SAN JOSE — A San Jose State police officer who was eventually fired by the university for repeatedly punching and threatening to use a Taser on a man viewing porn in the library, now works for the Los Gatos-Monte Sereno Police Department — for the same police chief who, when he was running the university’s police department, initially cleared him of wrongdoing, according to newly-released video and documents.
In March 2016, Officer Johnathon Silva responded to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library after a security guard at the library reported that a man in an eighth-floor cubicle was watching loud pornography on a laptop computer and appeared to be masturbating, the records show.
In the encounter, captured on the security officer’s body camera, Silva approached the man, later identified as Philip Chi Chong, and asked him for his name and date of birth. When Chong gave him a series of different names — “Satan for Earth” was one of them — and did not follow Silva’s instructions, Silva began to curse and attempted to put Chong in a wrist-lock.
“I need your name, or I’m going to take you to jail,” Silva says on the video.
During the course of the ensuing struggle, Silva punching Chong several times in the head, kneed him in the torso and told him, “Get on your stomach. You are going to get Tased.” He twice tried to use the stun gun on him, but it malfunctioned. He also hit Chong several times with a metal baton.
At one point, Chong could be heard yelling, “I’m sorry. I swear to God.”
Chong was taken to a hospital, where he stayed for 10 days and was treated for two broken ribs and a collapsed lung. Silva suffered a broken wrist.
The university’s police chief at the time, Peter Decena, and his staff investigated Silva’s actions and decided that his use of force was not excessive. But when Chong filed a claim against the university, San Jose State administrators launched another investigation by an independent third party and asked then-San Francisco State University police Chief Jason Wu to also review the case. The second investigation concluded that Silva’s use of force was not reasonable. San Jose State settled the claim for $950,000 and fired Silva in 2017.
Silva then filed an appeal with the State Personnel Board, which in May 2018 sided with Decena, ordering the university to reinstate him, a decision that met with strong objection from the university.
Silva, however, resigned from the university. He has since been hired by the Los Gatos-Monte Sereno police, now headed by Decena, who left the university in early 2018.
The violent encounter and ensuing events were reconstructed through records and body-camera videos released to the Bay Area News Group and KQED this week under Senate Bill 1421, the state’s new police transparency law.
Decena issued a statement Wednesday standing by his hiring of Silva and asserted that Chong was under the influence of meth and had created a similar disturbance in the library a week earlier.
“The officer was fully reinstated as a SJSU police officer prior to being hired with the Los Gatos-Monte Sereno Police Department,” Decena wrote. “He participated in our rigorous selection process and completed a thorough background investigation, including a polygraph examination and psychological screening.”
Messages left for an attorney for Silva were not immediately returned Wednesday. This news organization was unsuccessful at reaching Silva through listed phone numbers associated with his name.
The university continues to stand by its investigation and decision to fire Silva.
University administrators had voiced concern about the officer’s conduct going back to 2014, his first year on the job, when a performance evaluation said Silva “lets his frustration get the best of him while he is dealing with the public, specifically, suspects that he arrests that are uncooperative.”
After the personnel board ordered Silva’s reinstatement, California State University general counsel Katherine Winder challenged the decision and requested another hearing, warning that Silva’s temper posed a danger to the campus.
“It is likely, especially on a college campus, that Silva may encounter a situation in which a subject, perhaps a college co-ed, would be uncooperative or somehow challenge his authority,” Winder wrote. “Without acknowledging his past mistakes, it is likely that this type of scenario, Silva losing control and harming someone, will likely reoccur.”
The request for another hearing was denied.
Silva was also one of a half-dozen officers named in a federal excessive-force lawsuit by a man who said they slammed him face first into a sidewalk during an April 2015 encounter outside the campus Event Center. The lawsuit was settled last year.
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After the struggle with Silva, Chong was initially arrested and charged with, among other crimes, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. But the charges were dropped after prosecutors viewed the body-camera video footage, according to Stuart Kirchick, Chong’s attorney.
Referring to Silva, Kirchick said Wednesday, “I mean, he just completely lost his temper and used unreasonable force in the process of detaining him only to just find out his name.”
He added, “The video kind of shows the rest.”
In his appeal to the state board, Silva’s attorney contended that his firing was “excessive and unreasonable,” given that he did not have a history of any formal discipline, and asserted that the university “failed to properly consider mitigating circumstances.” The personnel board broadly agreed, and in its decision, wrote, “It would be wholly anomalous, as well as patently unjust, to discipline (Silva) for acting in accordance with the training he received.”
KQED reporters Sukey Lewis and Julie Small contributed to this report.
This story was produced as part of the California Reporting Project, a collaboration of more than 40 newsrooms across the state to obtain and report on police misconduct and use-of-force records unsealed in 2019.