In a report obtained by the Pasadena Weekly, a former San Bernardino undersheriff hired as a use-of-force expert concluded that two Pasadena police officers used reasonable force when they repeatedly struck an Altadena motorist with their fists and a police baton during a traffic stop last year.
In the report, Robert Fonzi said that Pasadena police Officers Lerry Esparza and Zachary Lujan did not violate any laws during their violent arrest of 21-year-old Christopher Ballew on Nov. 9, 2017.
The incident began when Lujan and Esparza followed Ballew’s late-model Mercedes into a gas station on Woodbury Road and Fair Oaks Avenue. The encounter turned violent after Ballew refused to let the officers handcuff him. Video footage of the incident recorded by a passerby showed Ballew being hit in the head with fists and across his legs and ankles with an extended metal police baton.
“It is my opinion that a police officer acting consistently with standard police practices and training would conclude that there was reasonable suspicion for [Esparza and Lujan] to initiate a traffic stop on the vehicle driven by Ballew, which had no front license plate … and [had] dark tinted windows,” wrote Fonzi.
Fonzi further concluded that the officers acted in self-defense during the incident and punches and baton strikes were consistent with standard police practices and were reasonable given “the totality of the circumstances.”
The officers were reassigned after the incident, pending the outcome of an internal affairs investigation. That investigation has not been completed.
Ballew is suing the city, the Pasadena Police Department, Mayor Terry Tornek and former Police Chief Phillip Sanchez.
“The report is not complete,” said Ballew’s attorney John Burton of Pasadena. “[Fonzi] took their reports and what he could use out of the videos. He might as well be Lujan and Esparza’s lawyer.”
Police made contact with Ballew as he walked toward the cashier at the gas station. They then walked Ballew back to his vehicle and attempted to handcuff him. Ballew resisted as Lujan repeatedly hurled profanities at the Altadena resident, demanding Ballew to give him his “f–king hands.”
“Shut the f–k up,” Lujan screamed at Ballew after pushing his face into the parking lot asphalt. Ballew repeatedly requested the officers to call their commanding officer. Esparza also repeatedly told him to “stop acting like a dummy.”
Moments later, Ballew managed to make it to his feet and was struck twice by the baton. Ballew grabbed the baton and began struggling with Esparza for the weapon.
As a scuffle ensued, Lujan hit Ballew and Esparza drew his service revolver, while Ballew was close to his partner. Esparza did not fire and holstered the handgun instead.
By then, Ballew had been knocked to the ground by Lujan and had dropped the baton. At that point, Lujan jumped on Ballew’s back and started punching him on the side of his head.
After holstering his weapon, Esparza picked up the retractable metal baton and struck Ballew three times in the legs and ankles while his partner slammed Ballew’s head into the asphalt.
Ballew suffered facial abrasions and a fractured fibula during the encounter.
Several of Fonzi’s opinions appear to be contradicted by video footage of the encounter.
According to Fonzi’s report, Ballew eventually ripped the baton from Officer Esparza’s hands. Video footage appears to show Ballew never had control of the baton and only had it for a split second after Esparza let go of it to draw his weapon. The baton fell to the ground after Lujan punched Ballew in the head.
“He was not trying to gain control of the baton,” said Burton, Ballew’s lawyer. “He was trying to stop them from hitting him with it.”
Burton also pointed out that the report does not mention the verbal threats the officers made against Ballew. After police wrestled him to the ground, Ballew asked them several times what he had done. He can also be heard asking to speak to a commanding officer. The officers told him to “Shut the f— up.” When Ballew complained about a knee in his back, Esparza responds, “You are about to get a knee to the face.”
Fonzi does not address those verbal encounters.
The responses were made before Ballew grabbed the baton.
According to Burton the investigation has been placed on hold pending the outcome of the civil case. Former Pasadena Mayor Bill Paparian also criticized the report.
“This is a betrayal of everything the mayor and city manager assured the community. They said that there would be an investigation of what happened,” said Paparian, a criminal defense attorney. “Please be patient, they said, and respect the process. With this report the city is circling the wagons to defend what these officers did to Chris Ballew. There has been a complete failure of leadership. How can we ever trust them again?”
The incident sparked outrage when footage of the final 47 seconds of the incident was posted on social media by a still anonymous person on Dec. 6, leading to several rallies and calls for the officers — who were on probation because they were lateral transfers from other departments — to be fired.
The incident was called “reprehensible” by the NAACP.
The Altadena Town Council was so offended by the incident that officials there sent a letter to Mayor Tornek demanding that Lujan and Esparza not be allowed to patrol the area despite decades of cooperation between the neighboring areas.
In an attempt to be transparent, City Manager Steve Mermell announced the city would release six segments of digital footage from the police cruiser and body-worn cameras of Lujan and other officers arriving at the scene. Esparaza did not turn on his body-worn camera.
Pasadena police officers have been wearing body cameras since November 2015. The Ballew incident marked the first time that the city released body-worn camera footage.
“The threat assessment was based on the totality of the circumstances including: Ballew walking away from a simple traffic stop, Ballew refusing to comply with repeated commands, Ballew’s actions that escalated the circumstances — violent, aggressive and assaultive behavior towards the officers, and Ballew taking the baton away from Officer Esparza, which caused concern that he was going to use it as a weapon,” Fonzi wrote.
“The language is what disturbs me, describing Ballew’s behavior as violent,” said filmmaker James Farr, who produced and directed a documentary about the event. “I don’t see how anyone can see his less than cooperative behavior as being violent.”