Renewed Questions a Year After Violent Arrest of Christopher Ballew by Pasadena Police

Published : Thursday, December 13, 2018 | 5:51 AM

Screenshots from a bystanders cellphone video of the Christopher Ballew incident on November 9, 2017.

More than a year has passed since the violent arrest of Christopher Ballew by Pasadena police at an Altadena gas station. And with the scheduled trial in Ballew’s lawsuit against the city still four months away, and the internal police investigation into the incident on hold, some community members are growing impatient for answers.

Rabbi Marvin Gross, who serves as chairman of the Social Justice Committee of the Pasadena Jewish Temple, authored an open letter on behalf of the group to Pasadena’s City Council, City Manager and Interim Police Chief asking for prompt answers to several questions about the Nov. 9 arrest and the investigations that have been ongoing ever since. The letter was published in Pasadena Weekly on Dec. 6.

“The violent and, in our opinion, excessive use of force without justification whatsoever by Officers (Lerry) Esparza and (Zachary) Lujan against Mr. Ballew cannot be tolerated, accepted or excused by our city officials or the leadership of the Pasadena Police Department,” he said. “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.”

The Rabbi went on to pose a series of questions to police and city officials, starting with inquiring about why the internal investigations have not been completed, and the results released.

In a reply letter, Pasadena City Manager Steve Mermell said the Pasadena Police Department is handling the internal affairs investigation, “…but that investigation has been ‘tolled’ as allowed by state law.”

“‘Tolling’ means that the one-year deadline to make final findings and to impose discipline is stayed because of pending litigation,” Mermell wrote. “So, while the incident is being looked at and is being addressed in the internal affairs investigation process, we hope you agree that disciplinary matters should be 100 percent disconnected from any considerations related to ongoing litigation.”

The city has hired the National Police Foundation to conduct an independent review, Mermell said. “The NPF report, when it is completed, will be shared publicly, and we hope that report will provide some of the discussion and information your letter seeks.”

The Temple’s Social Justice Committee also wanted information about what progress the Police Department had been made with respect to correcting “deficiencies” in its use of force policy, as outlined by the ACLU and the Citizens for Increased Civilian Oversight of Pasadena Police in late May, Gross wrote in his letter.

“The Police Department has taken considerable steps forward, including organizational accountabilities, enhanced policies and procedures and training modules,” Mermell said. “To that end, in 2018, use of force incidents by Pasadena police officers have decreased by 30 percent, and force has been used in only 0.59 percent of all arrests during the year thus far.”

“The NPF will also be conducting a review of the Pasadena Police Department’s policies and procedures “in many areas, including use of force,” Mermell added.

Gross also said he was concerned about possible conflicts of interest with respect to the ongoing internal investigations and civil lawsuit.

“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?” he asked.

Mermell responded that it is the Police Department, not the City Attorney’s Office, that is handling the city ’s internal affairs investigation.

Pasadena civil rights attorney John Burton is representing Ballew in the lawsuit against the City. Burton said he still saw a problem, since the City Attorney’s Office advises the police department on disciplinary matters.

“I think it’s a gross conflict of interest,” Burton said.

Both witness cellphone video and police dashcam and body camera footage of the violent encounter, in which Ballew suffered injuries including a broken leg, captured the encounter.

The two involved officers followed then-21-year-old Ballew, an Altadena resident, across the city border into Altadena during the night of November 9, 2017 and pulled him over for driving with tinted windows and no front license plate.

Video shows him exiting his car and walking toward the gas station when the officers catch up with him.

A struggle ensues as the officers try to get Ballew into handcuffs, the video shows. Ballew is seen breaking away from the officers with handcuffs attached to one wrist before an officer draws his baton and begins striking Ballew. The other officer is seen on top of Ballew, pushing his face into the pavement.

At one point during the encounter Ballew briefly holds one officer’s baton and the officer responds by pulling his service revolver and pointing it at Ballew. When Ballew dropped the baton, the officer holstered his weapon.

Police and Ballew’s attorney offer very different descriptions of the events that unfolded that night.

Police officials said Ballew resisted violently and was arrested on suspicion of assault on a peace officer. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office declined to bring charges against him.

“They stopped some young man for illegally tinted windows and no front license plate and then beat him, because they have other ideas about how he should have behaved,” Burton said. “I don’t think that’s okay.”

The legal process is moving steadily toward trial, he said.

“If the case isn’t resolved any other way, we intend to go to trial in April,” Burton said.

“There’s no settlement negotiations or discussions going on now, and we’re very confident in our case,” he said. “We also think it’s the kind of case that would be better resolved in a public trial, frankly.”

Among the trial preparations, Burton said he has filed a motion to compel the Pasadena Police Department to turn over “field identification cards” collected by the department’s gang unit, known as the Special Enforcement Section, during the year before Ballew’s arrest. The involved officers belonged to that unit at the time of the incident, but have since been reassigned.

Burton said he plans to examine the cards, which are brief profiles officers sometimes fill out and file when they interview someone, but don’t ultimately arrest them. He said he wants to check for signs of “racially targeted operations.”

The Pasadena Jewish Center’s Social Justice Committee appreciated the work of police officers, but cannot turn a blind eye to what it believes is wrong, Gross said.

“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.”

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