New Year’s incident draws lawsuit against Rocklin police

Civil rights suit accuses officers of brutality during party arrest
By: Jon Brines, Placer Herald correspondent
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The Rocklin police officers and the suspect at the center of the 2010 New Year’s Eve party incident caught on video and posted on YouTube are now going to civil court. 

The civil rights lawsuit, brought by Citrus Heights resident John Banks Jr., alleges four Rocklin officers “physically restrained and arrested (Banks) and then proceeded to physically attack, severely beat with clubs and electrically shock (him with a taser) while he was being forcibly held face down in a water fountain” during the Dec. 31, 2010, incident.

The video can be viewed here (warning: some foul language)

Listing unspecified damages, the suit filed Sept. 20 in Placer County Superior Court names the City of Rocklin, Rocklin Police Department, former police chief Mark Siemens, Lt. Terry Roide, K-9 Officer Jason Westgate, Officer Greg Jensen and former reserve officer Greg Gaughan.

Banks was a guest at the New Year’s Eve party at Bistro 33 inside the Mercedes dealership on Granite Drive when police arrived to help firefighters with a stuck elevator.

According to the police report, the officers reportedly witnessed Banks push his girlfriend, Valaree Belle. That alleged act led to a domestic violence charge against Banks.

“Through no fault of his own, a number of Rocklin law enforcement officers brutally beat John and humiliated him – in front of his girlfriend, his friends, his family and his co-workers,” Banks’ attorney, Beau Weiner, said in a statement. “Despite putting up no resistance, John was shoved face-down into a water fountain, held there by a knee in his back, then repeatedly hit with a baton and shocked with electricity.”

City officials declined to comment on the pending litigation.

In an interview Jan. 5, 2011, Rocklin Police Lt. Lon Milka told the Placer Herald that Banks went to the ground with his hands at his stomach while resisting the officers.

In what Milka de-scribed as a “distraction technique,” an officer hit Banks with a baton about four times until they were able to place him in handcuffs. Banks was charged with domestic violence and resisting arrest.

Banks was not the only one arrested that night. Sacramento DJ Mike Regan, who told the Placer Herald he tried to break up the incident, was charged with obstructing the arresting officers, but the Placer County District Attorney later dropped the charge. At one point in the video you can see Regan point at the officers and shout.

Belle, the alleged victim during the incident, was charged with obstructing an officer and battery on one of the arresting officers. Her charges were also later dropped.

The civil suit alleges Banks never provoked the officers and that their conduct was motivated by “racial bias.”

“Local law enforcement’s job is to protect and to serve our community. A YouTube video showing just part of the beating makes one question Rocklin’s officers’ motives here – motives far from any notion of protecting anyone’s safety,” Weiner said. “Our local law enforcement must have higher standards. Bringing these abuses to the attention of the public and our legal system is the only way to achieve these standards that our Constitution requires.”

Furthermore, the suit alleges that Siemens was allowing a work environment where excessive force was allowed to occur. It says Siemens “should have known that this pattern of conduct was being carried out” and failed and refused to remove or discipline the officers because of a “custom, practice and policy of excessive force.”

Siemens was allegedly “put on both actual and constructive notice” of the officers’ “violent behavior and/or racial bias” and did nothing to stop them.

The supporting evidence is not known publicly, but could be revealed during the discovery phase of the proceedings. In March, current Police Chief Ron Lawrence praised the professionalism of his department, reporting 12 citizen complaints for all of last year. Of those complaints, nine were informal and handled informally, and three were formal complaints, Lawrence said.

After the incident with Banks, Rocklin police initiated an internal affairs investigation and re-sponded to one excessive force complaint filed by an unknown member of the public related to the incident, according to police. They refused to identify who filed the complaint. Banks, Regan and Belle deny filing it. Rocklin police refused to make public either the internal investigation re-port or the response to the citizen’s complaint. Gaughan is no longer employed by the Rocklin Police Department, ac-cording to the department. He was fired from Placer County Probation after it was discovered he was circulating inappropriate emails to staff describing violence against women and children, according to court documents in the wrongful termination suit Gaughan filed against the county last year. He lost that case.

In November 2011, Banks was given a plea deal and admitted only to disturbing the peace, paid a $100 fine, was put on probation for a year and received alcohol counseling.

Lawrence has previously said he stands by the conduct of his officers during the incident. Request for a statement from Lawrence and the city attorney were not answered before press time. 

“Without a well-trained police force devoted to protecting all citizens, our streets and homes and families are made increasingly more unsafe,” Weiner said. “A poorly trained police force with even just a handful of rogue and biased officers dramatically increases the danger to our safety and our most fundamental rights and freedoms.”