Chief Backs Police Department Changes Advocated in Report About Local Man's Death After Arrest

Published : Thursday, February 21, 2019 | 6:51 AM

Pasadena Police Chief John Perez endorsed seven of eight recommendations for his Department presented Wednesday night to a City Committee in a report by an outside foundation about the 2016 death of a local man in police custody.

Perez told the City Council’s Public Safety Committee his Department has already implemented most of the recommendations made in the 10,000-word National Police Foundation report about the death of Reginald Thomas Jr.

At the top of the Foundation’s list of recommended improvements were implementing additional less-lethal force options and increasing officers’ de-escalation training,

Reginald “JR” Thomas died in his Orange Grove Boulevard apartment after a confrontation and violent struggle with six Pasadena police officers. Police had been called because Thomas was reportedly carrying a knife and acting strangely.

Although the coroner’s report could not pinpoint the precise cause of Thomas’s death, his girlfriend and family were awarded $1.5 million in a wrongful death lawsuit against the City of Pasadena.

‘This was a tragic and serious event for the community,” said Police Chief John Perez, “a trauma for the community.”

But Perez also said his Department has recorded a 30 percent reduction over the last year in the use of physical force, such as strikes and kicks.

The central theme of the National Police Foundation report was the need for more training in the use of de-escalation, a theme which Perez himself emphasized, saying that the Pasadena Police had begun implementing such training in 2017.

The presentation noted that its findings, written and presented by former Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel, “do not represent the findings and recommendations of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASO), or the Pasadena Police Department (Pasadena police), who also investigated the incident.”

The report evaluated the conduct of police in the incident and made recommendations based on its findings. The report was made as an information item, without any committee action required.

“There needs to be more de-escalation and less lethal force,” Brazile told the Committee, who called the 10,000 word-plus NPF report “extremely thorough and detailed.”

The Foundation’s overview report compiled numerous sources, including Pasadena police dispatch logs, Pasadena police 911 audio recordings, Pasadena police radio traffic, involved officer audio recordings, witness interviews, involved officer compelled statements, Axon laser data, and physical evidence.

The report described the incident, from the first 911 calls at 1:39 a.m. from the Thomas residence on Orange Grove, to the arrival of six police officers, to Thomas’s struggle with the police, before and after being tasered, to Thomas’s death.

Of the eight recommendations presented by Braziel in his report, Pasadena Police Chief John Perez agreed with seven.

Among its various recommendations, the NPF review noted that the Pasadena police should review training curriculum to increase the use of Tactical Decision Games that challenge participants to successfully resolve problems through quick, effective decision making.

“Non-technical skills such as leadership ability, communication skills, situation awareness and decision-making are critical to police officers in emergency situations. Tactical Decision Games have shown success in training responders in various industries to prepare for emergency situations that are characterized by ill-structured, uncertain, dynamic risky environments; shifting, ill-defined or competing goals; and time constraint,” said the report.

Perez agreed with the finding, explaining that the department has increased its officer training in this area.

Chief Perez also agreed with the report’s recommendation that the Pasadena police should use this incident as a case study and increase the number of hours dedicated to de-escalation during crisis intervention training (CIT) courses, or create separate training dedicated to de-escalation. The report noted that CIT is critical, but “it is not always sufficient to produce the best outcomes in situations involving people who have a mental illness, under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, or are otherwise in crisis and behaving erratically or dangerously toward themselves or others.”

Perez responded that the Pasadena police has been using real-life case studies in its training since 2016, as well as conducting more training in dealing with mental health issues.

Perez also agreed with two recommendations involving the use of lethal force, telling the Committee was now emphasizing less lethal force weapons, such as long rifles which fire tear gas pellets from a distance. The department is also investigating nets which can be fired 600 feet from the officers to a suspect.

“There are situations,” however, said Perez, “in which officers need to place themselves closer to the suspects” adding that the department is working to determine the best distance for officers to operate within various situations.

Perez did not agree with the recommended use of “Red Teams” in police review board investigations. Red Teams are generally defined as “devil’s advocates” in investigations, presenting opposing views in investigations.

“I think the entire community is the Red Team,” said Perez. “I want all of our officers to be able to speak out in any investigation.”

Perez also told the Committee, in response to another recommendation, that the Pasadena police now regularly publish use of force reports, far more frequently than previously—every month, as opposed to the earlier half-yearly reports.

While the Pasadena police do not have a formal agreement with the LA Sheriff’s Department as incident investigators, Perez agreed that a memorandum of understanding should be established “that includes roles and responsibilities for each agency.”

City Manager Steve Mermell noted that the Sheriff’s Department was recruited to investigate the Thomas incident because the City wanted an outside “independent” agency to lead the investigation.

Perez said that he would be in favor of moving such investigations back to the Pasadena police.

Perez also agreed with the report’s finding that should the Pasadena police wish to establish a regional critical incident investigative collaborative, an MOU should also be established before the Pasadena police begins any collaborative investigations. Perez told the committee, however that such an agreement would require a lot of research.

Chief Perez told the committee that the department has implemented several policy changes such as a 30-day review of body-worn cameras, as well as more real-life training scenarios. The department is also providing more education in de-escalation, as well as working closely with the Chief’s advisory group and “community conversations.”

Following the presentation, Councilmember Steve Madison took issue with the report when he said that the “facts don’t jibe” in the report.

“Didn’t the police know that Thomas had a criminal history?” Madison asked. “He was known and considered extremely dangerous.”

“That was not relevant,” said Braziel, adding that there was no link to the incident based on any criminal history. Madison asked Brazile if the “job was to independently examine the officer’s decision making.”

Braziel responded that that was the responsibility of the Sheriff’s Department.

Attorney Caree Harper, a former police officer, who represented the Thomas family in a lawsuit against the City, compared the Thomas death to other police incidents but was told by Committee Chair and Vice-Mayor John Kennedy that those comments were “irrelevant.”

Asked to conclude her comments, Harper said “I just pray that everything gets better before something else happens.”

Local resident James Farr told the committee that the incident had created a “trauma in the community.”

“There was no sympathy or empathy” from the City, said Farr, adding that there were no City officials at the scene in the days following the incident.

Resident Diedre Duncan, while praising Chief Perez for his policy changes, said, “We need to change the way we think and the way we view the community,” emphasizing the theme of more training for officers.

David Yanez, President of the Pasadena Police Officers’ Association and a vocal proponent of the Department, told the Committee that he met Thomas twenty years ago, “when he tried to beat me during an arrest.”

Added Yanez, “We can’t keep making excuses for bad behavior,” also telling the committee that 60 percent of Pasadena officers have fewer than three years’ experience.

Following the meeting, Attorney Harper offered more detail on her criticisms, questioning why officers did not remove Thomas’ handcuffs after he was subdued.

“Didn’t we learn anything from the Kendrec McDade case?” she asked, a case she also represented. Harper questioned other details in the incident, asking why officers continued to strike Thomas after he was on the ground.

“How do you train officers not to kick a man on the ground?” she asked. “And how do you train them not to look at a Black life as an expendable life? If it had been six Black officers and a white suspect being kicked on the ground, those officers would have been hanging from rooftops with nooses around their necks. I hate this being the case in 2019.”

Harper also revealed that she had filed a new case against the City, with a stepson and a fourth “baby mother” as plaintiffs. According to Harper, who did not elaborate further, both are now eligible as plaintiffs due to recent changes in State law.

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