UPDATE: Police Department Investigations | Coalition’s Formal Complaints Sent to State Attorney General

An 18-page report, documenting numerous incidents and subsequent citizen complaints have been sent to AG Rob Bonta for proposed further investigation

FILE PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | SouthPasadenan.com News | Black Lives Matter protesters on at the intersection of Fair Oaks Ave and Mission St after a November pro-Trump rally

A coalition of South Pasadena activist groups have formally submitted their complaints levied against the South Pasadena Police Department in the form of a comprehensive report to California State’s Attorney General.

The 18-page report consists of more than 30 documents and exhibits chronicling several incidents that took place over the course of the past year, peaking with the particularly turbulent summer/fall of 2020, in which local protesters, Black Lives Matter proponents, and allies were attacked and purportedly neglected by responding officers addressing virtually all incidents included in the report, which was submitted and coauthored by the alliance comprised of Care First South Pasadenaan activist organization that focuses on social reformation and accountability, Black Lives Matter South Pasadena, and the Anti-Racism Committee (ARC).

The pivotal events that unfolded over this time are considered by local activists to have been defining moments in exposing a deeply embedded “sub-culture of white supremacy [that] may exist among the ranks of South Pasadena Police Department,” as a July 17 Care First statement claims. From incidents that span verbal and physical assaults/threats, spitting, and online harassment, exhibits sourced from various contributors — video documentation, citizen complaints, and eyewitness reports are all cited — corroborate first hand accounts of what are being referred to as possible hate incidents.

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The group summates that “Response to these incidents were dismissive at best,” eliciting a desire to present the cases to AG Rob Bonta, who has held the position since March 2021. According to Victoria Patterson, a local activist instrumental in assembling the report and a victim in one of the more significant cases — that of Joe Richcreek — as of August 20, no direct response has been received from Bonta. However, a representative from the AG’s office assured them that “they’re taking a very serious look at it right now,” she told the South Pasadena News.

A request to meet with the AG to discuss the report was made by the group, originally aiming for the week of July 26 “or at another date at [their] earliest convenience.” As of the writing of this story no designated meeting time has been scheduled yet, according to Patterson, who admits “there’s a lot of material in there.”

To redouble the efforts in getting the AG’s attention, a follow-up letter that concisely outlines and summarizes the incidents and subsequent demands was sent on Friday, August 20. The activist group tells the South Pasadenan News that the letter has garnered support through signatures from “over 120 South Pasadena residents and individuals”, supplemented by signatures from “about a dozen civil rights and social justice organizations and government entities” including ACLU So Cal, Re-Imagine LA County Coalition, JusticeLA Coalition, Vigilant Love, the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission (ad hoc committee on policing and Human relations), NDLON, and the Pasadena NAACP.

Among the demands being made by the group, there is a request for the AG to “Conduct a full audit of the [South Pasadena] police department and its officers, root out and/or demote from leadership officers demonstrating bias in carrying out their duties, and force the department to make systemic changes to their policies and practices to ensure compliance with applicable laws and policies.”

“Last summer, we were attacked by people who disagreed with our message for racial justice,” said Fahren James, a BLM community leader and another victim in the Richcreek case, who also experienced police brutality during the George Floyd protests in Los Angeles in May 2020. “We need to get to the bottom of why the police responded so inadequately.”

Investigations were commenced in November 2020 after a slew of citizens filed public complaints. However, the results were “flawed in many ways” says the coalition report. In the aforementioned Care First statement, these are “incidents reflecting biased policing and failures to investigate hate crimes against Black Lives Matter demonstrators” and that “serious reform is needed.”

Several officers and personnel have had public complaints filed against them, amassing a total of 53 that were accounted for in this particular series of investigations. In May, the city sustained 21 of the 53 complaints filed. Nine officers were found to have violated an array of department policies including those related to conduct, efficiency, and supervision over, or response to, hate crimes. In addition, one complaint against former Chief Joe Ortiz for failing to ensure officers had sufficient training on how to deal with hate crimes was sustained. 

Though independent, third-party investigations were conducted, probing the individual complaints and allegations against the department, a conclusive investigation by the state attorney general would, to some effect, possibly override aspects of the conclusive investigation requested by the City of South Pasadena.

Furthermore, the integrity of the independence of the 6-month long investigation has also been a point of contention, with the report questioning the nature of Garon Wyatt Investigative Services “close relationship” with former city manager, Sean Joyce, “whose job is, at least in part, to protect the City against liability.” The report also elucidates that the Wyatt had “apparently lacked independent access to SPPD documents, including emails, body camera footage and other independent sources of evidence to corroborate witness statements and otherwise investigate the complaints.”

At this time, Patterson says that the City — who has been criticized for taking a “hands-off” approach — has yet to give any official response to the 18-page report. Prior to the authoring of this complaint, on May 19, 2021, South Pasadena community members submitted formal comments at a city council meeting demanding that the City provide more transparency about how it planned to “address the findings of the investigation against the SPPD beyond its vague references to the need for further training on hate crimes.” 

Patterson adds that “city council hasn’t been receptive”, elaborating that, in an unrelated dialogue with her district councilmember whose name she declined to disclose, the report was mentioned in passing. “I was told that [they] can’t talk to me [about the investigations] because of the the city attorney” whom they “needed to talk to, to find out how much they could even talk about with me… The feeling that I get is that we’re ‘problematic’ to talk to or to work with,” she described in a phone interview.

However, a potential ear has been found in the recently hired City Manager, Armine Chaparyan, who has been made aware of the investigations and the current state of affairs according to James and Patterson, who say they recently contacted and met with her. “She was completely in the dark, so we certainly caught her up,” relays Patterson. Chaparyan “did not know about many of the incidents, but she asked a lot of questions. We talked, talked for quite a while, about an hour about what happened over the summer. Her reaction was considerate and that she needed more information, [giving] us her personal email and phone number, so that we could contact her at any time with any questions.”

In 2021, South Pasadena is a now more racially and ethnically diverse than ever, where most residents are now non-white, consistent with the changing demographics of the San Gabriel Valley and the greater Los Angeles area. The most recent data provided by the county and national census corroborates this newly measured statistic, but, according to some studies, this presents an adverse side-effect in the generation of xenophobic and racially motivated crimes in California.

The activist coalition contends that, in the face of drastic social and demographic changes, the brewing racist ideologies held by assailants potentially guilty of committing hate crimes not only is “tolerated”, but possibly galvanized by the actions of on-duty officers. “Some police officers donned symbols of white supremacy during their shifts, turned off body cameras at key moments in their interactions with the public, and showed visible signs of support for the pro-Trump rally,” alleges Care First, referring to a November rally held in the city, in which several incidents that included assault, served as the genesis for a handful of misconduct complaints. 

The overt pro-police milieu existent in many political extremist circles, specifically the ‘Back the Blue’ movement, serves as an ancillary point in theorizing why officers may have displayed a form of “Extremism within the police force,” as Care First co-founder, Bill Kelly puts it. “[It] can’t be tolerated and the community deserves a full accounting, rather than claims that personnel confidentiality is more important than public confidence in the police.” 

The delineation of what constitutes a hate crime vs a hate incident gives rise to its own individual set of circumstances that engender conflicting definitions.

Specifically in the case of Richcreek, Deputy District Attorney Fernando Sanchez told the South Pasadenan News that the racial sensitivity provision was added even though the DA’s office determined there was “no evidence to show racial bias.” He said it was done at the request of James and Patterson — both victims in the case — who unsuccessfully lobbied the D.A.’s office to add a hate crime enhancement to the misdemeanor charges.

LA District Attorney George Gascón sought to end hate enhancements for criminals. After considerable pushback, he amended the directive, saying he would “allow enhanced sentences in cases involving the most vulnerable victims and in specified extraordinary circumstances,” but warned, “these exceptions shall be narrowly construed.”

In accordance with California law, what constitutes a hate crime aligns with SPPD’s own code, however, the evidence necessary to formally charge a committal of a hate crime — or act of compliance — is obfuscated by the many underlying biases allegedly held by the very officials or persons in power involved — either directly or indirectly involved — in these incidents and/or investigations. This has led to an assertion that two different representatives from SPPD, Chief Brian Solinsky, and Richard Lee, presented unsatisfactory definitions and requirements for a hate crime, specifically citing a Public Safety Commission meeting on May 10, 2021. Lee, Crime Prevention Unit Officer, stated that a hate crime “is not a crime by itself”, rather an “‘enhancement’ to predicate a crime such as assault,” reads an overview of Lee’s “wrong restating of the law.”

Shortly after being hired as the new Chief in May, and proceeding the City’s investigations, Solinsky made a presentation at a council meeting, but did not directly address the investigation. In brief remarks, he stated that his philosophy is to have a department that is “highly visible, accessible and responsive yet policing with compassion, purpose and in partnership with the community.”

Precisely a year since the first Richcreek incident on July 8, the South Pasadena Police Department shared an infographic via the City Hall Scoop Blog, HATE CRIMES: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF AND OTHERS.

“The AG has said publicly that his administration will prioritize getting involved in hate and bias issues like the ones the City is choosing to brush under the rug,” says James, after the secondary letter was submitted. “I hope the AG makes good on his promise, and understands based on the overwhelming evidence we included in our complaint that the issues at SPPD run deep and the State must step in to help root them out. His actions here can send a message to other police departments operating under the radar that biased policing will be held accountable,” she concluded in a statement given to the South Pasadenan News on Friday.