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Sheriff's video of deputies igniting a lighter when tasing Black father finally released

Last week, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department released body camera footage and internal reports from an incident that took place in 2019 in Imperial Beach. The video shows a deputy tasing a Black father who had come to a DUI check point to pick up his son, who had been detained with a group of teenagers in a car. Deputies' report of the incident said the driver of the car was unlicensed.

According to the report, Joe Young Jr. did not have identification and officers would not allow him to take his son home. Officers asked him to leave the area and retrieve his ID, and, when he refused, a deputy told him he was under arrest.

Deputies then said Young appeared to be resisting arrest, and he was tased, according to the report. The Taser hit a lighter in his pocket, which started a fire. Deputies then stomped on the man to put the fire out while restraining him.


In body camera footage of the arrest, Young can be heard saying “I can’t breathe” several times.

Young was taken to the hospital for treatment. The charges against him were later dropped.

The Sheriff's Department initially refused to release the video, despite state law SB 1421, which makes police records of use-of-force incidents accessible under the California Public Records Act. Then the First Amendment Coalition successfully lobbied for the video's release.

Monica Price, a legal fellow with the First Amendment Coalition, joined KPBS Midday Edition on Thursday to talk what happened. The conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Can you start by telling us what led up to when Joe Young was arrested?


Price: Yes. So the incident, as I understand it, there was a DUI checkpoint and his son was in the car with some friends. I'm not sure if he was the driver or not, but they were found to be out past curfew. And so they were detained by the police until an adult or parent could come pick them up. Mr. Young — one of the minors, was his son. He goes to pick him up and the officers would not release his son to him because he didn't have identification. And so there was kind of some pushback: "Can I just take my kid home? It's 2 in the morning." Things continued to escalate. They told Mr. Young that he had to leave, which I think was kind of counterintuitive to leave without his son. He said, 'I don't want to leave. What's going on?' And eventually he is placed under arrest. He is tased. He is tackled to the ground in the process of him being tased. The Taser hit a lighter in his pocket. The lighter ignited. There's fire. You can see in the video, there's fire coming out of his pocket area. He ends up with a burn on his thigh. The officers kicked him while he was on the ground in an attempt to get the fire out. It does go out, but, yeah, he ends up with some injuries. He's got some pain in his nose. Bruises, abrasions, this burn mark on his thigh. And he was tased three times in what's called dry stun mode, at least one of them, which is when the Taser makes direct physical contact with the person's body instead of the probes flying out and hitting the person, which can be more painful. So he had some marks from that dry stun, and there were knee strikes. Body weight was used on him. It was quite a few officers that were taking him down. As you said, he went to the hospital for treatment after, and he did take photographs of his injury that were later used in a civil lawsuit against San Diego county.

As you described, this incident was violent and had several issues. How did the First Amendment Coalition learn about it in the first place?

Price: So we learned about this incident from Tasha Williamson. She is an activist in San Diego, and she's the founder of an organization called Exhaling Injustice, which we've collaborated with her before on trainings and things like that. So Tasha told us about the incident. She told us that she'd requested the body camera footage and the physical paper records and got a denial letter saying this wasn't a great bodily injury, which is one of the categories of law enforcement records that the public should be able to get access to after Senate bill 1421 passed in 2018. So they're saying: "This doesn't qualify for the law, and we're not going to release these records to you." So Tasha let us know. We decided this doesn't sound right. We decided to write a letter pointing out just the facts of what happened. And eventually, after some back and forth, the county still denied saying this didn't result in great bodily injury. Our other legal fellow, Khrystan Policarpio, had the idea to get all the papers from the civil lawsuit that was filed. There are complaints, deposition transcripts, all sorts of information that we can bring back and show the county: "This is what both Mr. Young and your own deputies are saying happened."

And so it took legal action to get the Sheriff's Department to release these records in this video. Why is it so difficult to get them to release videos like this one?

Price: I feel like it's a little deliberate on their part. I mean, they had this information. We got this information from them. They had these deposition transcripts. They know what happened with the lawsuit. They could have flipped through these deposition transcripts, seen that their own officers are saying that this man was kicked, he was on fire. I think there's resistance amongst cities, counties, the law enforcement community towards releasing these videos. I think they kind of just throw a denial out there and they hope it goes away. But it was pretty sloppy, in our opinion. They had this information, the case settled, and they're still pushing back. It really shouldn't take a lawyer to point out the law and go through these depositions. They have their own lawyers. It shouldn't take all of this effort. So that would be kind of my message for the public or the media. Anyone who hears about an incident, point out the injuries, point out what happened. Because this great bodily injury standard should be pretty comprehensive. And the way that law enforcement agencies are trying to argue it should be interpreted is very narrow and I think incorrect. It doesn't go with when this law was passed, the intent that the legislators were trying to put into the law, and it just doesn't fit with what many, many courts have said great bodily injury means, which is bruises, lacerations — anything lasting really seems to be what the definition is. They're trying to say that someone needs to be unconscious, broken bones, in danger of death. Those are some of the standards that a lot of law enforcement agencies are trying to introduce. And we're just arguing for the definition that's in the law.

I'm wondering, in your opinion, does what happened here demonstrate a flaw in that state law, SB 1421, or is it a loophole that law enforcement agencies are exploiting?

Price: The law is pretty clear. The law deliberately says: "We want this transparency so that the public can see what's happened." And I'm not sure where the ideas come from. It seems like maybe the police agencies talk to each other because we keep seeing this argument where the law says great bodily injury. If it's a result of the incident, it doesn't matter if it's an accident, it doesn't matter if it was deliberate or not. If the incident resulted in a great bodily injury, those records should be released so the public can see them, dissect them, decide for themselves, fight for new policies if they want to, and that sort of thing. So, for me, it's kind of a disingenuous interpretation of the law to say that this needs to be a serious bodily injury, which has a different definition, and that definition is much more restrictive. But, even in the California Constitution, it says that these transparency laws go in the public's favor if there's any ambiguity. So that's something that we've been putting in our letters and arguing, as well. We did get the records released in this case, but it's an issue that we're very interested in, and it may have to go to court one day in order to get these records, but we're prepared to do so.

And so why was it important to the First Amendment Coalition to get this video to be released?

Price: Yes, the purpose for us is really in the transparency. We wanted these records to come out so that the public can see them, decide for themselves if what they think happened was in line with department policy, if this was how department policy should be, if it was. And that sort of thing. So when this law was passed, again, it was really about keeping the public and law enforcement safe by having this transparency. The law specifically said the focus is letting these records come out so that the community can be informed about how its deputies are interacting with members of the public, and also how our institutions are responding when there are allegations of excessive force. So is the investigation proper? Has the district attorney really looked at all of the evidence and come to a fair conclusion? So, yeah, we really wanted these records to be available for the public to make their own decisions on what they see and what should be changed.

KPBS reached out to the San Diego County Sheriff's Department for comment on this incident and the arrest, but has not received a response.

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