San Diego police release footage of La Jolla arrest of homeless man tackled and punched by officers

An image from a video shot by Nicole Bansal shows police officers tackling and punching Jesse Evans in La Jolla on May 12.
An image from a cellphone video shot by Nicole Bansal shows San Diego police officers tackling and punching Jesse Evans in La Jolla on May 12.
(The San Diego-Union Tribune)

San Diego police released body camera footage May 21 showing portions of a controversial arrest last week in La Jolla in which officers tackled and repeatedly punched a homeless Black man.

Video of Jesse Evans’ arrest first surfaced a few hours after it happened May 12 from a witness who recorded part of the incident. That video sparked accusations of excessive force, failure to follow mandatory de-escalation policies, and race and class discrimination by the officers.

A San Diego Police Department spokesman has said the internal affairs unit is investigating the incident.

The newly released police footage is from cameras worn by two officers from the Neighborhood Policing Division, a unit whose purpose is to focus on helping homeless people get services and mental health treatment while also cracking down on those who disrupt the quality of life of residents and businesses.

The footage shows the officers discussing whether to pursue Evans after they appear to interrupt him as he was going to urinate in a bush around 9 a.m. on the south sidewalk of La Jolla Village Drive near Gilman Drive.

Police have said the officers observed Evans, 34, “urinating in public,” though the video does not make clear if he actually had. Evans said during a news conference last week that he unclasped his pants to do so, but the officers stopped him first. The police video shows him shouting at officers, “I’m going to p--- my pants” and “Do you want me to p--- my pants?”

When officers later booked him into jail, urinating in public was not among his charges.

SDPD officials have contended that Evans’ refusal to cooperate with the officers led to the scuffle.

“[Evans] would not stop to speak with officers; therefore an officer held the man to detain him,” the department said in a statement May 13. “Despite the officers repeatedly telling the man to stop resisting, [he] would not comply.”

Michael McConnell, an advocate for San Diego’s homeless residents, said “Jesse Evans is a perfect example of why police should not be on the front lines of [the homelessness] issue.”

McConnell questioned why the officers followed Evans if he had not actually urinated. Throughout the encounter, as an officer punches Evans in the face and lands blows to Evans’ face with his forearm — actions that are clear in the witness’s video but not in the body-worn camera footage — Evans remains focused on urinating.

“[Expletive] you, I hope your [expletive] toilet stops working, too,” he yells at the officers at one point. Later, when backup officers arrive, someone tells Evans he’s under arrest. “For trying to take a [expletive] p---?” he asks.

“I think when he repeatedly asked the officers, ‘What is wrong with you?’ that sums it up — what is wrong with San Diego police?” McConnell said. “It’s not just those officers; we’ve seen this mistreatment for years.”

McConnell also questioned whether Evans was stopped “for walking while Black in La Jolla.”

“It wreaks of that to me,” he said.

The video that police released starts without sound but appears to show an officer in the passenger seat of a Police Department pickup speaking to Evans through his window. As the sound on the video activates, the officer is heard telling Evans, “You can’t urinate in public, my man. ... People have to walk by here and watch you urinate? That’s not cool, man.”

Evans shouts at the officers and walks away, yelling for them to “stay the [expletive] out of my life.” The two officers then discuss what action to take.

“We got another call, so,” one officer says, trailing off. “It’s up to you; I’m down for whatever,” he says.

“Yeah, let’s talk to him,” says the officer whose camera is recording. The two decide to swing around and approach Evans as they discuss being dispatched to another call for an apparent mental-health issue.

The officers walk back to their pickup, and just as they get inside, the driver appears to say, “It’s gonna be a fight.”

The officer whose camera is recording responds, “Yeah, probably.” He then asks the driver, “You still on?” in what could be a reference to his body-worn camera. The driver answers, “No, I didn’t get to go on, I just jumped out.”

Later, as the officers turn the pickup around and pull up next to Evans at an intersection, the driver’s camera is activated. Police officials said the other officer’s camera was inactive at the time.

Neither the police footage nor the witness footage clearly shows the officers approaching Evans, but he yells at them and one officer quickly wraps his arms around him from behind. Both the police and bystander video show the officer whose camera is recording point his stun gun at Evans.

As he moves in close and helps his partner tackle Evans to the street, the body camera footage becomes mostly obscured, though it does capture him punching Evans in the face. The bystander video shows the officers repeatedly punching Evans until backup arrives.

Francine Maxwell, president of the NAACP’s San Diego branch, released a letter May 21 addressed to City Attorney Mara Elliott, whose office is handling Evans’ criminal charges because the county district attorney’s office declined to prosecute Evans on felony counts, according to Maxwell.

“An alleged crime of urinating in public is not justification for the way that Mr. Evans was treated and appeared to be yet another example of violent interaction by police against people of color,” Maxwell wrote, saying the officers punched Evans repeatedly “despite the ... recent adoption of de-escalation policies and the mayor’s clear policy statements in support of the homeless.”

San Diego’s de-escalation policy is supposed to be one of the strongest among local law enforcement agencies and mandates that officers attempt to defuse potentially contentious situations.

“Punching someone in the face while yelling ‘Stop resisting’ is not a reasonable method of gaining compliance,” Maxwell wrote. “If such behavior is considered acceptable, San Diego Police Department’s use-of-force policy must be revised immediately. The citizens of San Diego expect that the San Diego Police Department will treat all people, including the homeless, with dignity, respect and tolerance.”

The Rev. Shane Harris, president of the People’s Association of Justice Advocates, said he was “disgusted” by the new footage.

“What we are watching is a failure of police work … because what you are looking at is police outside of the scope of what they’re supposed to be doing,” Harris said at a news conference. “Instead of understanding that this is an unsheltered human being who deserves dignity and respect, they treat him with disrespect and disgust.”

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.