Crime & Justice

Beating sparks new calls for civilian oversight of Pasadena police

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

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Community activists in Pasadena say they will call for civilian oversight of the police department during Monday’s city council meeting. The call comes after officers broke the leg of Christopher Ballew, 21, as they struggled with him during a traffic stop in November.

Police released body cam footage of the incident Dec. 15 after video from a passerby was posted on Facebook. Officials apparently hoped images of Ballew loudly arguing with police then resisting an attempt to handcuff him would address concerns that officers overreacted, but the video only stirred more anger.

"This is a Rodney King beating," said Milton Gordon, chairman of the Pasadena Community Coalition. The beating of King by LAPD officers led to the 1992 riots and the passage of reforms that included stronger civilian oversight.

"This is another example of why we need clear and concise community oversight of the police," Gordon said.

Activists have been calling for civilian oversight in Pasadena for decades. The calls intensified six years ago after officers fatally shot the unarmed 19-year-old Kendrec McDade, who was black. Ballew is also African-American.

Gordon wants a panel with the power to review such incidents "and the ability to look and say, 'This is not OK in Pasadena.'"

After the McDade killing, Pasadena hired Police Accountability Consultant Barbara Attard and Kathryn Olson of Change Integration Consulting to examine civilian oversight models that might work in the city. Their 2016 report said Pasadena was deeply divided over its policing.

"Some people felt police were doing a great job and that they were protecting them," Attard told KPCC. "And then there were people who felt they were under siege."

"It was very starkly different, depending on the neighborhood you were from," she said, adding that many African Americans and Latinos who live in northwest Pasadena felt "alienated" from the police.

Her report recommended the creation of a civilian oversight panel that could critique police performance and make policy recommendations. It would not have had the power to fire the chief or change policies.

The report also recommended the establishment of an independent auditor’s office that would have access to confidential documents and produce reports on use-of-force incidents and policies. 

But like the residents of Pasadena, members of the city council were divided over civilian oversight.

"There wasn’t the political will to make it happen," Attard said.

Opponents didn’t just argue oversight was unnecessary, she said. "Some argued it wasn’t fair to the police department."

Only one member of Pasadena’s seven-member city council has changed since Attard issued her report.

Police Chief Phillip Sanchez told KPCC in 2015 that his officers rarely use force, and that any civilian oversight would have to be "cooperative."

The LAPD and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department each have a form of civilian oversight, although few other departments in Southern California do.