City News

City considers appeal, better training in wake of $3 million verdict

Officer David Baker hunts for stolen vehicles while on patrol in Salem, what he refers to as his policing “niche.”

“I enjoyed recovering stolen vehicles,” Baker said in a deposition earlier this year. “I enjoyed capturing the felons that were driving them.”

Federal jurors recently concluded Baker was overly zealous in that mission, awarding a Salem man $3 million for his treatment at the Salem officer’s hands.

The jury believed the account presented by Christopher Garza, 49, about being accosted by Baker while helping a motorist with an overheating car in a Salem business parking lot.

Garza said he was disbelieving as U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez read the jury’s decision on Nov. 9 in federal court in Portland.

The jurors found Garza proved he had been subjected to excessive force by Baker.

In concluding that Garza also proved he was battered, the jurors awarded Garza $150,000 in economic damages, $500,000 in noneconomic damages and $2 million in punitive damages.

And then the jurors found Garza proved he had been subjected to a false arrest and awarded him another $500,000.

The total: $3 million.

“I was just totally shocked,” Garza said in an interview.

The licensed barber said he remains bitter about the confrontation with Baker.

“He has no integrity,” he said.

He said the Salem Police Department should take a message from the jury’s decision.

“I want them to get some training,” he said, especially to understand bias. Garza is Hispanic.

A surveillance video records the detention of a Salem man police suspected of trying to steal a car in September 2021. The man lived at the business and was helping a disabled motorist. A federal jury in November 2023 awarded Christopher Garza $3 million for his treatment by Salem police.

Salem city officials said they were considering whether to appeal the jury’s decision. The city can also ask the judge to reduce the judgment. Baker remains employed by the agency.

Police Chief Trevor Womack said in a statement to Salem Reporter that he will act on the jury’s decision.

“We acknowledge the jury’s verdict and respect the judicial process,” Womack said. “This decision presents an opportunity to review our policies, practices and training.”

He said officers undergo annual training.

The verdict “will be closely reviewed and used to further inform that training,” he said.

Baker joined the Salem agency in 2013 after working as a reserve officer for the Philomath Police Department. He and Garza met just after midnight on Sept. 27, 2021, in the parking lot of OK Tire at the corner of Commercial and Pine Streets in northeast Salem.

WATCH IT: Surveillance video

In an interview, Garza said he was living in an RV at the tire store and that night was talking with a friend when a Honda drove onto the well-lit lot.

“We go out to investigate and asked what he needed,” Garza said. “His radiator was steaming. I told him to pull the hood latch. As he was doing that, the officer drove in.”

In his report written an hour after the incident, Baker said he was on patrol when he saw someone sitting in the gray 2022 Honda.

“The first thought I had was that the individual was attempted [sic] to steal the Honda, a vehicle that is easily stolen and a crime that occurred often in Salem,” Baker wrote.

In his deposition, he said Hondas are stolen typically by using a specially fashioned key.

“I then noticed there were two other males standing near the hood of the Honda and looking at the engine,” Baker wrote in his report. “It appeared that maybe the persons were working on the car.”

He said he got out of his patrol car and asked the three what was going on.

Garza recalled that Baker “yelled at us – ‘You guys are stealing cars.’ I walked up to him, told him ‘I’m not stealing a car. You need to leave.’”

Garza and Baker agreed in their accounts that Garza said he worked at the tire store.

Baker said he insisted on getting identification and Garza instead walked away.

“At this time I had no idea who the three men were or if they were stealing the car. I did not know if the three men were about to flee. Garza’s actions indicated to me that he was the main threat,” Baker wrote.

He said Garza “had a small object in his left hand” and he didn’t want Garza to “obtain any type of object that could be construed as a weapon.”

In his report, Baker never identified the object and said in his deposition he didn’t know what it was.

Baker said he then grabbed Garza, moved him to the hood of his patrol car, and handcuffed him. He said Garza resisted but then “finally complied.”

Garza said Baker wrenched his shoulder in the process and lifted him off the ground – a sequence recorded on a surveillance video. A doctor said Garza’s shoulder was injured.

Meantime, three other patrol officers arrived and the other two men were handcuffed. Surveillance video showed one was released within minutes but Garza was left in a patrol car for another five minutes.

Baker said he established that Garza in official records listed the tire store as his address. He freed the man and then wrote the agency’s required use-of-force report. A police sergeant approved his account 18 minutes later without investigating, according to records and court testimony.

“Assuming that he was living on that property legally and was not committing any crimes, doesn’t he have a right to ask you to leave at that point?” Baker was asked in his deposition.

His answer: “Yes.”

He said the confrontation could have been avoided.

“I wish he would have just told me his name, who he was,” Baker said in his deposition.

If the $3 million award stands, the city would pay at least the first $1 million out of a special risk fund. Money for that fund comes from internal assessments to all city departments.

How the remaining $2 million would be paid is unclear, the city said in a statement. The city carries insurance for such high judgments, but the details of that weren’t immediately available, the city’s statement said.

The statement also said the city paid private attorneys $63,720 to defend Baker and the city.

Baker remains employed by the Salem Police Department, according to records of the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, the state licensing agency for law enforcement.

City records show the city paid $1.4 million in claims in 2021 and $1.85 million in 2022.

Garza, who has lived in Salem most of his life, said that if he collects the judgment he intends to “donate some money to advocacy groups” that work on justice issues.

“I just hope the community comes together and makes sure justice is served,” he said.

Meantime, he said, “I plan to move out of Salem.”


Jury awards more than $3 million to Salem man falsely arrested by an officer who used excessive force

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Les Zaitz is editor and CEO of Salem Reporter. He co-founded the news organization in 2018. He has been a journalist in Oregon for nearly 50 years in both daily and community newspapers and digital news services. He is nationally recognized for his commitment to local journalism. He also is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon.