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When Allen Koka started a new job cleaning out buses and trolleys at MTS headquarters, his employers told him they’d wait a bit before issuing him an ID badge – it was a tough gig and there was no reason to go through the motions if he ended up quitting after a day or two.
The 28-year-old Iraqi immigrant was a few days into the job one night in November 2014 when he reported to work and left a short time later in an ambulance, knocked unconscious, Koka says, by a team of security guards who worked there, too.
MTS officers said Koka had been trespassing, but all charges against him were eventually dropped. Now it is MTS in court trying to defend itself from a lawsuit filed by Koka.
What happened is not really in question. It was all caught by body cameras worn by MTS security officers, who are not actual police officers. Among the group of MTS officers involved in taking Koka down were two who have been accused of violence before and remain on the job, a joint investigation by Voice of San Diego and NBC 7 Investigates has found.
Koka showed up to work that night without an identification badge. That’s why MTS officers suspected him of trespassing.
The videos make it clear the confrontation was tense from the start and would only get worse. A team surrounded Koka, who is 5-foot-4 and about 145 pounds, and pressed him about his identity for several minutes. Koka said he worked there, the security team said they were going to give him a citation for trespassing.
Koka’s brother, also a night janitor there, and the brothers’ supervisor showed up to vouch for him.
“This guy and this guy work with me,” the supervisor tells the officers, pointing to Koka and his brother.
After previously agreeing to let Koka call his supervisor to clear things up, the officers then tell him they don’t care about the supervisor once the man shows up. The boss can’t convince the officers to let Koka be.
“OK, well we’re going to hang onto him for a little bit,” MTS officer Chris Miner tells the supervisor. “He’s not being very cooperative.”
They want to jail him. When he declines to put his hands behind his back to be handcuffed, MTS officer Bill Buck takes Koka down by the throat. It’s unclear what, exactly, is happening to Koka at this point – the video becomes a jumble of darkness and flashes of light – but Koka is screaming in pain.
He screams “My face!” repeatedly, then screams at the officers that he’s recently had surgery on his stomach. Koka’s attorney said Koka had visited Turkey several months earlier. There, he was robbed, stabbed and hospitalized for a number of weeks before he could return to America.
Koka said in an interview that he doesn’t remember the tussle. An ER doctor wrote in his emergency record that MTS employees told him Koka got knocked out in the altercation, according to Koka’s lawsuit.
Mark Arabo, who is politically active within the region’s Iraqi community, said the incident should shake up the MTS security apparatus.
“Those two officers should be fired immediately,” he said in an interview. “Whoever at the time decided not to fire them should also be fired.”
Koka’s lawsuit names the officers present, MTS, a private security firm it contracts with and the cleaning company Koka worked for. He says his civil rights were violated, that he was assaulted and that MTS was negligent in its supervision of the officers.
Two of those officers had been accused of improper use of force before the run-in with Koka. Both men – Buck and Miner – are still working for MTS.
Just a day before the Koka incident, a magistrate judge announced MTS had settled a lawsuit over an earlier incident involving both Buck and Miner.
In that settlement and others, MTS does not admit guilt or wrongdoing.
That settlement was the result of a 2011 altercation in which Buck and Miner stopped a Mexican couple traveling on the trolley for fare evasion, according to a lawsuit filed a year later. While writing the ticket, the officers called the Mexican man, Fernando Alcocer, a “piece of shit” and a “fucking Jew” and said they hoped he and his wife were sent back to Mexico, the suit says.
When Alcocer said he was going to record the officers with his phone, Buck punched him in the head, according to the lawsuit. Buck and Miner then took him to the ground and proceeded to beat him, the suit says.
The suit settled for $25,000 – a sum that was split between MTS and Universal Protection Service, a private security firm that MTS contracts with. Buck was an employee of Universal Protection Service at the time. MTS later hired Buck.
Miner has also been subject of two other complaints MTS paid to settle in the past 10 years.
MTS and Universal Protection Service split a $7,500 settlement in one of those incidents. In that case, a woman named Detris Phiffer alleged in a lawsuit that she was forced out of her car at the Euclid Avenue Trolley Station in February 2012, thrown to the ground and punched and kicked by a few officers, including Miner.
In October 2012, a handicapped woman named Linda Li alleged in a formal complaint with MTS that she had a run-in with Miner and another security officer at the El Cajon Transit Center. Details are sketchy but Li claimed in the complaint that the incident left her with bruises and dislocated wrists. MTS paid $20,000 to settle that case.
Through an MTS spokesman, Buck and Miner declined to comment for this story.
Over 200 officers patrol trolleys, buses and transit system property. Most of them – 175 – are private security guards from Universal Protection Service. They can have guns but no powers of arrest and cannot write tickets.
The other 35 or so officers, including Buck and Miner, are employed directly by MTS. They have no guns but can write tickets and briefly detain people, but they cannot send someone to jail without the help of police.
None of the officers have to attend a police academy; instead, they get 160 hours of on-the-job training and must take a state training course.
In September 2014, just two months before the Koka incident, MTS outfitted all of its 35 or so officers with body cameras.
The agency still doesn’t have a written policy for how its officers should use their body cameras, but Manny Guaderrama, MTS’s head of security, told us officers are supposed to turn their cameras on for all enforcement actions.
MTS also doesn’t have a policy for releasing body-camera footage to the public. We received copies of the footage from Koka’s attorney and directly from MTS in a public records act request.
Now, MTS plans to have all of the private security officers wear body cameras, too. It was part of a contract extension between MTS and the company, approved by the MTS board last week. MTS will pay the company up to $39 million over the next five years.
MTS does not have a written policy for judging whether its officers have been too violent. Guaderrama or another member of MTS security leadership looks into each incident to determine if force was appropriate. If it wasn’t, Guaderrama can dole out punishment from a reprimand to dismissal.
Koka’s case is still pending, but the MTS board discussed it last week during a closed session.
City Councilman David Alvarez, a member of the MTS board, watched the body camera video of the Koka incident, and told VOSD and NBC his impression was there was a miscommunication that could have been resolved peacefully.
“There should be corrective measures that are serious corrective measures – not just a slap on the wrist or a write-up,” he said.
Indeed, another MTS officer managed to resolve the same situation peacefully just a few days earlier, Koka said. He showed up and was stopped by an MTS officer for not having his ID. Together, they walked to Koka’s boss’s office. The boss confirmed Koka worked there. Situation resolved.
“It’s an interesting paradox here, or Catch-22,” Dale Dixon, Koka’s attorney, said in an interview. “Because if the position is, ‘MTS did exactly what they were supposed to do,’ then they have created policies that allow this ridiculous amount of force to be used when it’s absolutely unnecessary. And if they say, ‘These officers were doing something that they shouldn’t have done,’ well there are a dozen to 14 of them standing around, somebody with authority should have stepped in and said, ‘This isn’t appropriate.’ And nobody did that.”
MTS’s court filings haven’t disputed many specific details in Koka’s version of events. In a legal filing last summer, MTS’s attorney wrote that Koka “was properly taken to the ground and handcuffed where his legs were bound to keep him from kicking.”
MTS also filed a complaint against the cleaning service Koka worked for, NMS Management, for failing to give Koka an ID badge before he started work. In other words, they are blaming the cleaning service for the injuries MTS security guards are accused of inflicting on Koka.
Koka now works at a gas station in Escondido.
Asked if he likes his new job, Koka replied, “Yeah, nobody beats me.”