In a recent letter to Pasadena officials, Altadena Town Council Chairman Okorie Ezieme requested that the two Pasadena police officers who beat an Altadena man following a traffic stop no longer be allowed to patrol the unincorporated community.
“In an effort to uphold the safety and quality of life of each and every one of our Altadena residents, [Altadena residents] have voiced the following requests of the Pasadena Police Department. That Officers Lerry Esparza and Zachary Lujan be restricted from conducting any police business within Altadena city limits,” the Feb. 10 letter states.
The 16-member Town Council, which meets monthly, unanimously voted to send the letter after its January session. Several local residents also provided input at that meeting.
“I have yet to talk to one person who has seen the video who does not believe there was excessive use of force on the part of the police officers,” Ezieme told the Pasadena Weekly.
The letter was addressed to Police Chief Phillip Sanchez and Mayor Terry Tornek. Copies were also sent to Pasadena City Manager Steve Mermell, Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger and Sheriff’s Department Captain Vicki Stucky, commander of the sheriff’s Altadena Substation.
The Sheriff’s Department has primary crime-fighting duty in Altadena. The Altadena Town Council (ATC) serves as an advisory board to the Board of Supervisors.
In response, Tornek wrote a letter, saying, “This incident is being properly investigated to determine whether any policy violations were committed on the part of the Pasadena police officers involved. These policies represent best practices and are similar, if not identical, to those adopted by the Los Angeles County Sheriff. While state law prohibits the public disclosure of the findings of the investigation, I believe that the internal affairs review will be thorough and fair.”
The officers “remain on active duty and will be expected to conduct themselves in the same fashion as all Pasadena police employees wherever their duties take them,” Tornek continued. “As to requests for historical records and monthly updates, we will research the feasibility of meeting those requests and get back to you soon. … I’m sure that you agree that all of our residents benefit when police officers are able to protect the public without focusing on political boundaries. We will endeavor to make certain that public confidence in those efforts remains high.”
In an email to the Pasadena Weekly, Mermell said, “We pride ourselves on the cooperative, longstanding mutual aid efforts in place between the Pasadena police and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to ensure public safety in our communities. I can assure the Altadena Town Council that we are conducting a full and thorough investigation into the November 9, 2017 incident and that based on its conclusions, all appropriate actions will be taken.” (Please see a related opinion column on page 6.)
However, Ezieme said people in Altadena don’t believe the Pasadena Police Department should be the lead agency on the investigation.
“We are concerned about Altadena investigating itself,” he said. “This incident happened in Altadena and there should be an independent investigation.”
The Pasadena Police Department assisted deputies in Altadena 170 times in 2017 in response to requests made by the sheriff’s Altadena Substation, according to Pasadena police records.
According to section 830.1 of the state Penal Code, a police officer can go anyplace to pursue a suspect if he or she has probable cause to believe a crime has been committed in his or her presence, and with respect to which there is immediate danger to person or property, or of the escape of the perpetrator of the offense.
The Penal Code also states that an officer can go into any jurisdiction if he or she has prior consent from that jurisdiction’s head law enforcement official.
Pasadena police and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have had a working relationship for more than a half century. The last such “consent letter” used to define this relationship was requested by former Sheriff Lee Baca in 2011, Tornek explained in his letter to Ezieme.
“We’re very proud that our town council took a position on this issue,” said Nicole Moore of Neighbors Building a Better Altadena. “This is a gas station we go to on a weekly basis and to see this happening here was stunning,” she said of the location of the incident at the corner of Woodbury Road and North Fair Oaks Avenue.
“The real proof is in how Pasadena responds. My concern is that what happened at the gas station may be considered within the Pasadena police guidelines, and that is unacceptable,” said Moore. “This was something that deeply impacted people on a worldwide basis because the video went viral, but it especially impacted Altadena.”
Without providing details, Ezieme’s letter states that “Pasadena Police Officers’ continued presence in Altadena has resulted in at least one additional harassment incident since the incident on November 9, and poses a continued safety concern to all residents of Altadena.”
His letter also claims the incident exhibits a lack of training by the officers and demands that officers “should have less heavy handed practices” when they are in Altadena.
Ezieme claims the officers’ presence is a public safety issue, and asks for a report on arrests and traffic stops by Pasadena police officers last year.
“As a first step and, if at all possible, the community asks that all incidents — responses, detainments, tickets issued, arrests, and other incidents — that have occurred within Altadena by Pasadena Police in the last year be compiled and reported back to the ATC for dissemination into the community,” the letter reads.
“Our communities are close neighbors and our relationship is important. We shop, work, and play in each other’s neighborhoods,” Ezieme wrote. “Having a safe Pasadena and Altadena is beneficial to both communities. Altadena residents appreciate your swift response to these requests. We are sure that our mutual goal is to improve the safety of our residents, and restore trust between our communities.”
In the incident that led to the controversy, Esparza and Lujan struck Ballew with a police baton multiple times and punched him after they followed him into a gas station in Altadena at the edge of the town border with Pasadena.
Officers became interested in the Mercedes sedan Ballew was driving after they claimed to notice he had tinted windows and no front license plate. A tape of the event released in December on Ballew’s Facebook page showed the final 47 seconds of the encounter as Ballew struggled with Esparza for the baton while being struck in the head by Lujan, who drew his weapon briefly before holstering it, possibly because Esparza was in the line of fire.
Lujan picked up the retractable baton and began striking Ballew in the legs. By this time Ballew was face down on the ground and completely unarmed.
Ballew suffered a broken fibula during the encounter. He has filed a lawsuit against the city.
Despite the attack, Esparza and Lujan were not sent home pending the outcome of the city’s investigation, despite outrage from local activists.
Mermell later ordered that body worn camera footage of the incident be released.
In those videos, the officers almost immediately placed their hands on Ballew as they escorted him from the snack shop at the gas station to his car. The officers never told Ballew why he was being stopped.
Once they were back at the vehicle, Ballew began asking to speak to a commanding officer. Esparza told him, “Shut the f**ck up” several times after he was wrestled to the ground and a knee was placed on the back of his neck.
“You’re about to get a knee to the back of the neck,” Lujan told Ballew after the former John Muir High School basketball standout complained about the officers.
Ballew later told the Pasadena Weekly that he was worried the police officers were going to kill him.
“When he was holding me down at the back of my neck, I was wondering if I was going to die,” Ballew told the newspaper. “I kept thinking about the worst thing they could do next and they kept doing it. I could have died. He [Lujan] pulled out the gun, but he didn’t pull the trigger.”