Culture & Criticism Since 2003
In mid-May (2007), Esther Hwang, a model and soon-to-be lawyer from San Francisco, was celebrating the end of her law school curriculum with a friend in North Beach when she was accosted by two San Francisco police officers.
As Hwang tells it, a coquettish yet truly harmless throw-away comment she made resulted in an urban trip through hell, as the woman quickly found herself on the ground, at the mercy of a cop with a long-history of using tactics of force when making arrests.
The officers who eventually jailed Hwang, Jesse Serna and Nelson Artiga, apparently detained her for “belligerent” exhibitions of public drunkenness, yet she was never actually charged with any alcohol-related offenses, nor was she given any sobriety tests to confirm intoxication.
Instead, Hwang was taken into custody after being subdued and cuffed, accused of battery on an officer and resisting arrest (as of July 9, 2007, at the time of this column, Hwang’s case is on-going, although the San Francisco District Attorney’s office has yet to formally charge her with these or any other crimes).
However, given Hwang’s diminutive stature (her professional website lists her at 5 feet 8 inches tall and 120 pounds), this arrest causes one to raise an eye in question. Still, going further, what really gives rise to deeper suspicion comes during a review of Officer Serna’s record of professional conduct.
On May 24, 2007, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Officer Serna (who, according to the Chronicle, is the stepson of SFPD Commander Stephen Tacchini) had used force on suspects 57 times between the years of 1996 and 2004, injuring 31 of those people, with “his tally of force-involved incidents…50 percent higher than any other officer.”
In addition, no less than three previous incidences resulted in litigation against Serna and the city which ended in Plaintiff settlements totaling nearly $200,000. Moreover, at least three other Civil Rights lawsuits are currently pending against Officer Serna for excessive use of force during the last 10 months (including a claim by Greg Oliver, one of Barry Bond’s trainers, who also says Serna brutalized him in the same North Beach area of San Francisco last August).
In fact, papers Hwang’s attorney filed in Federal Court on May 23 state that Serna had been on an SFPD “internal watch list” nine times for “his abnormally high number of reported uses of force,” yet the department inexplicably allowed him to continue working a beat, only pulling him from street duty after the incident with Hwang had occurred.
Placed in the context of Officer Serna’s history which is now a matter of public record, Esther Hwang’s story is especially disconcerting – she appears to simply have been at the wrong place at the wrong time, crossing paths with a cop who apparently made an instantaneous decision that force was the only option left to stop this slight woman known throughout the fashion world for her sun-lit demeanor and infectious smile.
Understandably, Hwang’s version of this story differs from the picture the San Francisco cops have painted. According to Hwang, she was the victim of an unprovoked assault by an officer using questionable tactics.
In a press statement issued shortly after the arrest, Hwang asserts that after a few fleeting moments of casual conversation with officer Serna outside a North Beach club, Serna physically attacked her, calling her a “fucking cunt” as he twisted her arms behind her back and flung her to the ground by the hair.
Later, at the police station, Hwang claims that she was repeatedly taunted by myriad officers, where she suffered an anxiety attack; at one point, according to court papers, the model’s buttocks was fondled through her clothing as a herd of officers made sexually inappropriate comments to her.
Given Hwang’s description of these events, this case should compel the attention of all Californians, since obvious questions remain – namely:
Why was an officer who was reportedly on a department “watch list” nine different times allowed to continue to roam the streets on a beat? And if the previous complaints against Serna didn’t warrant that he be kept off street duty, why then was his privilege to patrol revoked after Hwang’s story became front page news across the region?
Moreover, as we weigh what facts we know, one has to ask: Would any highly successful fashion model who once worked for none other than political powerhouse and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown concoct this kind of story from whole cloth?
Subsequent to the arrest, Hwang hired John Burris, a prominent Civil Rights attorney from Oakland who promptly sued the SFPD for one million dollars, alleging illegal arrest and police brutality by Serna and Artiga.
Alexis Thompson, Deputy Press Secretary for San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office, declined to speak directly to the issues raised in the complaint, saying instead that “we have not been served with Ms. Hwang’s lawsuit, so it is premature to make any comment at this time.”
In light of how long the problem has persisted (31 suspects injured by Serna between 1996 and 2004), perhaps this kind of suit is the only way. Perhaps it will take the clear-honed tenacity of John Burris and the court system to motivate San Francisco Police Chief Heather Fong (and the rest of the city’s higher governmental echelon) to pony up some answers to these very legitimate citizen concerns.
Basically, in my mind, it all comes down to this: In a town that cries out for the meat of the tourist dollar, people have the right to know they are not going to get randomly cracked in the head by a cop just for being on a public street.