For Newport Police, Keeping the Peace Becomes an Issue : More Than 100 Suits, Claims Filed Against Department in Past 8 Years : <i> Nobody goes into this job anticipating that they are going to make everybody happy.</i> --Charles R. Gross, Newport Beach Police Chief
Guarding paradise is not always easy.
“What we have are people who have worked damned hard in their lifetime, and when they come to Newport Beach they anticipate being able to sit back and unwind a little bit and have other people do things for them,” said Charles R. Gross, 57, who will retire Jan. 1 after eight years as Newport Beach police chief. ". . . When somebody threatens their level of comfort, they will call us.”
But department critics say Newport police are often too aggressive in minding the palace gates of this resort town of 65,000 mostly white, affluent residents. They contend that the officers frequently harass young people, minorities or anyone who appears to be “an outsider.”
“There is a decided policy on behalf of the police to go out there and protect the vast wealth of the residents,” said Los Angeles attorney Stephen Yagman, whose dentist-client this week lost a $5-million brutality suit against four Newport officers.
“It’s perceived that if a police department has a rough image, it will act as a deterrent to crime,” Yagman said. “Consequently, they are . . . rough and tough, and an unwanted consequence of that attitude is (that) frequently the officers violate the rights of people who are not criminals.”
Yagman, who said he plans to appeal Monday’s federal court jury’s decision, filed another suit against the city the following day for $10 million on behalf of the dentist’s brother, alleging that he, too, was clubbed by police during the same incident.
But Gross, a 28-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, from which he retired as a deputy chief, challenges those who say his officers are overzealous. He boasts only “one complaint for every 3,000" encounters his officers have with members of the public.
He said his officers have a high-visibility approach because the department reflects the community it serves.
“If you were doing anything other than to be responsive to what the community perceives as its threats to safety, you would not be performing the role that society requires,” Gross said.
“The way I try to explain it here,” Gross said, “is that if I could split open the head of one of our community members, without harming that community member, and be able to get into his mind and list his priorities, you’d find those priorities start with traffic, then they go to annoyances of their peace and quiet, dogs and litter. . . . Those are the things that they would say are impinging upon us in this community--those are the day-to-day annoyances that we have.”
Still, the Newport Beach Police Department has found itself in the eye of its share of legal storms, including a substantial number of lawsuits and claims alleging excessive force, false arrest or civil-rights violations.
According to city records, more than 100 such lawsuits and claims have been filed against the department in the last eight years. In the last five years, the city has paid about $270,000 to people who filed such claims against the department, according to the records.
One pending case was filed by F. Eugene Westhafer, a Newport Beach attorney who has represented police officers in the past and is currently representing Doug Killian. Killian, 26, allegedly suffered facial cuts, broken teeth and a jaw injury at the hands of a Newport Beach officer.
Westhafer said his client and some friends had gone to a Corona del Mar bar for a few beers in December, 1983, after playing in a basketball game. “Apparently there were some undercover officers who came in for some sort of stakeout or observation,” the attorney said. “They arrested some people at the bar who were obviously intoxicated and started questioning my client’s girlfrend about whether she was of age to be drinking beer.”
Westhafer said Killian was subsequently arrested for interfering with the questioning of his girlfriend.
“He was taken down to the floor and handcuffed by two of the officers,” Westhafer said. “Sometime later, while he was still handcuffed on the floor, one of the officers approached him and, without provocation, slammed his head into the floor twice.”
Westhafer said the officer is no longer with the department.
Killian Called Clean-Cut
“The more I begin to hear how many other suits are pending,” Westhafer said, “the more I’m starting to question my own impression, which was that, as Orange County police departments go, Newport Beach was one of the better ones and this was an isolated incident. Now I don’t know.”
Westhafer said Killian, a “clean-cut, gregarious USC graduate” and his father, local attorney Donald Killian, are, “needless to say, quite resentful.”
“I don’t think these activities are sanctioned at the highest level of the department,” Westhafer added. “I discussed it with the chief of police at the time and I’m convinced he was seriously sorry about the incident.”
Some department critics say police are quick to stop and question minorities in Newport for seemingly little reason.
Dorsey Watson, who is black, said he grew weary of being stopped by police during the two years he lived in Newport Beach while he attended UC Irvine. He finally decided it would be easier to move, even though he enjoyed living by the beach.
Watson said that when black friends came to visit him, they invariably were late to arrive because they, too, had been stopped and questioned by police.
“I decided to move to Irvine in 1979,” said Watson, who is now 28 and works at the campus library. “I was just having problems standing at a bus stop or if I went running at night. Watson said he was once pulled over “just because the police were wondering what a black guy in a beat-up Cutlass was doing driving with a blond girl.” Watson said he was showing his friend, a Swedish exchange student at UCI, around Newport Beach.
“They would stop me and ask me who I was, what I was doing, a lot of nettlesome questions,” Watson said. “I would tell them I lived here. Still, if you see a black face in Newport, you gotta stop him.”
On one occasion, Watson said he was waiting at the bus stop in Fashion Island, with plans to visit a friend.
“I had just gotten paid and had $400 cash in an Igloo Playmate cooler along with my clothes and some marijuana. Plainclothes officers came by and started asking me questions. They started searching me and when they found the cash with the marijuana, they thought I was a dealer.”
Watson said he was arrested and taken to jail, and that the police confiscated his money as evidence.
“But $250 of that money was for my rent,” Watson said, “and because I didn’t get the money back for a month, I lost my apartment and had to move. I should have just received a ticket because it was less than an ounce. But they were playing ‘Miami Vice’ undercover cops. . . . They had totally blown it out of proportion.”
Bitter About Experience
Watson, who said he has since graduated from UCI with a degree in social science, said he is somewhat bitter about his encounters with Newport Beach police.
“I find, in Orange County, it’s that subtle discrimination, not the blatant kind you can do something about,” he said. “It’s the small things that they can do to you to aggravate and upset you.
“I really enjoyed living there,” he added, referring to his early college years in Newport. “If it wasn’t for the police, I’d still want to live there.
One Newport officer conceded that the term “NIN” call, otherwise known as “Nigger in Newport,” once was used by police. But, he added, “I can honestly say I haven’t heard that in six years--just like I haven’t heard the word ‘pig.’ Society has changed as a whole; the Police Department has, too.
Police Chief Gross challenges allegations of racism and says his department’s policy is colorblind.
“The officer’s contact of an individual is based upon his knowledge of things that have occurred in his assigned area--solely upon that,” Gross said. “We can only function on information that we are given. People don’t have branded in the middle of their forehead as being a good guy or bad guy.”
“Most of the people who live here are conservative Republicans and probably are very prejudiced,” one Newport Beach officer said. “They probably don’t want to see Mexicans in their neighborhood except to cut their lawns. But I don’t think the Police Department is prejudiced. We’re just prejudiced against crime.”
As for allegations that the Police Department is overly tough on young people, Gross and some of his officers concede that Newport laws are probably stricter than they are in other cities.
The City Council recently enacted a curfew that prohibits minors from loitering after 10 p.m. This came after reports that juveniles had been destroying private property on the peninsula.
Teen-agers are given one warning to go home or else they are taken to the jail until their parents pick them up.
“Kids don’t like us because we interrupt their fun,” said Officer Doug Parmentier, an 11-year veteran. “We write a lot of tickets and take them in for drinking.”
“Ever hear the expression ‘drink a beer in Newport, go to jail’?” asked Officer Mike DeLadurantey, referring to Newport’s ban on drinking in public. “If you stay on them with the nitpicky enforcement, write ‘em up every time they throw a cigarette, for example, pretty soon the word will get out.”
“I’ve seen it work,” said DeLadurantey, one of this year’s winners of the department’s merit award. “Looking from the other side of the fence people don’t understand it, but being here, I’ve seen the transformation.”
He said residents get tired of rowdy youths going from party to party, drinking, urinating on houses, vandalizing cars and leaving trash about. And they depend on the police to control the behavior.
“You might say we are always going to have problems because Newport Beach is a tourist attraction,” said Newport City Councilwoman Ruthelyn Plummer, a supporter of both Gross and the department.
“People do things here that they wouldn’t dream of doing in their own towns,” she said.
Plummer said Newport’s 139 sworn officers can only do so much in their battle against troublesome teen-agers and the 100,000 yearly vistors to the resort town.
“We can’t make an armed camp out of this city,” Plummer said. “So the whole city has to be involved in how you handle the visitors and tourists.”
As for Gross, he is clearly at ease with the department he leaves behind, and one that in his words is more responsive to the community it serves.
“It’s been a very positive experience,” Gross said.
Asked if he is concerned about the lawsuits and claims that have been filed against the department during his tenure, Gross said: “I know enough about the facts to say it is no different than any other place.”