By Miriam Raftery
Photo: Still shot from video taken on Branch’s cell phone
January 22, 2017 (San Diego) – The trial of Robert Branch, an African-American motorist choked unconscious by a white Sheriff’s deputy in Del Cerro in May 2015, begins Monday. Branch was charged initially with resisting arrest, but after he filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Sheriff’s department alleging inappropriate use of force, additional felony charges of reckless driving and use of deadly force against an officer were filed against Branch. Branch captured a portion of the altercation on a disturbing video.
Paul Ward, a plainclothes child abuse detective, was in an unmarked car when he claims Branch passed him on I-8 and nearly struck his vehicle. Branch tells a different story, saying Ward swerved to block him from passing on an El Cajon onramp, sending Branch’s car onto the shoulder.
Ward then followed Branch for ten miles, until Branch pulled off the freeway in Del Cerro. Normally, the Sheriff’s department would defer to San Diego Police Department to handle incidents in the city, yet Ward attempted to restrain Branch on his own.
Branch repeatedly insisted that Ward had no right to detain or touch him, since Ward’s vehicle was unmarked and had no lights or siren. He claims Ward did not show ID, though Ward says he did. Ward began filming with his cell phone during the encounter.
Ward has claimed that since Branch, a security guard, was wearing a tactical vest, he feared he might have a gun and wanted to pat him down for weapons. When Branch would not cooperate, Ward began choking him; Branch can be heard gasping for air. He briefly lapsed into unconsciousness but soon came to. At one point he allegedly pointed pepper spray at the officer, but did not spray it. The officer pulled a gun on Branch, who can be heard stating that feared for his life.
The video goes dark after the phone struck the ground during the altercation, but Branch can be heard repeatedly asserting that he was being assaulted, that he believed the officer was off duty and had no right to touch him, and asking a bystander to call 911. Ward also asked a bystander to cal police.
The Reader has reported that Ward had been reported by a fellow detective for violent rages in the recent past. In 2014, a fellow Sheriff’s detective filed a formal complaint against Ward, claiming Ward had committed battery against him. He reportedly told Internal Affairs that Ward had been erratic and hostile, adding he believed Ward to be a “loose cannon” who was going to hurt someone.
The National Action Network, a civil rights group, is calling for “justice for Robert Branch.” NAN leader in San Diego, Rev. Shane Harris stated in a press release today that he will be attending Monday’s trial. He has previously said of the case, “We’re going to do what we’ve got to do to drive this hammer in the wall of injustice,” adding, “Bonnie Dumanis has continued to criminalize black and brown communities of color.”