Jury awards Salem man $3M for wrongful arrest, excessive force by police officer

“I give all the praise to God,” said Christopher Garza, 49, after the verdict was read in court. The father of four who works as a barber and lives in Salem said he will be able to fulfill his mission to help build churches.

A federal jury in Portland, Oregon, has awarded more than $3 million, including $2 million in punitive damages against the City of Salem and one of its officers, in a case alleging false arrest and police brutality.

According to court testimony, Chris Garza, a Salem barber, along with two other Hispanic men, was working on a car in the parking lot of a tire store shortly after midnight on September 17, 2021, when Officer David Baker pulled in and immediately accused Garza and the others of “trying to steal this car.” Garza testified that he felt profiled and stereotyped, and that he told the officer that no one had called him, that he lived at the premises, and that the officer should leave. Wishing to avoid further confrontation, Garza walked away, but Officer Baker immediately followed him, grabbed Garza’s right arm, twisted it up behind him, forcibly pushed Garza toward the police car, and slammed Garza onto the hood. Security video from the shop showed what Garza described as the officer “roughing me up” before forcing Garza’s handcuffed arms upward towards the back of Garza’s head.

Officer Baker denied that he yanked plaintiff’s arms up behind him, explaining that he had been trained to avoid such a maneuver, since it was known to cause injury. Officer Baker testified that force was necessary because Garza was violently resisting him, including trying to lock his foot around the officer’s ankle in order to throw him off balance. The defendants’ use of force expert said that this created a “situation of extreme danger.” Plaintiff’s lawyer Jason Kafoury responded by pointing out Officer Baker’s deposition testimony in which he stated that Garza resisted only “a little bit.”

Medical testimony from a shoulder specialist retained by the plaintiff described how Garza suffered internal derangement of his right shoulder joint, which required a surgery and is likely to require yet another surgery, with a likelihood of some permanent disability.

“The moment I saw the video I said, that’s an incredible amount of force and it was totally unnecessary,” said Jason Kafoury, of Kafoury & McDougal, attorney for plaintiff. Greg Kafoury, who tried the case with his son Jason, noted that the unanimous jury was composed almost entirely of rural and small-town jurors. “Before Black Lives Matter, prospective jurors routinely declared that they would trust the testimony of a police officer over that of a civilian, but judges now tell me that jurors no longer trust police officers to tell the truth.”

Garza’s use of force expert was Adam Bercovici, who spent 38 years with the Los Angeles police department, and had testified for the family of Kobe Bryant in their wrongful death case. He testified that he had seen this kind of use of force among officers he supervised in LA, and that the result was “a lot of broken shoulders.” The defense police expert described Garza as “confrontational,” and said all force used was reasonable. Yet when asked by plaintiff’s counsel whether he had even considered the possibility that Baker was furious at not getting the respect he felt he deserved when Garza walked away from him, and went after Garza in order to punish him, he replied, “No.”

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