Crime & Justice

Altadena man files claim after Pasadena police break his leg

Christopher Ballew (center), says he was unfairly stopped and beaten by Pasadena police officers on November 9th, 2017. His family joined him at a press conference to announce a claim for damages against the City of Pasadena and the officers involved in his arrest. From left to right: father Anthony Ballew, Attorney John Burton, Christopher Ballew, mother Sonya Ballew, and sister Domonique Ballew.
Christopher Ballew (center), says he was unfairly stopped and beaten by Pasadena police officers on November 9th, 2017. His family joined him at a press conference to announce a claim for damages against the City of Pasadena and the officers involved in his arrest. From left to right: father Anthony Ballew, Attorney John Burton, Christopher Ballew, mother Sonya Ballew, and sister Domonique Ballew.
Libby Denkmann/KPCC

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An Altadena man who says he was the victim of police brutality after Pasadena police approached him in a traffic stop has filed a civil claim.

The Nov. 9 incident at a gas station left 21-year-old Christopher Ballew bruised and bloodied, with a broken leg. Police arrested Ballew on suspicion of assault on a police officer, and he was later released on $50,000 bail. The Los Angeles County District Attorney has declined to file charges in the case. 

On Wednesday, Ballew’s attorneys filed a claim for damages against the City of Pasadena, the two officers involved in the arrest, and Pasadena Chief of Police Philip Sanchez.

A bystander’s cell phone video of part of the incident, showing Ballew holding on to an officer’s baton and subsequently being punched in the back of the head and struck repeatedly with a baton, went viral on social media earlier this month. The community outcry that followed prompted City Manager Steve Mermell to pledge at a City Council meeting to release body and dash cam video footage of the arrest.

Virtually every California police department considers body camera footage to be evidence, and therefore not subject to public records act requests.

“While the City is not obligated or required to release such the recordings…I believe doing so is in the best interest of the City and that of the public,” Mermell said in a statement obtained by Pasadena News Now.

The department made that footage public on Friday, the first time Pasadena has released video in its nearly year-old body camera program. 

The six separate videos provide a more complete record of the interaction from the point officers initially contacted Ballew. The images show officers first shining a light on Ballew’s white Mercedes sedan as they passed him driving the opposite direction on Fair Oaks Ave and later approaching him on foot at a Mobil gas station at Fair Oaks and Woodbury Road in Altadena just before 8 PM on a Thursday evening.

In the video, Officer Larry Esparza calls out to Ballew verbally, and then approaches and appears to take hold of him by the arm, beginning to walk Ballew back toward his car. 

In his filing, Ballew’s attorney said Officer Esparza told Ballew he was being pulled over for improperly tinted windows. 

Back at the car, video shows Officer Zachary Lujan also approaches and asks for Ballew’s hands. The officers spread Ballew’s feet apart, and Ballew appears to fall to his knees. 

Ballew is heard on tape repeatedly saying he has done nothing wrong. He later asks to speak to the officers' commanding officer. One officer tells Ballew to “shut the (expletive) up.”

At one point in the video, the officers again ask for Ballew’s hands, and one officer begins placing handcuffs on him. As the officer attempts to latch a second handcuff on Ballew’s right wrist, he tells Ballew, “don’t pull away from me.” It’s unclear on the tape whether Ballew is moving his arm.

There is a brief scuffle, where Ballew stands up, and one of the officers uses a baton to hit Ballew at least twice. That’s where the bystander video picked up the altercation, showing Ballew holding on to the police baton. On the tape, officers proceed to strike Ballew repeatedly with fists and a baton, and one officer appears to slam Ballew’s head into the pavement. At one point, one officer draws his gun and points it at Ballew.

“Yes, he grabbed the baton, after he had been hit twice with a great deal of force. You can see it on the video,” said attorney John Burton, who is representing Ballew in the civil case. Burton held a press conference with Ballew and his family on Wednesday to announce the claim. “Human beings have the right to defend themselves against vicious assaults with a deadly weapon.”

In an email, William Boyer, a spokesman for the city manager’s office told KPCC that Pasadena police are still reviewing the case. 

“The City takes all use of force incidents very seriously. Per Department policy, the matter is under internal review by the Pasadena Police Department,” Boyer said, adding that the officers involved remain on duty.

“When I watch this video, the only thing I can think of is just how thankful I am to still be here,” said Ballew, who is still wearing a walking cast for his broken leg. “There was a point where the officer pointed his gun at me, and I remember it.” 

Ballew’s claim is asking for unspecified damages.

The footage from five of the videos released by Pasadena Police can be viewed below. Warning: these videos contain violence and explicit language.

Pasadena Police Officer Zachary Lujan bodycam footage

Pasadena Police Officer Larry Esparza body cam footage PART A

Pasadena Police Officer Larry Esparza body cam footage PART B

Pasadena Police dashcam video during arrest of Christopher Ballew

Panoramic dashcam video from Pasadena Police arrest of Christopher Ballew

Bystander footage showing part of Christopher Ballew's arrest