San Bernardino County Sheriff
San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies beat and kick Francis Pusok on April 9 near Apple Valley after Pusok fled from them in a car and on horseback. (KNBC-TV, Associated Press)

By Paloma Esquivel, Richard Winton and Cindy Chang
April 11, 2015

After leading authorities on a nearly three-hour pursuit by car and horseback, Francis Pusok was lying face down in the dirt with his hands clasped behind his back as San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputies moved in.

Then the “feeding frenzy” began, as one police tactics expert put it.

One deputy kicked Pusok hard in the groin area while another punched him in the head, a video by a TV news helicopter showed. Both deputies began pummeling him. More deputies arrived at the scrum, and the blows continued to rain down for about a minute before Pusok, 30, was finally handcuffed.

The scene on the chaparral-covered hillside in Apple Valley on Thursday was a vivid reminder of how a pursuit’s end can turn violent. Both the suspect and the pursuing officers are in full adrenaline mode, increasing the odds the incident can turn ugly.

Since the beating of Rodney G. King by Los Angeles police officers at the end of a chase more than two decades ago, law enforcement agencies have worked to improve tactics with hopes of better controlling how officers act during those flashpoint moments.

Most chases end without incident. But there continue to be violent moments that are amplified because pursuits are often covered live by television news helicopters.

Last year, the city of Los Angeles agreed to pay $5 million to the family of an unarmed man, Brian Newt Beaird, who was fatally shot after leading police on a wild pursuit in his silver Corvette. The pursuit was televised live, and Beaird’s horrified father watched as his son was shot to death.

Some high-profile pursuits have resulted in policy changes.

After an LAPD officer was shown on television striking car theft suspect Stanley Miller 11 times with a large metal flashlight in 2004, then-Chief William J. Bratton replaced the flashlights with smaller rubberized versions.

The next year, officers fatally shot a 13-year-old who led them on a short car chase in South L.A.. The LAPD responded by prohibiting officers from shooting at moving vehicles unless a deadly threat exists.

The infamous King beating in 1991, which was captured by an amateur camera operator, led to training that restricted when and how officers use their batons.

But such rules can only go so far when officers are pursuing drivers who are putting lives at risk.

“It is difficult to manage your adrenaline,” San Bernardino Sheriff-Coroner John McMahon said Friday at a news conference in which he announced that the 10 deputies involved had been put on administrative leave.

“It is very difficult at times to control your emotions, control your adrenaline, but that’s not an excuse for what occurred yesterday.”

Ed Obayashi, an Inyo County sheriff’s deputy and police use-of-force expert, described the Apple Valley incident as “a case of contagious force.”

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