Santa Monica man trying to plug in his hybrid at Virginia Avenue Park says he doesn’t understand why police beat him up

By Bonnie Eslinger

Justin Palmer in his Nissan Leaf  Photo by Inae Bloom

Justin Palmer in his Nissan Leaf
Photo by Inae Bloom

Life changed for Justin Palmer one night last month as he tried to charge his electric vehicle in a Santa Monica city park.

The married father of four young daughters says he had finished his shift as a pharmacy technician — he was still wearing his medical scrubs — when he pulled his black Nissan Leaf into the lot at Virginia Avenue Park around 9:30 p.m. on April 21. All five charging stations were occupied, but the Santa Monica resident decided to wait, hoping for a short boost to get his car around the next day.

Around 10:45 p.m. — 15 minutes before the park was scheduled to close — a charger became available and Palmer moved to plug in his car.

Then a police officer approached Palmer, with another officer standing a few feet away.

“He told me I needed to leave right away because the park was closed. It was about 15 minutes before 11 so I was like, ‘Why? The park’s not closed yet.”

The officer asked for Palmer’s identification, which he’d left in his vehicle. The officer’s aggressive tone made him hesitant to move, said Palmer, who is black.

“I said, ‘Why? I didn’t do anything. I’m just trying to plug in my car. There’s still people in the park. There’s people walking around all over the place; why are you questioning me?’” Palmer said.

Palmer said the officer told him that if he didn’t produce identification he would be taken into custody.

“I refused and he started to handcuff me. He grabbed my other arm and handcuffed my other arm. He swept my legs and threw me to the ground. I landed on my head and blacked out,” said Palmer, 5’11” and about 160 pounds. “I woke up to the other cop standing in front of me.

“I’m kind of crying and saying, ‘Why are you doing this, why are you beating me up?’ He told me to stop crying and then at that moment he pepper-sprayed me in the face. The other cop is adjusting himself to make sure his knee is on my neck and on my back, and at that point I felt my legs being twisted. I couldn’t really breathe, and my face and my eyes were burning.

“That’s when I heard more police officers coming and more cars coming. After everyone came, that’s when they got off of me and sat me up,” Palmer said.

Before he was put into a police vehicle, Palmer caught sight of a couple who stopped their walk in the park to take cell phone video of the incident. He called out to them to contact his wife.

Palmer was taken to jail and released in the morning, he said.

Later that day, Santa Monica City Attorney Marsha Jones Moutrie sent Palmer a letter stating that her office had reviewed the police report and determined that “no charges will be filed,” giving no further explanation.

Nonetheless, the Santa Monica Police Department released a statement on April 22, asserting that the 11 p.m. closing hour had been reached and Palmer ignored repeated police requests to leave the park. He was arrested for refusing to provide his identification, thus “delaying and obstructing” the officer who tried to issue him a citation for violating the park closure law, the police statement said.

“During the arrest, the subject actively resisted. Officers deployed pepper spray and physically restrained him,” the police department stated.

On May 4, the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office released a statement clarifying that “the factors which precluded the filing of criminal chargers were Mr. Palmer’s belief that being present in the parking lot did not constitute a park closure violation, signage at the entrance to the parking lot of Virginia Avenue Park did not clearly indicate that the parking lot is included in the park closure ordinance, and a question concerning when Mr. Palmer arrived in the parking lot and when officers made their initial contact with him.”

Palmer, a graduate of New York University, has not worked since his arrest five weeks ago. He said he’s suffered a concussion, bulging discs in his neck, and pain in his shoulder, hand and leg.

Palmer has hired a lawyer, Justin Sanders, who on May 8 filed a claim against the city of Santa Monica, the legal precursor to filing a lawsuit.

The couple who witnessed the incident have publicly criticized the police use of force, and officials with the Santa Monica-Venice NAACP have accused the police of racial profiling. But race is not mentioned in Sander’s filing, and Palmer hesitates to make that claim.

“I don’t know if it’s because I’m black,” Palmer said. “The first [officer] was very aggressive and it seemed like he picked me to do something to, and I don’t think anything I did after that made it any better.”

Sanders said he plans to file a federal civil rights complaint, charging that the police violated his client’s right to due process.

“If you’ve been charged with something or you committed a crime, a person has a right to have a jury decide whether you’re guilty or innocent and a judge decides what your punishment will be,” Sanders said. “Excessive force is essentially allowing a police officer to be judge, jury and executioner.”