Los Angeles police officer acted “out of frustration” and abused her authority when she kicked and shoved a handcuffed woman in the back of a patrol car, a prosecutor told jurors Monday, but a defense lawyer said the officer was doing her job in trying to restrain a combative suspect, who subsequently died while in custody.
Mary O’Callaghan, 50, is charged with a felony count of assault by a public officer stemming from the July 22, 2012, arrest of 35-year-old Alesia Thomas in the 9100 block of South Broadway Avenue.
Thomas, who lost consciousness in the patrol car, was pronounced dead at a hospital. Cocaine intoxication was likely a “major factor” in Thomas’ death, according to autopsy findings, though the coroner’s report lists the cause of death as undetermined.
During his closing argument, Assistant Head Deputy District Attorney Shannon Presby told the 11-woman, one-man jury that O’Callaghan’s use of force was unreasonable given that the unarmed Thomas was being picked up for alleged child abandonment, rather than a violent crime, and posed little threat to officers.
By the time O’Callaghan arrived on the scene, Presby said, two other officers had already handcuffed Thomas and placed her legs in a “hobble” that tied them together.
“It comes down to really a simple question,” Presby told jurors. “Was Alesia Thomas really resisting the police?”
Presby said Thomas was “helpless in the back of that police car” and simply trying to sit up so she could breath when O’Callaghan, frustrated in trying to retie the hobble, threatened to break Thomas’ arm, shoved her on the chest and throat and kicked her in her stomach and then her groin.
“She’s sitting up because her heart is failing,” Presby told jurors. “She’s drowning in her own blood.”
Thomas told officers her chest and legs hurt and she needed an ambulance, but “no matter what Ms. Thomas said, (O’Callaghan) refused to listen,” the prosecutor said.
“This is a police officer who is so cynical about the people that she polices that she dehumanizes them, she calls them names,” Presby told jurors, playing a video recording of the incident from a patrol car camera.
None of the other officers used unreasonable force, Presby said, though they earlier used a leg sweep to trip Thomas to the ground and handcuff her.
While other officers told Thomas, “Miss, calm down, relax,” O’Callaghan threatened to “crush” her and yelled expletives, according to the prosecutor. That language shows that the defendant was acting “out of frustration” rather than “out of need,” Presby said.
The other officers — who are not charged in connection with Thomas’ arrest — had been sent to Thomas’ home after her two children walked into the lobby of the LAPD’s Southeast Area station, apparently waiting for their grandmother to pick them up.
One of the officers testified that he warned O’Callaghan to stop and another pulled her back at one point, Presby told the jury panel.
The prosecutor said the officers reported to emergency medical personnel that Thomas was “conscious” and suffering from “shortness of breath.”
“This is where the cover-up began,” Presby told jurors, citing the misinformation as evidence that the officers knew O’Callaghan “had gone too far” but chose to hide behind the “blue wall of silence.”
Defense attorney Robert Rico agreed that the real question for the jury was whether or not the force O’Callaghan used was reasonable under the circumstances.
The defense attorney said O’Callaghan, an 18-year veteran, was called as backup to assist in getting the 6 foot, 1 inch Thomas, who weighed 228 pounds, into the patrol car.
She was there “to serve and to protect” while the rest of us were sleeping soundly, Rico told jurors.
Thomas, who was high on cocaine and almost unrecognizable to a neighbor that night, kicked the door of the patrol car and refused to get in, the defense attorney told jurors.
“It took three sets of handcuffs originally to handcuff her,” Rico said, telling jurors that she bent the metal hook of one set of handcuffs.
Thomas “was not cooperating from the second Officer O’Callaghan physically touched her,” Rico said, “struggling, resisting, combative at times, under the influence of cocaine.”
The defense attorney said the prosecution’s witnesses failed to lay out the “playbook” for what constitutes reasonable force, instead focusing on medical and other issues that Rico called irrelevant to the issue of whether O’Callaghan’s use of force was justified.
Rico acknowledged that “what happened to (Thomas) was tragic,” but told the jury panel that Thomas “would still be alive if she hadn’t ingested cocaine that caused her heart to stop pumping.”
There was “no asphyxiation, no blunt force trauma” and Thomas had “no injuries at all, not a bruise, not a cut, not a scrape … nothing,” Rico told jurors. “That’s because the use of force was reasonable.”
Even the videotape was of little help in reaching a just verdict, Rico argued.
“You can’t look at a 6-8 minute clip” and conclude “it’s ugly and therefore it’s unreasonable (force),” he told the jury.
“You are not here to judge Officer O’Callaghan on whether the use of force you saw in those tapes was pleasant or pretty,” Rico said in response to the prosecutor’s comments that O’Callaghan was laughing and making vulgar comments during the incident and stopped to smoke a cigarette.
“Police work is not pretty,” Rico said.
O’Callaghan — who was relieved of duty without pay — was criminally charged in October 2013 after an investigation by the LAPD.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said before the trial began that O’Callaghan’s actions, “as seen on the video, did not meet the expectations I have of our officers in the field.”
“As troubling as this case is, it demonstrates that our system of discovering misconduct is working, and that we will hold our officers accountable for their actions,” Beck said. “Every single day LAPD officers are asked to do extraordinary things for people while proudly wearing the LAPD badge. I hope the community recognizes that the act of one officer cannot and should not be an overall reflection of this department,” the police chief said.
If convicted as charged, O’Callaghan could face up to three years in state prison.
— City News Service
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