City officials said the process to replace outgoing Police Chief Phillip Sanchez will be transparent. However, City Manager Steve Mermell, the boss of whoever is eventually picked for the job, has yet to determine just how open that process will be.
“Certainly, whatever the timing and the process, it will be sure to include ample opportunity for community input,” Mermell said.
“Typically,” he explained, “a professional recruiter is engaged to assist with the process. At this point, our timing is not determined. Given that we will undertake a national search, we will need to give the process sufficient time to identify and recruit top quality candidates. Pasadena residents should feel confident that we have a very qualified and effective leader as interim.”
Word of Sanchez’s retirement was released abruptly on March 12. In that statement, Sanchez said he gave the decision a lot of thought, but when the chief visited the Pasadena Weekly offices several days earlier he showed no indications he was considering retiring.
While he was at the Weekly office, Sanchez appeared to be looking toward the future of policing in Pasadena, and was scheduled to participate in an interview on Monday — the same day his retirement was announced. He wanted to discuss his plans for moving forward from a number of scandals that have plagued his department. In recent years, those have included the violent arrest of Altadena’s Christopher Ballew by two of his recently hired gang unit officers in November, and the federal indictment of one of his top officers, Vasken Gourdikian, who was arrested and arraigned on March 2 for allegedly selling more than 100 weapons illegally. Gourdikian has pleaded not guilty to all the charges. The indictment came after a year-long investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
One week after the indictment, the city was forced to reveal a second police officer is under investigation by the ATF, a fact that city officials never revealed despite the year-long investigation into the activities of Gourdikian. Gourdikian was put on paid administrative leave by Sanchez during the probe, ultimately collecting more than $190,000 of his $197,000 annual salary. Gourdikian resigned on March 15.
Sanchez will officially leave the department on April 18. Deputy Chief John Perez will serve as the interim police chief until a new chief is selected.
Perez became a Pasadena police officer in 1987 after serving two years as a cadet with the department. Perez has worked a variety of assignments in the department, including community relations, internal affairs, gang enforcement, undercover narcotics and special enforcement. He also served as a SWAT officer.
In the Ballew matter, Officers Lerry Esparza and Zachary Lujan were recorded on a cell phone camera punching and striking Ballew with their fists and a police baton during an arrest at a Mobil service station just outside the city border with Altadena.
Despite community outrage and an internal investigation, Sanchez did not place the two officers on administrative leave. It was not until shortly after the Altadena Town Council demanded in a letter that those two officers not be allowed to patrol in their unincorporated community that they were both reassigned.
Several people later expressed even more outrage after Esparza and Lujan were seen on patrol at the city’s Black History Month celebration in February.
Like other law enforcement officials, Sanchez faced unprecedented scrutiny due to the increase in social media platforms giving critics a place to malign the chief, sometimes falsely. Nevertheless, two separate police reform citizen groups have sprung up locally over the past few years.
Sanchez came to Pasadena from Santa Monica in 2010 following a national search that cost the city $26,000. As part of that process, then City Manager Michael Beck formed a citizens’ committee to provide input on the candidates, but that process turned out to be flawed, with the committee lacking religious leaders and representatives of grassroots organizations. Instead, it consisted of eight panelists who were Pasadena Police Department personnel, city department heads and police chiefs in other communities.
After the makeup of the committee was revealed, a second advisory committee was formed that included more community members. However, there were still problems in the process.
To make matters worse, the Pasadena Weekly learned one of the three finalists, then-Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, had previously been named in a sexual harassment lawsuit. All of the counts except one in that lawsuit were later thrown out and the out-of-court settlement was sealed.
City officials and panelists were not aware of that lawsuit until the story was published. Acevedo dropped out of the running for the job hours after the story appeared online.
“We don’t want to replicate that,” said Mayor Terry Tornek. “The problem with this kind of process is on the one hand you want to be as transparent as possible, but you want to respect the privacy of the candidate, because some of the really good ones are employed and you don’t want to jeopardize that by putting their names out there.
“We did a good job with the city manager process. We interviewed a lot of really good people,” Tornek continued. “Of course, this will be more scrutinized than the city manager search.”
That public interest could rise to its highest levels in recent memory, with homeowners, business leaders and average residents likely to have a great deal to say about what they want in the city’s next chief.
Community members called for much deeper transparency than ever in the selection process.
“The community should be spelling out characteristics we want in a chief now,” said Ed Washatka of Pasadenans Organizing for Progress (POP), one of the reform groups started in recent years. “We need to know about involvement in sexual harassment lawsuits and use of force incidents.”
Washatka also said prospective finalists should be questioned about sanctuary cities, communities of color, and the increasing use of high technology in policing.
Washatka late last year filed a state Public Records Act request for all automatic license plate reader (ALPR) hits on his vehicle.
“We don’t want a police chief to come to town with a siege mentality,” he said.
“Pasadenans Organizing for Progress calls on the city to engage the public in an open and transparent process to select the new leader for the city’s police department,” declared the group in a statement issued this week. “As this matter will undoubtedly impact Pasadena greatly, POP urges City Manager Steve Mermell to work with stakeholders in the identification of skills and qualities needed in the next chief of police, as well as gather constituent input during the selection process. Those called upon in this joint effort should include: the local branches of the NAACP and ACLU, the Coalition for Increased Oversight of the Pasadena Police (CICOPP), POP, and many others.”
Councilman Tyron Hampton said that he hoped for a process that allowed as much community involvement as possible. He also wants a public discussion on the process by the City Council’s Public Safety Committee.
“The process is going to have to be transparent,” said Hampton. “It’s the city manager’s duty but when you have such an integral part of the day to day operations a transparent process is a must.”