city had "waited a year" to get the report, which was originally supposed to be finished in 90 days, dating back to last February when Aninag was hired.
Tiedemann said he was not able to share many details of Aninag's report because California penal code states that personnel records of a peace officer are confidential and cannot be disclosed in a civil proceeding.
"The information that is gathered by the investigator... is confidential," Tiedemann said several times. "I'm prohibited from elaborating on that information."
Aninag's group was paid $155 per hour for investigative time including consultation, preparation, interviews, and documentation. City Manager Yvonne Garrett said the total investigation cost was $22,089.
Tiedemann said 20 people were interviewed by Aninag, including administrators at Helix, but that multiple attempts to interview the student, Brianna Bell, were unsuccessful.
Bell is now attending school at Winston-Salem University on the East Coast. Last October, Bell filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the city of La Mesa and Wulfing. Bell's complaint cites excessive force, Civil Rights Act code violations, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and assault and battery.
Wulfing has been on paid administrative leave since the incident but will be back on the beat next week, La Mesa Police Chief Walt Vasquez said. Another school resource officer has been assigned to all the La Mesa area schools, including Helix.
City Councilman Bill Baber, an attorney, said "more discovery and discussion" will take place as the federal court case moves forward.
The council was unanimous in pushing for a future discussion of its police department's standards.
Councilwoman Akilah Weber said she hoped Vasquez would provide a review of the police department's use-of-force policy. She said she wanted to hear options for de-escalating a situation without using violence.
Weber also asked the City Council to look into creating a citizens advisory board or oversight committee in conjunction with the police.
Arapostathis asked city staff to bring back information for a public discussion on the police department's use-of-force policies and look at how other cities run police review boards.
Vasquez said he is "extremely supportive" of the opportunity to discuss his department's use-of-force policy.
"We can explain the policy, which is looked at frequently," Vasquez said. "We do take it seriously and are always looking for best practices, assuring that our policy complies with state law and federal law. We review and discuss it frequently with staff. With the members of the public I work with, I have had those policy discussions and we will continue to do so."
Aeiramique Blake, a friend of Bell's, told the City Council that for nearly a year she and others involved in restorative justice have been working with Vasquez on better practices for officers.
She attended a Helix Charter High School board meeting in December and requested — but has not yet been given information — on the school's own investigation of the incident.
Kevin Osborn, Helix's executive director, told The San Diego Union-Tribune that its investigation of the Jan. 19 incident "was shared with our board as part of a confidential attorney-client communication related to anticipated litigation" and that the communication is exempt from public disclosure.
In an email sent Thursday, Osburn said, "At a school of 2,500 students, on occasion, law enforcement is called upon to assist in resolving student-related matters. In these rare cases, the school relies on the officers to address matters appropriately."
Osburn said the school's goal is to avoid outside intervention.
"We provided several professional development days last spring and this school year focused on training our entire staff on restorative practices and discipline...to manage conflict and tensions by repairing harm and building relationships," he said.
Blake told the City Council she was disappointed in Tiedemann's report, and believed the city wasted its money on the investigation "with no useful information." Blake said the city needed "to make things right… you need to do better next time."
"We've all seen the video, and I believe in putting things in context, but there's certain things where you see it and you know it was wrong," Blake said. "Where a young lady is slammed to the ground twice. While she is in handcuffs or any kind of restraint, a grown man sends a young lady to the ground. There is never an excuse for that."