The lawyer of three men charged with assaulting Merced police officers questioned the department’s training on Monday and blamed the officers for “instigating” the violence last year at a downtown hookah lounge.
Charges were filed in June against Isa Bey, 23, and Nedir Bey, 21, both of Oakland, and Ciasonne Ratto-Foster, 21, of Richmond, following a nearly yearlong investigation. The brothers and their cousin pleaded not guilty on Monday through their attorney, Michael Cardoza.
The incident took place July 9, 2017, inside the former Chandelier’s Hookah Lounge on Main Street, where police clashed with a party of mostly black college students. During the incident, police discharged what they called a “sage” weapon and at least one Taser.
In police reports, multiple officers noted that when they entered the club, the DJ played “F--- tha Police” by rap group NWA, a song that has caused debate and controversy since its release almost exactly 30 years ago in August.
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Merced Police Capt. Bimley West said Merced officers are trained to never let personal attacks get in the way of doing their job.
“It’s like water off a duck’s back,” he said on Monday. “People can say what they want, just as long as they do what we say.”
In interviews days after the melee at the hookah lounge, detectives continued to ask witnesses if they knew who put the rap song on, according to police reports.
Officers came inside with weapons drawn, Cardoza said, and the party-goers were naturally curious and began to ask police what they were doing.
“This is manifest incompetence on behalf of the police department,” he said on Monday.
Police have said they were at the lounge because they believed a 23-year-old robbery suspect was inside. He was apparently not there when police arrived.
“Who in command decided to send all these police into a peaceful party?” Cardoza asked. “What if they found him?”
Merced police were risking a potential gun battle with the suspect in a crowded room, he said, when they could have waited outside. Or, approached the party-goers without a show of force.
According to Merced County Superior Court records, Nedir Bey was charged with a felony count of battery on police, as well as a misdemeanor count of police battery and a misdemeanor count of obstructing police. Court records show Isa Bey and Ratto-Foster each were charged with misdemeanor counts of police battery.
Cardoza said the charges against his clients amount to a “new Jim Crow,” referring to the practice of racial segregation and unfair treatment to people of color. The defendants will be soon entering the workforce and their options could be affected if convicted of crimes, he said. The older Bey graduated from UC Merced in the spring.
“These young men have been affected enough by these arrests,” he said.
The Merced Police Department disagrees with the defense attorney. The officers acted professionally after meeting a hostile crowd, according to West.
The officers assessed whether the man they were looking for was considered dangerous and made a plan to arrest him, he said.
“The officers, they were there looking for someone,” he said. “The officers did not go there with any intent to disrupt the party or the people who were there.”
West said the party-goers should have complied with the commands from officers. If any officers act improperly, the residents could complain to supervisors, file a complaint or bring up a lawsuit, he said.
“There’s a course of action the citizens could take other than putting their hands on the officer,” he said.
Footage from the incident at Chandelier’s Hookah Lounge showed officers shouting at students, and one officer firing the “sage” weapon, striking at least one person.
UC Merced students have previously said another Bey brother, Majied Bey, was the student struck by the sage weapon and said Ratto-Foster was hit by a Taser. A police report obtained by the Merced Sun-Star confirmed both of those uses of force.
Police were inside the hookah lounge just a little longer than three minutes before it turned into a melee, according to the report. In a follow-up interview, a security guard told police that the man they were looking for, Bryant Brown, had left 90 minutes before officers arrived.
The accounts differ as to what exactly started the violence at the lounge. Police say a woman in the lounge pushed Officer Raymond Valadez while party-goers said she was dancing and bumped him accidentally.
Valadez attempted to detain the woman, putting her arm behind her back as if he was about to apply handcuffs, according to the report. People in the crowd attempted to pull the woman away from the officer, according to reports.
Isa Bey said he tried to ask the officer to stop, according to the report, but the officer punched him. He put his hands up, and the officer punched him again, according to his statement in the report. So, the older Bey said he punched the officer back.
Valadez, who had been with the department for two years at the time of the incident, suffered injuries to his face and head and was taken to a hospital, police said. Multiple officers said they saw blood running out of his nose and mouth.
It is the younger Bey who is facing the more severe felony charge. He admitted to trying to deflect punches thrown at his brother, according to the police report. He never threw a punch but pushed away from an officer who tried to grab him, the report says.
Ratto-Foster was seen trying to throw a punch at the officer, according to a report from Officer Joseph Opinski, the officer who fired the sage weapon in the lounge.
Cardoza, who is a former prosecutor, said police can be “some of the best fiction writers” when it comes to police reports.
“They instigated this kind of situation,” he said.
All three men are due back in court Oct. 1.