Photos by Catherine Bauknight
At a Pasadena City Council meeting attended by more than 200 people, concerned residents demanded reform of the Police Department and the firing of two officers who brutalized an Altadena man during a traffic encounter in November.
Christopher Ballew, 21, suffered a broken leg on Nov. 9 after being struck repeatedly with a metal police baton during an encounter with Officers Zachary Lujan and Lerry Esparza. Ballew’s head was also rammed into the asphalt and he was punched repeatedly.
Video of the incident has gone viral, but the city has largely remained silent on the incident. The two officers involved are being investigated by the department in relation to the incident but remain on patrol.
“This incident is a window into the daily lives of African Americans in Pasadena,” said David Chavez, one of more than 30 people who spoke at Monday’s council meeting.
Council Chambers, with a seating and standing capacity of about 100, could not accommodate the large crowd, so City Hall workers set up televisions in the hallway and the basement so people could watch the proceedings.
Ballew attended Monday’s meeting but did not speak.
“You’re handing guns and batons to anger-filled racists and once they put on their uniform, they’ve got carte blanche to terrorize the neighborhood!” said Melissa Michelson of Pasadenans and Altadenans Against Police Violence. (PAAPV) “These bad seeds are giving the entire force a bad name.”
Lujan and Esparza are lateral transfers who came into the Pasadena Police Department from outside agencies. Esparza came to the department 11 months ago and Lujan joined the department three years ago.
“Is the Pasadena Police Department beating white young men, or Asian young men in neighboring cities? No, they’re not,” said local activist and attorney Skip Hickambottom. “We have racial profiling in Pasadena in my neighborhood. We need an independent investigation of this incident, and we need it now. We need to start collecting racial data on police stops.”
The Pasadena Weekly has filed a state Public Records Act request seeking the number of lateral transfers that came into the department since 2015. The newspaper has also requested information on local police stop demographics, including the gender, race and age of those being pulled over by Pasadena police officers.
The Racial Profiling and Identity Act of 2015 orders police departments around the state to begin collecting that kind of information and submit it to the Justice Department beginning in 2023.
Councilman John Kennedy called on the department to begin collecting the data now, if they haven’t already started doing so.
Ballew’s mother, Sonya, told the Pasadena Weekly that she would continue to fight against police brutality and encouraged other mothers to take a stand.
“A mother’s overwhelming desire to protect her child is innate and cannot be ignored,” she said. “I would say to any mother who has experienced (or witnessed) anything even remotely resembling the police brutality my son endured on Nov. 9, your feelings are real and valid.”
The PAAPV was joined by the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Pasadena Branch in condemning police action against Ballew and calling for reform of the Police Department. The three groups met with more than 50 community members last Thursday at the NAACP headquarters at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and South Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena.
At that meeting Ballew’s attorney John Burton gave a blow-by-blow account of the incident, and Ballew’s mother spoke about how the gruesome encounter continues to haunt her family.
Meanwhile, organizers have circulated a petition calling for immediate reforms.
The petition demands Pasadena City Manager Steve Mermell take several steps, including directing Police Chief Phillip Sanchez to impose maximum discipline on all officers involved in the physical altercation with Ballew, including termination.
Mermell pointed out that only 1 percent of local police stops end in force. But Ballew was also threatened by officers and told to “shut the f–k up” at least twice.
Mermell did not comment on the number of times motorists are threatened during traffic stops.
“I believe in due process,” said Councilman Tyron Hampton. “But these officers should not be at work. These officers need to be off the streets.”
The groups also want Sanchez to seek independent investigations of use-of-force incidents and review and revise Police Department policies on the use of force, racial profiling and investigatory stops.
Mermell said he and Sanchez were scheduled to meet with the NAACP on Tuesday.
The three groups are also calling for a permanent independent police auditor with subpoena power.
The incident began after police saw Ballew heading south on Fair Oaks Avenue into Altadena. The officers made a U-turn in the middle of the street and began pursuing the white Mercedes-Benz sedan with tinted windows and a missing front license plate.
After Ballew pulled into Mobil station at the corner of Woodbury Road and North Fair Oaks Avenue, he got out of his car and started walking toward the cashier inside the station’s snack shop when the two officers confronted him.
The officers never told Ballew why he was being stopped and within seconds a scuffle ensued and Ballew was taken down to the ground, with Lujan holding him face down on the asphalt.
At one point Lujan threatened to knee Ballew in the face, and Esparza shouted for him to “shut the f–k up,” after Ballew requested a commanding officer be called to the scene.
After officers lifted him off the ground with one handcuff on his wrist, Ballew pulled away and was struck twice in the shins by Esparza with a metal baton. Ballew claims he defensively grabbed the weapon in order to stop Esparza from hitting him.
Ballew released the baton after Lujan punched him in the side of the head. At that moment, Esparza drew his service revolver and pointed it at Ballew before holstering it, while Lujan rammed Ballew’s face into the asphalt and then continued to punch Ballew on the side of his head.
After holstering his weapon, Esparza picked up the baton and began striking Ballew’s legs and ankles. Ballew suffered a broken fibula in his left leg following three strikes.
“Chris was beaten, he was insulted, he was grabbed, he was pushed, his head was slammed on the ground and he was almost shot? Why, because he had no front license plate and his windows were tinted,” Hickambottom said.
After cell phone camera footage of the final 47 seconds of the incident was made public on Ballew’s Facebook page in early December, Mermell announced that the city would release footage shot on the officer’s body-worn cameras. The city also released footage shot by the dashboard cameras in several police cruisers there that night, including the one being driven by Lujan and Esparza.
“You give your officers one tool, a hammer, and pretty soon every problem starts to look like a nail,” said Tim Waterhouse, great-grandson of former Pasadena Mayor William Waterhouse.