In his opinion piece of May 3, Bill Paparian wrote a vicious personal attack directed not only at me, but toward the entire Pasadena Police Department. The attack on me isn’t worthy of a reply. However, the attack on the men and women of the Pasadena Police Department cannot go unanswered.
I have been in law enforcement for over 45 years including 13 years as Chief of Police for the city of Pasadena. In 2009, I was selected by President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to be the Director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). In that role I traveled throughout the United States visiting law enforcement agencies in 32 states. My belief was, and is, that the PPD is among the top 1 percent of law enforcement agencies in this country.
The issue of race and policing practices is the No. 1 challenge facing our society today. This is because the truth or falsity of the Cconstitution is determined by the actions of law enforcement officers on the street. That law enforcement helped maintain a racist power structure is a historical fact, publicly acknowledged by many police leaders across the nation, including myself. What is not acknowledged is the degree of change that has taken place within the policing profession over the last 50 years. The Pasadena Police Department has been at the cutting edge of that change.
This is not the same profession I entered 45 years ago. Police agencies across this country have dramatically changed their way of doing business. Do we have failures to live up to the ideals of the profession? Of course we do. The difference is that we acknowledge our errors and try to learn from them.
Mr. Paparian himself provided one of the best examples. He is correct when he says that we made an error by saying that Mr. (Leroy) Barnes fired at the officers. However, he is wrong when he says that witnesses came forward. It was Pasadena detectives who informed me that the original statement was wrong. Consequently, I held a second press conference the next morning and made a public correction. I also requested outside assistance from the Office of Independent Review. That group’s finding was released to the public. Several of the recommendations contained in that report were implemented by my successors.
When I came to Pasadena, the homicide rate was incredibly high and had been for several decades. Most of the victims were young men of color. The men and women of the PPD joined with me in implementing the “No More Dead Children” program which resulted in 30 months of zero homicides. In the years that followed, the number of murders never returned to those of previous years. One of the many aspects of the program was a focus on solving murders in order to break the historical cycle of retaliatory killings.
Shawn Baptiste was 17 years old when he was murdered at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Orange Grove Boulevard. He was not a gang member, nor was he engaged in any criminal activity. He was merely a young man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Detectives worked that case continually for nearly a year. During that time, the only person who ever asked me about him was his mother who used to call me every week. The detectives never gave up and, after a year of working that case, we arrested his killer. He went to prison, where he remains to this day.
Sometime later, an individual made a number of serious allegations against the detectives who solved Shawn’s murder. Mr. Paparian chose to repeat those allegations as if they had been found to be correct, which they weren’t. Had they been true, I have no doubt that Shawn’s killer would have been released from prison due to police misconduct.
What is true is that the Office of Independent Review found that some of the actions of the detectives were not in keeping with best practices, which is not the same as saying they were immoral or illegal. As a result, those practices have been changed which is what a truly professional law enforcement agency does when confronted with error.
As for the National Police Foundation, that organization has been working to improve policing for almost 50 years. The NPF is an internationally respected research organization. They have issued after-action reports for the Christopher Dorner case, the San Bernardino terrorist shooting and the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Recently, they were awarded the contract to review the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy in Florida. In all, they have over 80 projects under way. The board of directors has no involvement in the selection of projects or in overseeing the operation of those investigations.
The issues of policing and race can only be solved with honesty and transparency by everyone involved. One place to start is for every community to assume the good faith of everyone involved. Only then will we move closer to living out our ideals.
Former Pasadena Police Chief Bernard K. Melekian is currently undersheriff of Santa Barbara County.