Local residents calling for an independent investigation into the police beating of an African-American motorist in November will march Saturday morning in the neighborhoods around the gas station where the incident occurred.
Members of the group Pasadenans and Altadenans Against Police Violence (PAAPV) plan to lead an unknown number of people from the Mobil gas station at North Fair Oaks Avenue and Woodbury Road, where 21-year-old Christopher Ballew of Altadena was beaten by two Pasadena police officers, south along Fair Oaks to Washington Boulevard, then east one block to Raymond, then north to Woodbury and back to the service station along the city’s border with the unincorporated Altadena — nearly four miles.
PAAPV’s Ian Burke Jameson said Ballew’s beating is part of a pattern of violence committed by police against young men and women of color.
“These events are part of a broader concentration of killings of innocent civilians who are disproportionately people of color by law enforcement across the country,” said Jameson. “We will no longer tolerate racial terrorism by law enforcement.”
At around 8 p.m. on Nov. 9, Ballew, a former Muir High basketball standout now in retail sales, was heading south along Fair Oaks to Pasadena just as Officers Lerry Esparza and Zachary Lujan were heading north into Altadena for reasons unknown. Shortly after the officers crossed the Woodbury Road border, they spotted Ballew with tinted windows and no front license plate on the late-model Mercedes sedan he was driving. The officers made a U-turn and began following Ballew when he pulled into the station, got out of his car and started walking toward the convenience store.
Confronted by the officers and then punched in the head a number of times, Ballew suffered a broken leg after being taken to the ground and struck with a metal police baton. He was arrested for assault on a police officer, but was not formally charged due to “a lack of evidence.”
The event led to calls for a citizen review board which would monitor Pasadena police, an idea supported by PAAPV, the Pasadena NAACP, the Coalition for Increased Civilian Oversight of Pasadena Police and the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills chapter.
In a related development, civil rights activists in Los Angeles on Saturday launched a campaign aimed at giving subpoena power to the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission. The recently formed nine-member panel appointed by the Board of Supervisors is currently an advisory board.
The incident involving Ballew was recorded on a cellphone camera by a passerby and was released on Facebook the following month. After local citizens demanded answers, City Manager Steve Mermell released body-worn camera and police cruiser footage of the incident. Ballew has since filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city.
“When he [Lujan] was holding me down at the back of my neck, I was wondering if I was going to die,” Ballew told the Pasadena Weekly in December. “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.”
During the two-minute and six-second confrontation Ballew was struck five times with a metal baton by Esparza, punched four times in the head by Lujan, told to “shut the f–k up” twice, had a gun pointed at him, had his head rammed into the asphalt by Lujan, and suffered a broken fibula in his left leg following three blows of the baton to the back of his legs by Esparza.
After all the footage of the incident became public, civil rights activists repeatedly called on Police Chief Phillip Sanchez to fire the officers. Despite the requests for answers and the calls for the officers to be dismissed, Esparza and Lujan continued working in Northwest Pasadena, even patrolling the Black History Parade in Northwest Pasadena, an area where the majority of the residents are Latino and African American.
By that point, city officials had already received a letter from the Altadena Town Council demanding the officers not be allowed to patrol in the neighboring 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,” states the Feb. 10 letter written by ATC Chair Chairman Okorie Ezieme to Mayor Terry Tornek and Chief Sanchez.
“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 in February.
Copies of the letter were also sent to Mermell, Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger and Sheriff’s Captain Vicki Stucky, commander of the sheriff’s Altadena substation.
In March, Sanchez agreed to take the officers off the streets until the department concluded its investigation of the incident. He retired later that month.
Interim Police Chief John Perez said he is considering ordering a review of the incident by investigators outside the department.
“The pressure from the protests and speaking out at council meetings has done a lot of good, but there is still work to be done,” Jameson said.
The march comes on the heels of the March 18 officer-involved shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento. The 23-year-old unarmed father of two was murdered in the backyard of his grandmother’s house by two Sacramento police officers who fired 20 bullets at him, hitting him eight times, mostly in the back.
Sacramento police claimed Clark was charging at them when they shot him. Video evidence contradicted that claim.
The officers turned off the audio on their body-worn cameras at the order of a sergeant at the scene. The incident has caused outrage across the country.
The Pasadena Police Department has been mired in its own scandals since the 2016 officer-involved death of Reginald Thomas. Thomas was shocked several times with Taser guns, punched and kicked during a police encounter in an apartment in the 200 block of Orange Grove Boulevard after police received several 911 calls from the unit.
He was later placed in a hobble restraint and stopped breathing.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey later ruled the officers used reasonable force in the incident.
However, former sherrif’s Deputy Roger Clark — a consultant hired by the family’s attorney Caree Harper — said that Thomas died as a direct result of the officer’s use of force.
Despite claims the officers did nothing wrong, the city agreed to settle the case out of court for $1.5 million.
In 2017, federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) began investigating then-Police Spokesman Vasken Gourdikian for illegally selling weapons. Gourdikian was indicted in March. Shortly after that City Mermell told the City Council that a second police officer had also been suspended in connection to the ATF’s investigation a year after that suspension occurred.