Dear Mayor Terry Tornek, Councilmembers Victor Gordo, Tyron Hampton, John Kennedy, Steve Madison, Gene Masuda, Margaret McAustin and Andy Wilson, City Manager Steve Mermell, and Interim Police Chief John Perez:
On Nov. 15, the Social Justice Committee of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (SJCPJT) hosted a community event titled “Police Accountability in Pasadena: What Needs to Change?” Over 100 members of our congregation and friends in the community attended this event that featured a video presentation by journalist and filmmaker James Farr and remarks by civil rights attorney and Pasadena NAACP executive committee member Elbie “Skip” Hickambottom, Jr.
Mr. Farr’s film (commissioned by POP!, Pasadenans Organizing for Progress) featured dashcam, police body-worn camera and bystander video footage of the Nov. 9, 2017 brutal beating of 21-year-old local resident Chris Ballew at the hands of Pasadena Police Officers Lerry Esparza and Zachary Lujan in which Ballew sustained gross bodily injury. Almost every single member of our audience was shocked, horrified and deeply troubled by what he or she saw.
Many white residents of Pasadena do not have to deal on a regular basis with concerns that black and Latino Pasadenans face in dealing with the police. The event was thus eye-opening for many members of the audience. At our Social Justice Committee meeting a few days later (attended by 25 PJTC congregants, all active committee members), we pledged to be part of the movement to build better relations between the PPD and the community, particularly communities of color.
The violent and, in our opinion, excessive use of force without justification whatsoever by Officers Esparza and Lujan against Mr. Ballew cannot be tolerated, accepted or excused by our city officials or the leadership of the Pasadena Police Department. We expect a far higher standard of conduct at all times by police officers sworn to protect all the residents of this city or anyone they come into contact with.
Therefore, I am writing on behalf of our committee to respectfully, but very strongly, request that you provide us answers to the following questions without delay:
1. Why have the reports of the internal investigation by the city attorney and that of the external independent investigator retained with regard to this matter not yet been released to the public? The Ballew incident occurred more than one year ago. Since then, there has been far more than adequate time for these investigations to be concluded and both resultant reports to be released for public review. Where are they?
2. If the city attorney is both defending Officers Esparza and Lujan against a suit filed by Mr. Ballew as well as conducting an investigation of this incident, how can such an investigation be impartial, objective, unbiased and fair? This course of action clearly constitutes a conflict of interest.
Therefore, how can this internal investigation and report be received by Pasadena residents as worthy of consideration? Why did city leadership embark on this course of action?
3. What progress, if any, has the Pasadena Police Department made to date toward rectifying the six deficiencies in its current use of force policy detailed by the ACLU of Southern California and the Citizens for Increased Civilian Oversight of Pasadena Police (CICOPP) in their joint letter to you of May 30, including:
1. Failure to mandate de-escalation.
2. Failure to require that officers exhaust all alternatives before using force.
3. Failure to require proportionality in the uses of force.
4. Failure to provide clear guidance on propriety of uses of force.
5. Failure to define “deadly force” consistent with appropriate legal standards.
6. Failure to prohibit uses of force in certain circumstances widely considered unsafe to officers and the public.
Finally, we fully recognize and understand that policing is a dangerous and demanding profession. We are deeply grateful to the many officers of the Pasadena Police Department who exhibit bravery, selflessness, integrity and a commitment to service on a daily basis.
However, when situations go wildly out of control as they did in the Ballew incident, we expect that the city and department will hold police personnel accountable for their actions. We further expect that the city manager and the Police Department will expeditiously institute all the reforms, policy changes and internal discipline required to ensure that there will be no recurrence of excessive or unnecessary use of force by our police personnel in the future. The ACLU, NAACP and CICOPP have recommended a number of policy reforms, adopted by other cities, to address these problems.
We hope to receive your answers to the questions stated above in the very near future.
Rabbi Marvin Gross, who chairs the Social Justice Committee of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, is the former CEO of Union Station Homeless Services. Gross does not serve as rabbi at PJTC.