A former Fresno police officer accused of using excessive force testified Thursday in his criminal trial that fear prompted him to use his police baton on rowdy people at a party for a Marine returning from Iraq in March 2005.
"I'm scared to death," Marcus Tafoya told a Fresno County Superior Court jury. "I've never been scared like this before."
For the first time, Tafoya, 39, publicly gave his account of what happened at the March 5, 2005, disturbance that led to his firing from the Fresno Police Department and criminal charges against him.
He said partygoers punched and kicked him, cursed him and called him "pig," barked like Bulldog gang members and resisted arrest. Because the attackers came at him from all directions, Tafoya said he used a police baton to keep them at bay.
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Tafoya testified that he hit two men with his police baton several times, but the blows didn't stop them from attacking him. A baton blow to the head finally caused one man to quit his attack, Tafoya said. The other attacker gave up after being struck in the leg with the baton, he said.
The baton blow to the head was an accident, Tafoya said, because the man ducked. He also criticized some police officers for standing around when he needed help.
Tafoya faces eight felony counts of using excessive force and one count of burglary involving four incidents. He has pleaded not guilty.
Since the start of testimony Nov. 17, partygoers have testified that Tafoya swung his police baton for no reason. None of the police officers who responded to the disturbance saw Tafoya hit the partygoers with a police baton. But some of the officers have testified against Tafoya to bolster the prosecution's case.
Tafoya worked for the Fresno Police Department for 10 years as patrol officer, night detective and a member of an elite squad that targeted gangs and drug dealers. He was fired in 2007.
With nearly 20 relatives and friends in the courtroom, Tafoya told the jury that he knew right away that the welcome-home party wasn't a typical police call -- 25 to 30 people were in the front yard pushing and shoving each other. "It looked like a riot," Tafoya testified.
Tafoya said he activated the police lights and siren on his patrol car in the hope that the crowd would scatter. "Usually people run," he said. "But it didn't happen."
His partner, Sgt. Michael Manfredi, called police dispatch for help.
Though outnumbered, Tafoya said he and Manfredi took immediate action because a man in his 50s and some young women were trying to break up the fights. "My sole purpose for becoming a police officer was to prevent people from getting hurt," he told the jury. "I could not look at myself in the mirror if I had sat back and waited."
Confronting the crowd, Manfredi was knocked to the ground, and three to five people jumped on the sergeant, Tafoya said. Armed with a police baton, Tafoya said he started to pull the men off Manfredi. Then he heard panic in the sergeant's voice: Someone was trying to get Manfredi's gun.
"My stomach dropped," he said.
The sound of police sirens initially calmed him, Tafoya said. But that feeling ended quickly when a man came out of nowhere and hit Tafoya and then ran into the house, he said. A surge of people rushing into the home forced Tafoya inside, he said.
Inside the home, Tafoya said, partygoers hit and kicked him. Holding his police baton, Tafoya said he stepped back from the crowd. But one partygoer, Gabriel Rodriguez, cursed him and swung his fists wildly at Tafoya, he said. Tafoya testified he hit Rodriguez's body with the baton several times, but it didn't stop the attack.
Tafoya said he then aimed at Gabriel Rodriguez's body, but he ducked, causing the baton to strike his head.
"He fell to the ground," Tafoya said.
Tafoya said another partygoer, Rebecca Rodriguez, then cursed and pushed him. This gave him legal cause to arrest both of them, he said, but their friends and family got in the way. Tafoya said he struck one of them with the baton several times before he finally submitted to being arrested.
By that time, other officers entered the home, including Manfredi and officer Ryan Stockdale, who held a beanbag weapon. Tafoya said he told Stockdale, "if they resist, bean-bag them." But Stockdale froze, Tafoya said. "He didn't do anything," he said.
Tafoya said when he needed help, "a lot of officers stood around and did nothing." He figured a lot of them were in shock from what they witnessed. He said he finally had to bark out orders: "Are you going to stand around or put your hands on somebody?"
The city of Fresno already has settled one lawsuit in connection with the case. In October 2006, the city agreed to pay Gabriel and Rebecca Rodriguez of Clovis $1.6 million to settle their excessive-force claim against police.
Tafoya, Manfredi, the city of Fresno and Police Chief Jerry Dyer are defendants in a related civil-rights trial pending in U.S. District Court in Fresno.