Pasadena Police Chief John Perez told Pasadena Now that the administrative review on two officers involved in a use of force incident at an Altadena gas station has concluded they not be fired.
“This is by far the most difficult decision I have made since I became police chief,” Perez told Pasadena Now on Sunday.
Perez said the decision has to be made without bias and based on law.
“I am the Police Chief and ultimately I am responsible, even if I was not the police chief when it happened. This still falls on me,” Perez said. “The whole world saw the video and was aware of the incident.”
At around 8 p.m. on Nov. 9, 2017 Ballew, a former Muir High basketball player, was heading south along Fair Oaks Avenue to Pasadena just as Officers Lerry Esparza and Zachary Lujan were heading north into Altadena for reasons unknown.
Shortly after the officers crossed the Woodbury Road border into bordering Altadena, they spotted Ballew with tinted windows and no front license plate on the late-model Mercedes sedan he was driving. The officers made a U-turn and began following Ballew when he pulled into a gas station, got out of his car and started walking toward the convenience store.
When confronted by officers, Ballew initially said he had not been driving. The situation devolved into a fracas between Ballew and the officers which saw Ballew punched in the head a number of times.
At one point Ballew grabbed an officer’s baton. Esparza pulled his service weapon, but holstered it after Lujan punched Ballew and both men dropped the baton.
Ballew suffered a broken leg after being taken to the ground and struck with a metal police baton. He was arrested for assault on a police officer, but was not formally charged due to “a lack of evidence.”
“When he [Lujan] was holding me down at the back of my neck, I was wondering if I was going to die,” Ballew told the Pasadena Weekly in December 2017. “I kept thinking about the worst thing they could do next and they kept doing it. I could have died. He [Esparza] pulled out the gun, but he didn’t pull the trigger.”
A passerby shot video part of the confrontation on his cell phone. That footage was eventually posted to Facebook.
City Manager Steve Mermell publicly announced that all of the body-worn camera footage, as well as footage shot from police cruisers would be released publicly.
According to Perez, each application of force was carefully evaluated. Although legal charges were not filed, Perez did say it was determined there were policy violations during the incident, but said he could not discuss them due to state law prohibiting the discussion disciplinary action.
Ballew was not charged with a crime and the LA County District Attorney declined to charge the officers.
According to a document online Esparza attempted to return to the Bakersfield Police Department in 2018. According to the document, Esparza submitted a written request to be reinstated. During a Police Civil Service Commission Esparza said his desire to return to BPD was due to “the cost of living in Pasadena.”
The city’s administrative review process includes reviews of vehicle pursuits, use of force incidents and complaints from the public.
According to Perez, the process is designed to abide by the law and protect the rights of officers and the public. The process includes the command staff, the city attorney’s office, contracted attorneys and experts.
Although he said the entire command staff was in agreement on the decision not to fire the officers, Perez also said he bears the brunt of the decision.
“The chief of police is responsible for being transparent with the community. This situation provided me a lot of insight in how we prepare our officers.”
Perez told Pasadena Now he was aware of recent calls for his removal by some activists.
“I am aware of the people who are saying I should be fired,” Perez said. “That’s a conversation for the City Council or the City Manager to have if my findings are not consistent with their views.”
“Since being Chief, I have released officers from employment for various reasons. Without legal basis, I cannot go down the road of firing police officers to please activists and special interest groups. It has to be based on the law.”
Since the situation occurred, there has been renewed scrutiny on how Black men are treated by police.
The City Council adopted an ordinance in October that will lead to a Police Oversight Commission. That will bring the total number of advisory and oversight groups to three, including the Public Safety Committee and the Chief’s Advisory Board.
“Pasadena has high community expectations and political expectations,” Perez said. “The city is always on full throttle. People need to know what’s going on and we need to be as transparent as possible.”
Perez said “the responsibility to reform and transform a police department will not come solely from the law, it derives from the commitment from the Chief of Police, to change culture, stay persistent, and to maintain focus. This can be measured in our drop in use of force, inclusion of technology, immersive and cognitive training coupled with an understanding of real-world experiences and expectations, we are making progress as a national model transformation, it just takes time.”