When he was running for president at one of the roughest moments in modern American history, Barack Obama excoriated the Washington insiders who said he wasn’t ready to lead.
“You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change,” he said, “but it’s still going to stink.”
That, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Pasadena Police Department.
Just this week, John Perez, the interim Pasadena police chief, promised change in the form of a deep house cleaning. The self-examination comes in the wake of former Chief Phillip Sanchez’s retirement and follows well-publicized acts of police brutality, criminality and other questionable behaviors that occurred during a gruesome beating that resulted in the death of Reginald Thomas, Jr.
That case was resolved earlier this month with a $1.5 million payout from the city to Thomas’ girlfriend and children. In a disturbing pattern developing in downtown Los Angeles, the officers were cleared of wrongdoing by DA Jackie Lacey and remain on duty.
It’s likely there are other incidents on Perez’s mind too.
In November, Pasadena police officers administered a beating to Christopher Ballew, a black motorist who had his leg broken by cops at the climax of a quote-unquote traffic stop that occurred in Altadena, not part of the PPD’s jurisdiction.
We haven’t even considered the federal arrest of Pasadena police Lt. Vasken Gourdikian, who connected off-roster guns he bought as a police officer to nefarious customers on the gray web. If convicted, Gourdikian could face decades of federal prison time.
All this is the tip of the iceberg.
Enter Perez’s very questionable clean-up plan. The first step will be a review of the circumstances leading to Thomas’ death.
That probe will be conducted by the Washington DC-based Police Foundation. The foundation will also undertake a wide-ranging look inside the department at the events surrounding the Ballew and Gourdikian cases, Perez said.
“The Police Foundation will,” Perez noted in his best bureaucratese, “conduct an independent assessment of outreach efforts and programming and will make recommendations for comprehensive and sustainable initiatives to increase community engagement. A written report will be presented.”
All well and good, right? Except for one little thing Perez forgot to mention — the Police Foundation is headed by Bernard “Barney” Melekian, former chief of the Pasadena Police Department and the man who set the tone for PPD to become an occupying and oppressive force in some of Pasadena’s poorer communities.
Under Melekian’s watch, the reputation of the Pasadena police was less than stellar. Take the shooting death of Leroy Barnes in 2009. Officers shot and killed Barnes during a traffic stop. Within hours of the slaying Melekian issued contradictory versions of the 74 seconds prior to Barnes’ death. At first Melekian said officers were justified because Barnes was shooting at them. Two hours later, after witnesses came forward, Melekian retracted that statement and admitted Barnes never fired a shot before he was killed.
In the days following the Barnes shooting, it was Melekian who refused to release dashboard video of the slaying and kept the names of the officers involved secret. To add insult to injury, Pasadena police officers and public works employees dismantled a makeshift memorial to Barnes that had been erected by his family at the site where he was killed.
It gets worse. The detective bureau, when it was staffed with Melekian’s acolytes, engaged in a pattern of extrajudicial arrogance that included beatings, evidence tampering and witness intimidation. In one instance a witness to a homicide said he was kidnapped by detectives, then taken to police headquarters where he was beaten for refusing to give officers a statement in the case.
The witness was Pasadena resident Jeremy Carr. His attorney Michael Kraut said detectives including Kevin Okamoto, Keith Gomez and William Broghamer beat Carr in an effort to coerce him into making false statements in a 2007 murder investigation into the slaying of Shawn Baptiste in Pasadena.
Some of those same detectives remain on the force and continue to police our community. It’s hard to believe that the man who set the brutality in motion in the first place is the man we should turn to for reform.
Clearly the only conclusion that can be drawn by Melekian’s return to tacit oversight of Pasadena’s police department is this: there’s something fishy going on and it stinks.
(Paparian is a local attorney and a former mayor of Pasadena. Please see a related story on page 7.)