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June 08, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Officers going back to work Officers going back to work (June 08, 2005)

Kan and Lee, accused of unlawfully beating Albert Hopkins, accept deal and plead no contest to infraction

by Bill D'Agostino

Two Palo Alto police officers accused of unlawfully beating a black resident will return to their jobs in a few months following a deal made with the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office.

Under the agreement, Asian-American officers Michael Kan and Craig Lee pled no contest to an infraction of disturbing the peace on Tuesday morning. In exchange, the district attorney's office dropped the felony assault and misdemeanor battery charges against them.

A judge ordered them to each pay $250 due to the infraction, the maximum allowable penalty.

On July 13, 2003, Kan and Lee beat and pepper-sprayed 59-year-old Albert Hopkins, a long-time Palo Alto resident who works at Gunn High School. Hopkins, who was arrested but never charged with a crime, accused the officers of targeting him because he's black, a claim they denied.

During a criminal trial earlier this year, a jury could not reach a unanimous verdict against the officers. Eight jurors voted to convict and the four Asian-American jurors voted to acquit. Kan and Lee had faced the possibility of three years in prison.

Outside the courtroom, Special Assistant District Attorney Peter Waite said if he retried the case, it likely would have ended with a hung jury again. "It helps the Palo Alto Police Department get back to business," he said of the plea.

In a statement, District Attorney George Kennedy said his office had learned from the "Riders" trial in Oakland, where officers were accused of several criminal charges including kidnapping, assault and conspiracy. Two different juries were unable to reach a verdict in that case.

"A second deadlock" in the Palo Alto trial "would not sufficiently promote police accountability or justice," Kennedy wrote. The city "is better served by the police department moving beyond the distraction and division of this case" and having officers receive additional training, as is planned.

Hopkins, who settled a civil claim with the city last year, receiving $250,000 in exchange for not suing, referred calls to his brother and attorney, Joe Hopkins.

"They should have been retried," Joe Hopkins said. "The City of Palo Alto would have been better served to try those officers again, to show that they (the district attorney's office) will prosecute criminals whether they are wearing gang attire or police attire."

The officers -- who have been on administrative leave for two years -- were clearly relieved.

"I'm glad it's over," Kan said. "It's been a long two years." Lee refused to comment, but smiled as a few fellow officers surrounded him.

The two officers are expected to take some time off and then go through a "reintegration program" to bring them up to date on policy and training changes during the past two years, a process that could take several months, according to Police Chief Lynne Johnson. There will be no restrictions on their duties when they return, she added.

The plea will not affect the officers' ability to serve as witnesses in future criminal trials, according to Craig Brown, the defense attorney who represented Lee. "This does not go to the issue of credibility in any way," he said, calling the infraction equivalent to a parking ticket.

The case prompted widespread discussion about police practices in Palo Alto, especially surrounding suspects of color, and led the City Council to assign the Human Relations Commission to become the city's official police review board.

During the trial, officers within the department gave differing analyses about the evening's events. Officers on the scene that night felt Kan and Lee had no right to continue detaining and interrogating Hopkins after he cursed at them and refused to cooperate. But other, higher-ranking officers argued Kan and Lee used appropriate force because Hopkins acted suspiciously, was parked in a high crime area and refused direct commands.

The entire police department will receive training about such arrest and detention issues following the trial, according to officials.

Palo Alto Police Agent Dan Ryan, the president of the police officers association, said the department was relieved to have the incident behind it. He agreed there was tension between officers in the department related to the case.

"The emotions are subsiding and we're going to work on them," Ryan said.

Police watchdogs, including former public defender Aram James, argued that politics surrounding the upcoming race for district attorney played a role. Ryan did not dispute that claim, but said: "There are politics in every case that's filed in this court."

Local black leaders were frustrated with the deal.

"The DA's office has given an open door to the police department, saying: 'We will not prosecute you for your wrongdoing,'" Rick Callender, the president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP. "You can't just beat a black man and get a parking ticket."

Lakiba Pittman, a former human relations commissioner, said that "at first glance $250 seems minimal, almost embarrassing." Pittman -- who resigned from the commission last week saying she was burned out -- was hoping for a second trial.

"I was looking for the jury to substantiate or not substantiate Mr. Hopkins' claims," she said. "I'm a little disappointed that that won't happen."

Police Chief Johnson said she is acutely aware that "we still have some healing to do," both within the department and in the community, particularly among minorities. Johnson said she anticipates angry responses, but that a number of improvements have been made in the department's training program.

"We've made changes, but we still have a ways to go," she said.Senior staff writer Don Kazak and Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson contributed to this report.

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at bdagostino@paweekly.com.


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