The Pasadena City Council’s Public Safety Committee is scheduled to meet on Thursday and revisit the issue of civilian oversight of the police department – an idea that has arisen several times over the years but never advanced.
With the national spotlight focused on police abuse in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, the oversight matter arose again in Pasadena at this Monday’s full council meeting, when Vice Mayor Tyron Hampton made a plea for the Public Safety Committee – of which he is a member – to take up the matter anew.
Councilman John J. Kennedy, chairman of the committee, told Pasadena Now on Tuesday that the matter would be placed on the agenda for discussion at Thursday’s meeting, a first step toward potentially putting the issue before the full council.
Hampton’s plea for the process to begin again was an emotional one.
“I’m asking you tonight, as a city council, to understand where I’m coming from as an African-American male,’’ Hampton said during Monday’s council meeting. “Every time I get pulled over by the police, my stomach drops, I fear for my life. …
“What you have seen that happened to Mr. Floyd happens regularly, and happens in Pasadena. So let’s not act and pretend like we’re above that. We’re not. What happened to Christopher Ballew (in Pasadena), those officers are still working. We need to hold people accountable.’’
Ballew, an African-American, suffered a broken leg and other injuries during a 2017 traffic stop by Pasadena Police that escalated into a confrontation. He is suing the city and the PPD. His attorney has alleged that the PPD’s gang unit disproportionately targeted African-Americans and Hispanic drivers from 2016 through the middle of 2018.
“We need in Public Safety to have a discussion and actual, tangible actions, and come back to this city council (and) hold not only (the) police department, but everybody who works for the city of Pasadena accountable for racism and mistreatment of African-Americans or mistreatment of people of color in general,’’ Hampton said.
He called for the Public Safety Committee – made up of himself, Kennedy, Mayor Terry Tornek and Council Member Steve Madison – to “talk about civilian oversight, No. 1 for our police department but also … with the rest of our departments to make sure that, no matter if you’re a person of color, you’re being fairly treated in the city of Pasadena.’’
Pasadena last studied the issue of independent civilian oversight of police in 2016, but the matter never progressed.
“It takes five votes and I didn’t have the five votes to get us there,’’ Kennedy told Pasadena Now. “I’ve been here before under less tenuous circumstances that were for me equally important, and I tried my very best, my darnedest, to move the city council to recognize the importance beyond just symbolic measure of having more civilian oversight of the police department.’’
Calls for increased oversight in Pasadena also flared in 2012, following the shooting death of an unarmed 19-year-old African-American, Kendrec McDade, by police – a case that sparked protests in the city. Prosecutors investigated and said the PPD officers acted lawfully. McDade’s family filed a pair of wrongful-death lawsuits that were settled in 2014 without disclosure of terms.
In past instances, local groups such as the Pasadena NAACP, the Pasadena-Foothill chapter of the ACLU and the Pasadena Foothill Democratic Club also joined the call for increased civilian oversight of the PPD.
Currently, the PPD answers to the city manager, Steve Mermell, with the Public Safety Committee playing a role as well. In fact, during a 2014 debate on civilian oversight sponsored by the political action group ACT Pasadena, Madison argued that the committee already acts as a kind of civilian oversight board – making an additional oversight body unnecessary.
“I think the times when you need some other structure of oversight is when the department is resistant to the kind of oversight that exists already,” Madison told radio station KPCC at the time. He also said at the time that an additional oversight board would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time when “we have so many other needs in our community’’ – a cost argument that was disputed in that same KPCC report by an attorney for the ACLU of Southern California.
Kennedy, in an interview with Pasadena Now, also indicated that the current oversight of police in Pasadena is insufficient.
“(City) staff will claim that there’s already civilian oversight of the police department — that simply is not true,’’ Kennedy said.
Some of the larger area police departments, such as the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, with nearly 10,000 deputies, and the City of Anaheim, with about 400 officers, have some form of independent oversight. Smaller forces tend not to have such oversight bodies. Pasadena has about 250 sworn officers.
If Pasadena were to move in the civilian-oversight direction, it would not be an easy journey, Kennedy said.
“There’s no quick process to get you to increase civilian oversight,’’ he said. “The charter of the city would have to be changed, a new ordinance put in place, and the Police Officers’ Bill of Rights would have to be respected through the process. … It’s a complicated matter, it isn’t as easy as 1-2-3, but it can be done.’’
Kennedy also said: “My first four years on the city council were spent in part engaging in conversation with my colleagues related to increased civilian oversight of the police department. … It’s certainly an area that I have visited countless times with my colleagues on the council.
“The reason why it possibly comes readily to the vice mayor’s mind … is that we have seen the abuse of police powers all across the country related to men and women of color, but particularly to African-American men, and so there’s a question of fairness and a question of, do we need more thought given to the whole field of policing in the United States and particularly in the City of Pasadena?’’
Tornek, asked his thoughts on the civilian-oversight issue, said he wanted to let the discussion play out starting Thursday.
“That’s a perennial discussion item,’’ the mayor told Pasadena Now. “We’ll talk about it again. I don’t want to get into that right now. I don’t want to do a preview of that.”
As to how any potential civilian oversight would take shape in Pasadena, Hampton said that’s open to discussion.
“I’ve always been in favor of it (civilian oversight), but the council has kicked the rock down the hill as long as they possibly could,’’ Hampton told Pasadena Now.
“It’s going to be a gamut of things. Nothing’s off the table, from discussion of civilian oversight to making sure that the Public Safety Committee has more teeth – those are of just some of the things that we’re going to be mulling over.’’