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From Minneapolis to Pasadena: A Reckoning on Police Reform

Like many cities around the country, Pasadena is filled with tension over police-community relations.

Two weeks ago, Police Chief John Perez announced that two police officers who brutally beat a young Black man in 2017 – an incident that was videotaped and seen widely in the community – would not be fired. Last week the Pasadena City Council failed to appoint two long-time community activists to the newly-created Community Police Oversight Commission, despite their unanimous recommendation by the Council’s own Public Safety Committee. 

The moves by Chief Perez and the City Council have infuriated local residents as well as the Pasadena chapter of the NAACP and Pasadenans Organizing for Progress (POP), a community organizing group. 

These controversies are occurring at a time of increased awareness of police abuses toward the Black community as a result of the conviction last week of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is going to prison for the murder of George Floyd.  But the jury is still out when it comes to America’s ability to deal with systemic racism, particularly in our criminal justice system.  

We should not infer from the verdict in the Chauvin trial that "the system worked." There are many, many other innocent, unarmed Black citizens who are racially profiled, stopped and frisked, abused, and killed by police every day.  During the three week Chauvin trial, at least 64 other people were killed at the hands of law enforcement, according to a New York Times analysis – an average of three a day. 

Cops who kill Black people are rarely brought to trial, much less convicted, but fortunately Minnesota’s recently-elected Attorney General, Keith Ellison, has long been an activist for racial justice and put the full weight of his office behind the prosecution. But Chauvin would likely have gone free had not Darnella Frazier, a 17-year old young Black woman, had the courage and presence of mind to film the arrest and murder of Floyd as officer Chauvin put his knee on the man’s neck for over nine minutes while three fellow officers aided and abetted him. The videotaped murder triggered mass protests around the country, including in Pasadena, where over 3,000 people attended a rally in front of City Hall last summer.  

Pasadena has a long and troubled history of racial segregation and tension between the police and the Black community.  That history is recounted in a fascinating and upsetting new documentary film, “Thorns on the Rose: Black Abuse, Corruption & the Pasadena Police” by Dennis Haywood and James Farr.  Kendrec McDade, Michael Zinzun, Michael Bryant, Leroy Barnes, J.R. Thomas, Paris Holloway, Rashad McCoy, Anthony McClain, and Christopher Ballew are among the many victims of beatings, shootings and tasings by the Pasadena Police Department (PPD) over the past few decades. It should come as no surprise that these are Black men.   

The most recent outrage in Pasadena occurred on April 4, when Police Chief Perez announced that two officers, Larry Esparza and Zachary Lujan, who brutally beat Christopher Ballew in 2017, would not be fired.  The attack was captured on videotape by a bystander as well as the officers’ car and body cameras. Journalist James Farr produced an earlier documentary based on those videotaped that clearly documents the two officers’  unprovoked and violent assault on the unarmed Ballew as he exited his car at an Altadena gas station and started walking toward the convenience store.  

The officers allegedly confronted Ballew because his car had no front license plate, but they quickly escalated the encounter by handcuffing him, beating him with a metal baton, and punching him in the head. At one point Esparza put his hand on his holstered gun, which could have led to Ballew’s death – even though he had done nothing wrong and was not putting up any resistance.  Ballew, who suffered a broken leg and injuries to his head,  feared for his life.  He was arrested for assault on a police officer, but was not formally charged due to “a lack of evidence.” That’s because the only evidence of wrongdoing was by officers Esparza and Lujan.  “I was beaten as if I was a runaway slave,” Ballew later said. 

Former LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey declined to file charges against the officers. Indeed, Lacey’s leniency toward abusive police officers, and her close ties to law enforcement unions, contributed to her defeat last November to George Gascon, the current DA who has promised to prosecute police misconduct. 

To many Pasadenans, the Ballew incident illustrates the PPD’s persistent practice of disrespecting, harassing, and abusing Black residents. It took almost four years for the PPD to finalize its administrative review of the incident, allowing community anger and frustration to fester, knowing that these two uniformed sadists remained on the force. Chief Perez’s decision to let officers Esparza and Lujan keep their jobs rubbed salt in the wounds of injustice. 

Chief Perez acknowledged that the two officers engaged in some practices that violated department policy, but said that the internal administrative review concluded that neither Lujan nor Esparza had violated policy in a manner that would result in termination -– a conclusion that many policing experts who have seen the videotaped evidence consider absurd.  Perez said that he could not discuss the specifics because disciplinary actions cannot be made public. 

As one community activist told me last week,  “If what they did to Chris Ballew didn’t violate department policy, then it is time to change the policy. And if they did violate policy – which any who saw the video knows is what really happened -- why are they still wearing the badge?” 

That’s what Pasadena activists have been asking for a long time.  The upsurge of protest around the country since the Floyd murder – led by Black Lives Matter but also involving many white, Asian, and Latinx Americans – may have been a turning point. Since then, public opinion has shifted, according to national polls. Most Americans now believe that local law enforcement agencies have a double standard in how they deal with people of color compared with whites.  The crescendo of activism in Pasadena pushed a very reluctant City Council last October to adopt an ordinance creating an 11-member Community Police Oversight Commission to be a watchdog on the PPD. 

But now the selection of members for the Commission has triggered another controversy – one that reveals that some City officials are still reluctant to challenge the PPD’s racism and misconduct and the political clout of the police union.

Under the guidelines established by that ordinance adopted in October, Mayor Victor Gordo and each City Council member get to appoint representatives on the  commission, and the whole Council selects three additional members nominated by community based organizations  

The City Council’s Public Safety Committee – comprised of Mayor Gordo and Council members Tyron Hampton, John Kennedy and Steve Madison – unanimously recommended appointing two local activists with considerable experience working on police issues -- Juliana Serrano of All Saints Church and Florence Annang of the NAACP Pasadena branch –  to the new commission. It also recommended that the full Council work together to  fill the third slot from among the remaining three candidates – Dr. Alexis Abernathy, Patrice Marshall McKenzie and Dr. Mikala Rahn.  

But at its April 19 meeting, the Council changed the rules at the last minute. 

As a member of the Public Safety Committee, Hampton had voted to recommend Serrano and Annang to the Commission. But at last week’s full Council meeting, he changed his tune. He suggested that the Council reject the Public Safety Committee recommendation, and require all five candidates to appear before the entire Council this Monday (April 26).   Council members Gene Masuda, Felicia Williams and Andy Wilson quickly agreed with Hampton, while Council Members Kennedy, Madison and Jess Rivas said they were prepared to appoint the recommended candidates. Monday’s Council meeting will be broadcast on Zoom starting at 4 pm.

Close observers of City Hall dynamics believe that the maneuver was intended to stop Serrano and Annang from being selected because they are board members of Pasadenans Organizing for Progress (POP), a community organizing group that has been involved in calls for police reform over the years. Some suspect that Gordo, who has been a close ally of the Pasadena Police Officers Association, the police union that isn’t pleased with the idea of a civilian oversight group in the first place, played a behind-the-scenes role in orchestrating the ploy.

Whomever gets picked to serve on the Community Police Oversight Commission will have their work cut out for them.  Like Americans across the country, many Pasadenans believe that the time is now ripe for a reckoning over the role of the police in the community. Although some activists use the phrase “defund the police,” most don’t really believe that we should abolish local law enforcement agencies. They want, instead, to change the policies and practices of policing and the culture of police departments so they literally “protect and service” rather than operate like what some consider an occupying army, particularly in communities of color.  

Like Chauvin, officers Lujan and Esparza aren’t simply "bad apples." The problem is systemic. That means that even well-intentioned, hardworking and open-minded officers get caught up in a police culture that is skewed by race. Improving police-community relations will require fixing the system. 

In Pasadena and elsewhere, reformers have identified a number of key changes they believe are needed and long overdue. 

Here are some of the ideas that activists and experts believe can make progress toward that goal – ideas that the new Community Police Oversight Commission might want to review and recommend. 

  • Establish clear guidelines that require police officers to intercede if they witness another officer using excessive force. Assembly member Chris Holden of Pasadena has sponsored a bill, AB 26, in the state legislature along these lines. Holden’s bill also requires law enforcement agencies to fire a police officer it they’ve been found to have used excessive force that resulted in great bodily injury or death or to have failed to intercede in that incident. There is no reason why Pasadena cannot adopt this policy on its own, without waiting for the legislature and governor to act.   
  • Pasadena should not use armed police officers to respond to the majority of 911 and other calls for service, which are not about violent or criminal activity. Most such calls involve dealing with people who are homeless, mentally ill, or intoxicated, complaints about loud music being played by neighbors, requests for police to help people with medical problems or to help people find their dogs, and similar matters. These are tasks for social workers, mental health workers, paramedics, and even community organizers. The city should either hire or pursue partnerships with nonprofit organizations to deploy these kinds of professionals rather send officers with guns and tasers. 
  • City officials should ask local residents whether the PPD should consider eliminating or reducing certain kinds of routine traffic stops unless police are confident that drivers are posing an imminent danger. Unfortunately, many of these routine stops escalate into situations where overzealous or racist police wind up using force that results in injury or death of innocent people. 
  • Police training and practice should require police officers to seek to de-escalate conflicts whenever possible rather than resort to This means that police should avoid physical confrontations, unless clearly necessary to protect someone or to stop dangerous behavior. The goal is to slow down and minimize verbal and physical conflict. The idea of de-escalation is in most police manuals, but it is often more lip-service than actual policy. Police are trained to believe that most calls put them in danger, but most situations are not inherently dangerous. When they give orders, they expect subjects to comply immediately and view lack of compliance as a deliberate attempt to resist or a lack of respect, rather than the result of a subject’s medical or mental health condition, disability, physical limitations, language barriers, or other causes.  Pulling out a baton, taser, or a gun is often cops’ first instinct.   
  • The Police Oversight Commission should issue quarterly and annual comprehensive reports on police officers' use of force or threats to use force, and on all officers who have had complaints against them for excessive force, racial profiling or other abuses. The report would include all disciplinary actions against sworn officers, the amounts spent to settle lawsuits against police officers and the officers involved. These reports should be available to the public to the maximum extent permitted by California law. 
  • Pasadena should be an innovator in rethinking the basics of police training. In the U.S., police training is similar to Marine boot camp, based on the assumption that policing is essentially a paramilitary operation. In many other countries, police training is more like college, with classes in sociology, criminology, psychology, ethics, and similar topics, in addition to learning basic police methods. In Norway, for example, police are required to take three years of training. In California, law enforcement officers must complete at least 664 hours training – far fewer than the hours required to get a cosmetology or barber license. 
  • A growing number of police academies now require some kind of anti-bias training, which should be an ongoing part of cops’ professional development. All PPD employees, including sworn officers, should be required to take annual anti-bias training to learn how to identify bias regarding race, gender, ethnicity, immigration, mental illness and physical disabilities. The PPD should also conduct regular and thorough investigations of sworn officers’ social media accounts to identify whether they engage in stereotypes and biases toward different groups or are members of white supremacist and other hate groups. 
  • Most police officers sincerely believe they are unbiased but community residents experience on a daily basis the reality of racial profiling.Whether they do so consciously or unconsciously, many police engage in racial targeting, racial profiling or pretextual traffic stops, which harasses motorists who are “driving while black.” This results in  disproportionately criminalizing Black (and also Latino) residents, particularly young men. Under a new state law, the PPD next year will be required to keep records on whom police officers stop, in traffic or on foot, by race and age, the reasons for stopping a subject. The PPD should issue quarterly reports on this data to the Police Oversight Commission and the public. It should temporarily suspend without pay any officers who receive three complaints by the public or fellow officers for the use of racial bias in word or deed, while investigating these complaints. 
  • Police unions have the right to endorse candidates and give campaign contributions. But candidates for Mayor and the Pasadena City Council should refuse campaign contributions or other expenditures on their behalf by the Pasadena Police Officers Association or any other organization of sworn officers. This will avoid the conflicts of interest that leads many elected officials in Pasadena and elsewhere to avoid adopting policies to challenge police misconduct and hold the PPD accountable for abuses.  
  • The Pasadena City Council should go on record in favor of repealing the state’s Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act (POBRA), often known as the “police officers bill of rights.” The law -- a long list of loopholes that allow California cops who face criminal accusations to get away to serious misconduct, including excessive use of force  -- protects cops from investigation and prosecution. It hamstrings local law enforcement from adopting common sense policies, making it very difficult to discipline or remove bad officers. 
  • The City Council should also endorse a state bill, sponsored by Sen. Steven Bradford of Gardena, to create a process to strip badges from police officers who commit certain crimes or misconduct. California, Rhode Island, Hawaii and New Jersey are the only states without such a law, which would give the state commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) the authority to investigate officers and suspend or revoke their police certification. It would also end “qualified immunity” for police officers, which shields most government employees from civil lawsuits. A decertification process would make it harder for cops with records of serial misconduct from bouncing from one police department to another, because local agencies currently don’t always know about applicants’ prior records.  In 2018, soon after the PPD began investigating the Chris Ballew incident, officer Esparza tried to return to the Bakersfield Police Department, claiming that it was because of the  “the cost of living in Pasadena.”   
  • The City Council should support the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which U.S. House of Representatives passed in March and is awaiting action in the U.S. Senate. It would create a national standard for policing. It would create a national registry of police misconduct to stop rogue officers from moving to other jurisdictions. It would ban racial and religious profiling by law enforcement and overhaul qualified immunity. It would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants, which led to the fatal shooting last year of 26-year old Breonna Taylor by Louisville police. The legislation’s key sponsors include Rep. Karen Bass of Los Angeles and Senator Kamala Harris before she became Vice President. On Tuesday, after the Minnesota jury convicted Chauvin, President Joe Biden called on the Senate to pass the bill. 

 

(Peter Dreier, a longtime Pasadena resident, is the founding chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College.)