UCSD Medical Director Testifies in Police Brutality Cases

Editor’s Note: This article contains potentially upsetting descriptions of violence and death.

With at least 1,134 people killed by the police in 2021 alone, police brutality remains a salient topic within public discourse. However, what is not as often discussed is the power of expert witness testimonies in influencing jury decisions in the ensuing legal process. These experts are doctors and researchers –– some of whom are from UC San Diego –– study the effects of force on the body and how similar police tactics could contribute to the death of individuals.

Some of these expert witnesses are UCSD professors like Dr. Gary M. Vilke or Dr. Theodore Chan. Dr. Vilke is a prominent individual in the San Diego medical community due to his positions as the director of both the emergency and risk management departments of UCSD Health and a professor of emergency medicine. Dr. Chan, moreover, is the chair of the department of emergency medicine at UCSD and has worked previously in the California State Senate and Washington D.C. Office of the Assistant Surgeon General. According to a New York Times investigation, their research and expert testimonies are used in many court cases spanning over two decades and often conclude that defendants’ actions did not contribute to the death of the arrestees. 

These incidents, legally referred to as death-in-custody cases, define a body of police action that encompasses the death of those under arrest, undergoing incarceration or are incarcerated in a prison. In California, there is a disproportionately higher number of minority –– especially African American –– representation in the percent of arrest-related deaths compared to the overall population. Vilke’s reports are repeatedly critiqued by police accountability advocates as an institutionalized means of exonerating misconduct. 

Movements like Cops Off Campus, which is composed of many UCSD affiliates, have called upon the university to remove ties with the police and halt the usage of campus officers. A student involved in the group stated that incarceration is unjust because it does not take into account societal inequalities that push people to break the law in the first place.

“[Vilke’s] ‘expert’ testimony is precisely the condition of individualizing, pinpointing, and not allowing outside events or circumstances to enter a courtroom,” the student said. “You have the moment of criminalization happen through this one particular event. The courtroom, through prosecutorial power, aims to solidify that one moment as all that should be talked about. It does a gross injustice on understanding the multiple co-occurring injustices that the state wields on its population.”

In the recent 2017 case of Anthony Perez, Fresno police officers had stopped Perez on the street because he looked distressed; it was later discovered that he had taken a high dose of methamphetamines. According to the officers, attempts at deescalation made Perez more belligerent and paramedics placed a gurney on top of Perez in order to take him to the hospital. Throughout this process, a paramedic instructed an officer to sit atop of the backboard in order to apply enough pressure to strap Perez down. This act of compressive asphyxiation and restraint was deemed the cause of death by the Fresno County Coroner’s office. 

Dr. Vilke, who was later hired by American Ambulance, stated –– in contradiction to the coroner’s office –– that the paramedics were not at fault for Perez’s death. In his expert report, the doctor argued that Perez’s death was caused rather by his use of meth in conjunction with heart illness, agitation, and continued resistance. In particular, he noted that the officer sat on top of the gurney at the position of Perez’s butt, not chest; this and the modest weight applied throughout the interaction was allegedly insufficient to cause death by asphyxiation. 

“My opinions and testimony are based on assessing the facts available and the applicable body of scientific literature,” Dr. Vilke said to The UCSD Guardian in an email. “I do not regret any of the opinions that I have given as they are based on my training, education and experience. All cases involving arrest related deaths are sad and impact many people who are involved. Our scientific work has been performed to find out what are the physiologic impacts and what may or may not be causing these deaths in order to implement scientifically validated strategies to prevent these tragedies in the future.”

Much like the Perez case, Estate of Michael Barrera v. City of Woodland, et al. highlighted similar features of police brutality that were dismissed by expert testimony. Barrera, who was allegedly wielding a golf club and intoxicated, was tasered by officers and put into a restraint. Barrera’s family claims that the Woodland Police Department and the Yolo County District Attorney covered up the case and used Vilke’s report to absolve the police of wrongdoing in Barrera’s cardiac arrest and death. 

In either the Barrera or the Perez case, many of the research studies cited, some of which were written by Dr. Vilke and Chan, used healthy patients to draw conclusions about the lethality of police restraint and force. While it is unethical to provide drugs to subjects or choose subjects with pre-existing health conditions, the use of solely healthy individuals in research studies highlights major limitations for real-world application. Nevertheless, expert witnesses still use these studies to draw generalized conclusions in death-in-custody court cases in which arrestees are intoxicated or ill. 

To address this shortcoming, a subsequent epidemiological study was conducted by Vilke et al. that observed the results of police force on a variety of individuals, some of which were under emotional distress or had taken drugs. Focusing on Canadian police agencies, the study found very little evidence that police force caused death in arrestees. However, without focus on the United States, the study does not address the particularities of the use of force and brutality in American policing. 

“I have opined that the use of force may have or contributed to the cause of death, but in those cases, I am not requested to provide a formal report,” Vilke said. “I have also testified that the need for a restraining process and associated resistance by the individual has potentially contributed to death.”

In the wake of Geroge Floyd’s death by Minneapolis police officers, Chancellor Pradeep Khosla released a statement condemning the “disproportionate use of excessive force by some police in communities of color” and called it a “violation of human rights.” Combined with the University of California’s current celebration of Black History Month, the school has called for a more just and inclusive world.

However, the Cops off Campus affiliate followed by arguing that UCSD inherently upholds a “highly unjust system” as an exclusive higher education institution.

“Instead of thinking of the university as opposite from the prison, think of them as co-constitutive,” the student said. “They are ideologically and economically connected. They both operate through the power to exclude. And in the case of California, the funding for police, prisons, and schools, in part,comes from the same pot. The university is invested in police because it maintains State power, and therefore supports police terror and structural violence.”

As of now, UCSD Health continues to employ both Dr. Vilke and Dr. Chan. The Guardian reached out to UCSD for comment but they declined to respond.

Artwork courtesy of Angela Liang for The UCSD Guardian.