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Christopher Ballew Violent Arrest Controversy Draws Hundreds to Council Meeting

Mayor and City Manager pledge communication, full investigation

Published on Tuesday, January 9, 2018 | 6:35 am
At center, Sonya Ballew sits with her son, Christopher, whose leg was broken during his November 9, 2017 arrest by Pasadena police, and listens intently to comments during the Pasadena City Council meeting on Monday, January 8, 2018.
At center, Sonya Ballew sits with her son, Christopher, whose leg was broken during his November 9, 2017 arrest by Pasadena police, and listens intently to comments during the Pasadena City Council meeting on Monday, January 8, 2018.

Sonya Ballew, mother of Christopher Ballew-injured in a November 9 struggle with Pasadena Police officers following a routine traffic stop-stood before nearly two hundred Pasadena residents who packed City Council chambers, outer hallways and a basement conference room Monday evening to protest the officers’ actions during the controversial incident.

“My daughter is afraid of the police now,” Ballew said. “What do we do now? My family needs to heal, and those officers need to be removed,” she said, telling the Council and Police Chief Phillip Sanchez, “You can train these officers, but you can’t train their hearts.”

Nearly three dozen community residents spoke out in protest of the incident, with many calling for the immediate removal of officers Zachary Lujan and Lerry Esparza, the officers involved in the traffic stop.

Cellphone video posted to social media of the arrest of Christopher Ballew, 21, shows Ballew pull a baton away from one officer shortly before a second officer punches Ballew, then pushes Ballew’s head forcefully down into the pavement several times and bloodying his forehead. The first officer retrieves the baton and strikes Ballew three times with it as Ballew lies on the ground, reportedly breaking Ballew’s right fibula. The video led to a public outcry that Ballew was beaten by the officers.

The City has said that an investigation into the incident is underway, and that the two officers remain on duty.

Ballew’s family has since filed a claim in the city for unspecified damages. Christopher was in the City Council chamber, but made no comments.

Local civil rights attorney Dale Gronemeier said the incident invoked “the memory of Rodney King.”

Following Gronemeier’s comment and before two hours of comments from public speakers, City Manager Steve Mermell read from a prepared statement, saying, “Both Chief Sanchez and I hear you and take your comments to heart. And, we regret that Mr. Ballew was injured in an altercation with our officers.”

Mermell continued, “As it relates to compliance with Police Department policies, an Internal Affairs Investigation is currently underway to determine whether the officers’ actions were in accordance with policy and, if any policies were violated, if discipline and/or training is warranted. The investigation will include multiple factors including the officers’ state of mind given the circumstances, the tactics employed, prior officer training, as well as the actions of Mr. Ballew and will evaluate whether force was necessary as well as how it was applied.”

Said Mermell, “We should not pre-judge the outcome of the investigation and the officers need to be afforded a fair and due process.”

“Let me point out that the use of force by officers of the Pasadena Police Department is the exception, occurring in less than 1% of arrests,” Mermell continued. “Thus, this incident is not typical. Hundreds of enforcement stops occur in our community annually and do so uneventfully.”

Mermell said that he and Chief Sanchez will be meeting Tuesday morning with the leadership of the NAACP “to discuss the issues and concerns that have been raised and explore opportunities to better work together for the benefit of our community and our Police Department.”

Said Mermell, “We are looking forward to those discussions.”

At the same time, a coalition of local groups, including the Coalition for Increased Civilian Oversight of Pasadena Police (CICOPP), the ACLU of Southern California, and Pasadenans Organizing for Progress, asked the City Council to mandate prompt, independent investigations of Pasadena’s police department’s use of force incidents resulting in injury or death, including what the colaition referred to as “the beating of Ballew;” adopt an independent police auditor, and that they direct Chief Sanchez to “secure maximum discipline” of the officers involved in the incident.

The groups also asked the Council to direct Chief Sanchez to begin early implementation of the State’s Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA), which would collect and analyze all data concerning police stops. Councilmember John Kennedy called for the Act’s early implementation as well; however, since the Ballew matter was not on the evening’s agenda, the Council’s reaction was limited to a basic discussion.

Meanwhile, ACLU attorney Mohammad Tajsar criticized the police department’s use of force policy, specifically a directive reportedly allowing the use of force “for a legitimate law enforcement purpose,”

Said Tasjar, “I am an attorney and I have no idea what that phrase means.”

Tasjar also criticized the fact that the department reportedly “does not mandate de-escalation” of incidents similar to Ballew’s.

“Force should be a last resort,” Tasjar said. “Force should not be a first option.”

Numerous residents echoed Tasjar’s comments, some emotionally. One resident, turning to the gathered audience, said, “You are all here for nothing. Nothing is going to change!”

Longtime Pasadena resident Tim Waterhouse, whose great-grandfather, William, was mayor of Pasadena from 1905-1907, also talked about the police department’s use of force policy and training, saying to the Council, “You give your officers one tool, a hammer. Pretty soon, every problem begins to look like a nail.”

“This incident is a window into the daily lives of African Americans in Pasadena,” said David Chavez.

Pasadena Police Sergeant Roger Roldan, president of the Pasadena Police Officers Association, one of two who spoke on behalf of the police, responded to the criticisms, saying to the Council, “I ask that you pause and continue to support the line officers of the Pasadena Police Department, who do an amazing job.”

Continued Roldan, “Narrow snippets of any video without briefing, and not knowing the laws and regulations, cannot tell the whole story. Professional law enforcement at times requires the application of reasonable force to apprehend law violators.

“Without this authority granted to California Peace officers, we would be rendered unable to enforce the law and maintain order,” added Roldan.

Roldan, like City Manager Mermell, also emphasized that only 1% of Pasadena police stops result in the use of force.

Following the public comment, Mayor Terry Tornek said he was mindful of the comments and emphasized that the City “would open lines of communication with the Ballew family and others,” but reminded the audience that some portions of the investigative process cannot be made public due to personnel privacy laws.

“This will take a while,” said Tornek, who also acknowledged the demands, which he called “suggestions,” from the local community groups, and said, “We will continue to pursue this situation to try to reach a satisfactory solution.”

Councilmember Tyron Hampton was more adamant in his response, questioning the officers’ training, and wondering aloud why the officers did not attempt to de-escalate the situation. Councilmember Gordo also posed that same question.

Said Hampton, “I believe in due process, but those officers should not be at work,” saying a few moments later, “Those officers need to be off the street.” Hampton also said that one of the officers was still on probation.

“That officer can be fired right now,” he said.

And, “if,” Hampton added, “our investigation shows that those officers were correct, then we need to change our policies.”

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