SAPD Officer Matthew Belver removed Leal's handcuffs and asked him to fight before berating him in a 13-minute lecture on the drive to the police station.
Should police be able to arrest you, threaten to fight you, berate you and then haul you off to jail simply for being “disrespectful”?
That appears to be what happened to Eloy Leal last August, according to video the San Antonio Police Department released to KSAT this week that shows SAPD Officer Matthew Belver goading Leal to fight, at one point even removing his handcuffs. The video also captured a 13-minute lecture from Belver, in which he calls Leal “a disrespectful, trashy human being” and a “dumb fuck.” The video, which defense attorneys call a stark example of police escalation, comes as San Antonio Police Chief William McManus faces criticism from the local police union over his goal to implement more de-escalation training and other possible changes to his department’s use of force guidelines.
Leal was charged with jaywalking and interfering with the duties of a public servant near the 3100 block of Chamita, where Belver had been dispatched in the early morning hours of August 2, 2015 to respond to a shooting. The video released to KSAT this week begins with Leal handcuffed and sitting in the back of Belver’s cruiser as the two trade insults. Eventually Belver walks around to the back seat to remove Leal’s cuffs.
“As soon as they come off, I’m going to beat your ass,” Belver tells Leal, whose demeanor changes. Leal starts calling Belver “sir” and eventually mutters “I didn’t mean no disrespect man.” Meanwhile, Belver continues to prod: “I thought you were gonna fucking fight like you said … Come on, bro … You had me all excited, I was ready for it. I thought there was gonna be a good fight.”
Belver’s own words captured on the in-car video hint at why he was so angry with Leal: The guy was rude to him at a crime scene.
On video, Belver says Leal walked past him as officers processed the scene, pointing out some bullet casings that police hadn’t yet collected. According to Belver, here's what Leal said that got him so incensed: "Hey cop, can I walk through here? Hey, some investigation you guys did."
In the video, Belver strikes a defensive tone when he talks about the bullet casings he evidently missed or failed to collect, calling them “old” and not connected to the night’s shooting. “But that’s beside the point,” he tells Leal. Even if they were evidence from the night’s shooting, Belver tells his suspect, “Who doesn’t make mistakes? Everyone makes mistakes at their job.” (McManus, in a letter suspending Belver months later, determined that the officer failed to adhere to department guidelines for collecting and processing physical evidence at a crime scene.)
Belver continues: “You did not call me officer. You have never called me officer until I said listen, shut the fuck up and get in the car. … The way you addressed me was incredibly disrespectful.”
At another point, Belver tells Leal: “I would never talk to anybody like that. That’s why you’re going to jail and I’m not. And you had the chance to run, to fight, whatever, but you didn’t. Because not only are you stupid, you’re a coward.”
Belver then moves his attention to Leal’s appearance: “You can look at you and see how trashy you are and disrespectful.” When Leal says something about invoking the Fifth Amendment, Belver responds by mocking his education level, saying, “You wouldn’t even know what the Fifth Amendment is. … You don’t know anything about history. I doubt you even have a high school diploma.”
“I don’t,” Leal says. “I’m sorry, man.”
“You are sorry,” Belver responds. “A sorry human being. That is correct.”
San Antonio criminal defense attorney Branden Lopez called the video troubling not just because Belver tried to escalate the situation by removing a defendant’s handcuffs and asking for a fight, but also because it appears Belver had no legitimate reason to arrest Leal in the first place.
“If you believe the officer’s own words, Mr. Leal was arrested because he was disrespectful,” Lopez told the Current. “Are we in the business of arresting people just because they’re rude? If that’s the reason Mr. Leal was taken to jail, it appears he in no way violated the law and shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place.”
On the video, when Leal asks why he’s being arrested, Belver even says, “I’ll think of something. How about public intoxication, pedestrian in a roadway. Whatever else I can think of.” While Leal still had to pay a jaywalking fine, authorities dropped his interfering-with-police charge.
McManus handed Belver an indefinite suspension in February, saying, among other things, that Belver violated the department’s code of conduct. Still, thanks to the city’s agreement with the local police union, McManus doesn’t have final say on the matter. Belver and the union will challenge the suspension in an upcoming arbitration hearing. San Antonio Police Officer’s Association President Mike Helle didn’t return our calls for comment, but he told KSAT this week that Belver doesn’t deserve to be fired. “I think it was the end of his shift, he was tired, he works graveyards and I think this guy just got underneath his skin and it was something that he shouldn't have let that happen to him," Helle told the station.
Defense attorney Lopez says the video of Belver’s interaction with the suspect is further proof SAPD needs to adjust its use-of-force policies and training to emphasize de-escalation, something McManus has said is one of his goals despite intense opposition from the union.
After reviewing the video, Lopez says it’s easy to see how quickly the situation could have turned violent or even fatal because of Belver’s actions. At one point on the video, Leal tells the officer, “Hey, you can beat my ass but don’t fucking kill me,” letting out a nervous chuckle. After Leal refuses to fight, Belver responds: “Honest to God, I was gonna pull you out … and then you can walk away. You kick my ass, take my gun, shoot me in the head.”
Lopez’s advice: Nobody should ever take the bait from an officer who’s itching for a fight. "Nobody wins in that situation.”