In the wake of the Pasadena Police Department’s (PPD) recent savage traffic stop beating of Altadena resident Chris Ballew, and long simmering anger over routinized police misconduct in Pasadena communities of color, citizens are mobilizing for change in the department’s policies and practices.
This citizens’ movement has already achieved an important victory. In early February, Pasadena City Manager Steve Mermell agreed to start collecting data in 2019 on police stops that are designed to reveal any presence of racial profiling.
In 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA), which requires law enforcement agencies to collect basic information on police stops in response to growing concerns about racial profiling and police misconduct. Few states collect, analyze, or make available basic information about who the police stop and search, what happened and why.
RIPA was designed to address this problem and help communities hold their police departments accountable for misconduct. The law requires police officers to record the time, date and location of each stop, the reason for the stop, and the result of the stop. If they issue a warning or citation, officers must make a record of what warning was provided or the violation cited. If officers are making an arrest, they must record the offense alleged. RIPA also requires police to record whether they asked for consent to search the person, and, if so, whether consent was provided, whether they searched the person or any property, and, if so, the basis for the search and the type of contraband or evidence discovered if any, whether they seized any property and, if so, the type of property that was seized and the basis for seizing the property. Finally, the law requires police officers to record the perceived race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and approximate age of the person stopped.
But the new law allowed cities to adopt the new requirements gradually, starting with the largest municipalities and counties. The largest jurisdictions — those with 1,000 or more police officers — must start collecting the information this year, but cities and counties with fewer than 239 — like Pasadena, which has 229 sworn officers — don’t have to start complying with the law until 2022.
Pasadena’s police reform advocates — led by the Coalition for Increased Civilian Oversight of Pasadena Police (CICOPP), Pasadenans and Altadenans Against Police Violence and Pasadenans Organizing for Progress (POP) — successfully pressured city officials to adopt the RIPA guidelines this year, four years ahead of the state schedule.
The victory comes amid growing concern about the PPD’s dealings with local residents, especially African Americans and Latinos. A 2016 city survey found that 72 percent of African-American residents believed that racial profiling by police was a problem. Almost half (46 percent) of Latino residents felt the same way. According to the survey, these two groups — who together comprise about half of Pasadena’s population — also expressed concern about the PPD’s excessive use of force, and being stopped for no good reason.
But soon after Nov 9, community anger over police misconduct reached a crescendo. On that day, PPD Officers Lerry Esparza and Zachary Lujan turned a routine traffic stop into a flagrant civil rights violation by savagely beating 21-year-old African-American Altadena resident Chris Ballew. The general public wasn’t aware of it until a bystander’s explosive video surfaced on Dec 3.
The bystander’s video and subsequent police videos of the beating reveal Ballew attempting to comply with police demands, calling for a department supervisor, and despite all this, being repeatedly beaten. The District Attorney’s Office quickly declined to press charges against Ballew, but Chief Philip Sanchez claimed that the arrest was “reasonable” under PPD policy on resisting arrest.
Sanchez’s refusal to acknowledge his two officers’ misconduct ignited a storm of anger and protests led by CICOPP, Pasadenans and Altadenans Against Police Violence and POP. They mobilized more than 200 people to attend a City Council meeting, where they objected for two hours to the PPD’s mistreatment of Ballew and made six demands. These included undertaking an independent investigation of the Ballew beating incident, directing Sanchez to discipline the two officers to the maximum extent of the law, adopting an independent police auditor with subpoena power, requiring annual public reports to the City Council listing financial payouts for police misconduct complaints, reviewing and revising the PPD’s policies on use of force, racial profiling and stops, and directing Sanchez to implement the RIPA law this year.
The protest and media coverage got the City Council’s attention and resulted in Sanchez and Mermell agreeing to meet with community advocates to discuss their demands.
At the meeting, Mermell — Sanchez’s boss — agreed to CICOPP, POP and others’ demand to implement the RIPA law, starting in 2019.
We view this victory as an example of how a persistent, organized effort by ordinary residents can move a stodgy city administration to do the right thing. It is an important reform which will help community residents hold the PPD accountable. And it is a stepping stone to further changes that the PPD has so far refused to make. Indeed, Officers Esparza and Lujan are still on patrol duty despite our demand that they be put on desk duty until the investigation is completed.
Pasadenans are justifiably angry with the City Council for its lax oversight of the Police Department. The mounting frustration and anger over the city’s indifference to police misconduct is an increasing drip of lack of confidence and loss of reputation for the city. Reform advocates’ proposals for police transparency and accountability must be heeded.
The struggle to reform the Pasadena Police Department will continue. Our lives, our tax dollars, and our constitutional rights are at stake.
Kris Ockershauser, a Pasadena resident, is the founder of CICOPP and a board member of Pasadenans Organizing for Progress (POP!). She is also on the board of the ACLU SoCal Pasadena/Foothills.