Maybe the San Bernadino County deputies thought that when Francis Pusok rode a stolen horse into the desert he was galloping himself into a rare realm devoid of civilians with cellphone cameras.
Maybe they thought the only helicopter on the scene was the police chopper circling so low overhead as to spook the horse.
Maybe they failed to notice the NBC news helicopter hovering higher above with the kind of zoom-in camera used to record countless car chases.
Maybe they imagined they had momentarily escaped to that pre-video time when the unwritten rule seemingly everywhere in America was that if you make the cops run you are subject to a beating.
Or maybe they were just so worked up by chasing this 30-year-old alleged horse thief that they did not care who might record what.
Bad enough that Pusok had taken off in a motor vehicle when the deputies arrived at his house on Thursday morning with a search warrant arising from an identity theft investigation.
But then Pusok abandoned the car in Hesperia some 40 miles away and allegedly hopped on a horse. He rode off into a stretch of desert that until Friday was best known for a clothing-optional natural spring.
His pursuers could not keep chasing him in their squad cars and they were not likely to catch him on foot. A police helicopter picked up a team of deputies and set them down in Pusok’s path.
The police chopper then rose and banked back around, swooping low enough to alarm the horse, which had been doing Pusok’s bidding with obvious reluctance.
Upon seeing one of the choppered-in deputies angling on foot toward him, Pusok tried to veer away, but lost his balance and fell from his mount.
The deputy lost his footing at the same time, but drew a Taser as he rose. A second deputy with a Taser came running up just as Pusok was getting back up.
Pusok threw himself face down, either because of the Tasers or the realization that further flight was futile. He immediately extended both hands straight out and then quickly placed them behind his back, apparently on hearing a standard command from the deputies.
He may have imagined that instant compliance would save him from the deputies’ wrath.
That may have been so if this had been just a Throwback Thursday violation of Section 487a (a) of the California Penal Code, which covers “every person who feloniously steals, takes, carries, leads, or drives away any horse, mare, gelding, any bovine animal, any caprine animal, mule, jack, jenny, sheep, lamb, hog, sow, boar.”
Pusok had committed the far graver transgression of making the deputies chase after him by car, helicopter, and finally foot in the desert heat.
The new chopper video shows that the two deputies were no sooner upon Pusok than one of them kicked him in the head. The other kicked him between his splayed legs
Both deputies then punched him again and again. Two more deputies approached. One joined in the kicking and hitting. The other patted the horse on the hindquarters to shoo it away from the pile-on.
That deputy refrained from striking Pusok, as did a fifth deputy who appeared. The fifth one happened to be black. Pusok happened to be white and, if nothing else, the continued pummeling proved that you do not have to be a person of color to be subject to police brutality, that it does not arise only from racism.
Yet another deputy strode up and joined in the beating. The deputy with the horse held the reins and gently patted the animal, comforting it.
A ninth deputy came up when everything seemed to be over. He then began repeatedly kicking Pusok, making it a total of seven deputies to assault the prone prisoner with 17 kicks and 41 punches.
None of the nine deputies appeared to look up and the clattering of the police chopper may well have masked that of the news helicopter. The deputies may have had no idea that this would not be just another arrest.
They certainly learned otherwise when NBC News aired the video, which then flashed through cyber space via YouTube. San Bernadino Sheriff John McMahon announced on Friday that he was putting 10 deputies—including a sergeant and a detective—on leave. Those who did not actually strike Pusok will apparently have to explain why they did nothing to stop the beating.
“I am disturbed and troubled by what I see,” McMahon told the press. “It does not appear to be in line with our policies and procedures.”
Pusok had been taken to a local hospital, charged with felony reckless driving and horse theft. He had a previous record that included shooting a dog, threatening his girlfriend, possessing a firearm while a felon, and kicking out the window of a radio car after he was placed in arrest.
The fact that Pusok had once shot a dog might leave people more inclined to think he deserved a beating than if he had shot a person.
But this particular run-in with the deputies involved only a horse. And, however gentle one of the deputies was with the creature, that seems to have had nothing to do with the beating.
The department is already under federal investigation for alleged brutality at the county detention facility. And a San Bernadino deputy was convicted of assault last year for repeatedly kicking a handcuffed man in the chest and groin.
“Oooh, that had to hurt,” the deputy said with a laugh, according to court documents. “You’re gonna (expletive) hurt in the morning.”
Now seven deputies may well find themselves charged with a gang assault that has the look of a ritual formed in the days before video.
You have to wonder how many other people were beaten this way and left with only their word against that of the deputies.
Just as the video from South Carolina makes you wonder how many unarmed fleeing people were shot by a cop who afterward insisted he fired only because he feared for his life.
Had there been no video in the San Bernadino beating, the deputies could have just said that Pusok fell off the horse.
As for Pusok, he should give thanks he was not back in time all the way to the days when horse thieves were just hanged from the nearest tree.