In San Antonio, Cops Punch Down

Supervisors say a San Antonio cop was justified in punching an unarmed 14-year-old girl in the face.

Screenshot from a grainy cellphone video shows the altercation between officer Tuli and the 14-year-old girl.  YouTube/sanantohomie

The San Antonio Police Department’s use-of-force manual encourages officers to “attempt to de-escalate tense situations.” De-escalation apparently didn’t work for officer Gary Tuli, who in late May was caught on a bystander’s video punching an unarmed 14-year-old girl in the face at a quinceañera.

Not that Tuli did anything wrong, according to his department supervisors. In a use-of-force report first obtained by the San Antonio Express-News this week, two of his superiors signed a form saying Tuli’s actions were justified that night, that he violated no department policy and needs no further training. Tuli claims the girl hit him first, and the report says he suffered scratches or bruising to his face. The girl’s attorney adamantly denies that she swung at a cop (she doesn’t appear to on video), but she says the case would still be troubling even if she did.

That’s because SAPD policy also says that if cops must use force, it should be “proportional with the circumstances of the situation.” Artessia House, an attorney representing the girl’s family, questions why the officer didn’t just restrain the girl if he thought she threw a punch. House told the Observer Monday that justifying Tuli’s actions “sends the message that San Antonio police can punch young black girls in the face, on camera, and completely get away with it.”

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SAPD wouldn’t comment on the case or the use-of-force report when asked on Monday. The Observer isn’t naming the girl because she’s a minor.

In a shaky video posted on YouTube after the encounter, the girl is standing near her mother, April Johnson, who can be heard yelling, “don’t talk to her like that,” before Tuli swings. The girl’s head immediately jerks backward, and officers then drag the mother out of view as she screams “let her go!” Tuli arrested the girl for assault on a police officer, a third-degree felony, and police took her to the local county juvenile lockup, where she stayed for the next day and a half. Prosecutors have yet to formally file charges against the girl, an honor-roll student who’s never before been in trouble with the police.

In its use-of-force report, SAPD claims that the teenager didn’t suffer any injuries. House says that’s not true, claiming the girl asked for medical attention in lockup but didn’t get it. Earlier this year, her mother told me that a doctor who examined the girl the day after her release diagnosed her with mild traumatic brain injury and trauma to her face and neck.

House argues that the case fits into a pattern of excessive force at the department — from the cops who beat someone they mistook to be a fleeing suspect so badly he needed back surgery to the officer who shot and killed a man last year after mistaking his cell phone for a gun.

“We are asking this police force to render reasonable decisions on these matters, even though they have shown time and time again they’re incapable of doing so.”

Michael Barajas is a staff writer covering civil rights for the Observer. You can reach him on Twitter or at [email protected].

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