The traffic incident in which 21-year-old Christopher Ballew of Altadena was confronted by two Pasadena police officers and then restrained and beaten with fists and what amounts to a retractable piece of steel rebar raises many questions.
Perhaps the most important among them is whether such a thing would happen if Ballew was white, or Latino, or of Asian or Middle Eastern descent.
Or, put another way, did this brutal display of police force occur because Ballew is African American?
The short answer is we do not know for sure right now. At this stage of things, with civil rights attorney John Burton now working for the Ballew family and having already filed a claim for damages against the police and the city on behalf of Christopher, it will likely be left up to attorneys and a judge to dislodge and make public that information.
We don’t want to wait for that to happen. So last week the Pasadena Weekly filed two state Public Records Act requests, one seeking information on the number of these types of stops and the gender, age and race of those pulled over during the past two years. Even though state law, the Racial and Identity Profiling Act of 2015, requires police agencies to submit this type of data to the state Department of Justice starting in 2023, the law does not prohibit police from compiling information, which some departments, such as San Diego, have already begun doing. It was not immediately known whether Pasadena has followed suit, but Councilman John Kennedy, head of the council’s Public Safety Committee, called for local implementation of that data collection process early last year.
The second PRA request focuses on the officers who pulled Ballew over on Nov. 9 and beat him so badly after stopping him for tinted windows and a missing front license plate that they actually broke a bone in his left leg.
Thanks to an anonymous citizen who recorded it on his or her cell phone camera on Nov. 9, and later police body camera and dash cam images of the incident made public by City Manager Steve Mermell, here’s what we know.
At 7:49 on the night in question Ballew, a former John Muir High School basketball standout, pulled his white Mercedes-Benz sedan into the Mobil gas station at the corner of Fair Oaks Avenue and Woodbury Road, got out of his car and started walking toward the station’s snack shop. That’s when Officers Lerry Esparza and Zachary Lujan pulled into the gas station behind Ballew and confronted him.
After Ballew was directed back toward his car, a scuffle ensued and Ballew was taken down to the ground. Lujan was on Ballew’s back at the shoulder area and pushing his face into the asphalt.
“When he was holding me down at the back of my neck, I was wondering if I was going to die,” Ballew told Pasadena Weekly Deputy Editor André Coleman. “I kept thinking about the worst thing they could do next and they kept doing it. I could have died. He [Esparza] pulled out the gun, but he didn’t pull the trigger.”
After continuously requesting the presence of a commanding officer, Ballew was twice told to “shut the f–k up.” Ballew was then struck twice by Esparza with a metal baton. Ballew said he grabbed the weapon in an effort to prevent Esparza from hitting him further.
Lujan punched Ballew in the side of the head and the baton fell to the ground. After Ballew fell to the ground, Lujan pushed Ballew’s face into the asphalt and continued punching him on the side of the head.
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.
What we have learned since the initial video of the incident went public on Ballew’s Facebook page on Dec. 4 is Lujan and Esparza are what is known as “laterals,” officers who transfer to Pasadena from other law enforcement agencies while retaining their ranks.
In the case of Lujan, he’s from the LA County Sheriff’s Department, according to city officials, where he worked in the county’s abominable jail system. Lujan has been with Pasadena police for the past three years. Not much is known about Esparza, except that he hails from Bakersfield and that he’s been here for approximately 11 months.
It’s interesting to note that even though Police Chief Phillip Sanchez has said the incident is being investigated by the department both officers have not been put on paid leave as that process continues. They both remain on the job.
We find the decision to allow Lujan and Esparza to continue patrolling imprudent, especially while an investigation into their respective actions is still ongoing.
In the spirit of transparency, fairness and furthering strong community relations, we hope we don’t have to wait for a judge’s decision to determine the truth of what happened here. In fact, we expect the police and the city to respond to our demand for records with all deliberate speed, just as we expect these two officers to be confined to headquarters or their homes until the internal investigation into their highly questionable behavior is completed. Doing otherwise endangers not only the officers, but also the public.