Racial Tension, Disputes Brew as Sagon Penn Trial Nears
Five San Diego police units recently responded to a report of two “suspicious black males” loitering outside a Hillcrest liquor store. As the officers grabbed their batons and approached the sidewalk, one of the men shouted:
“Look at this! Five cops coming after two black guys walking down the street. Don’t you have anything better to do than harass niggers? . . . Go ahead. Beat us up. Just like Sagon Penn.”
A day rarely passes in San Diego without patrol officers hearing some reference to the case of Sagon Penn, a 24-year-old black man who is charged with fatally shooting one police officer and seriously wounding another on March 31.
“The blacks put on a big act that we’re harassing them,” said Ron Manaigre, one of the officers who responded to the Hillcrest call. " . . . We go through this all the time.”
To embattled police officers in San Diego, where nine police officers have been killed in the line of duty during the past decade, Penn is a “cop killer” who should be sent to the gas chamber. Many officers, including Police Chief Bill Kolender, were furious when the San Diego County district attorney’s office elected not to pursue the death penalty in the case.
For many black community leaders, Penn’s murder trial presents a rare opportunity to focus public attention on their belief that San Diego police officers are verbally and physically abusive toward minorities.
“We know that this harassment does not occur every day, but it happens often enough,” said Ernest McKinney, administrator of St. Stephen’s Church of God in Christ in Southeast San Diego. “Many black and minority people in the community believe that the Police Department is not really their protector.”
The murder trial, which is to begin Wednesday and could last four months, has strained once-promising relations between San Diego police and the black community. Many black leaders, who claim that officers provoked Penn by beating him with batons and taunting him with racial slurs, are openly criticizing Kolender for the first time during his 10 years as the city’s popular police chief.
They say Kolender has alienated the black community by calling Penn a “cop killer” before the case goes to trial, by refusing to acknowledge witness accounts that his officers may have acted improperly, and by criticizing celebrities’ appearances in San Diego to help raise money for Penn’s defense.
Kolender insists that neither his popularity nor his rapport with the black community has faded. He said he encountered no animosity during the recent Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade and that his officers in the Southeastern Division report no overt antagonism toward police.
“I think the minimal support (Penn supporters) are getting is indicative that the community is not buying the premise that there is a deterioration of police relations,” Kolender said. “They’re saying let’s wait and see what the trial has to say.”
Sagon Penn, a graduate of Hoover High School, had never been charged with a crime until he was accused of murdering Agent Thomas Riggs, 27, and shooting Agent Donovan Jacobs, 29, and Sarah Pena-Ruiz, 33, a civilian who accompanied Riggs on the police ride-along program.
The events that led to the early-evening shootings were described in detail by two dozen prosecution witnesses at a May preliminary hearing. At the trial, at least 39 people are expected to provide eyewitness accounts. A transcript of the preliminary hearing provides the following scenario:
Penn was driving a white pickup truck with seven passengers on Brooklyn Avenue in the Southeast San Diego community of Encanto when he was pulled over by Jacobs, a seven-year member of the San Diego Police Department who said he was looking for an armed gang member.
“What do you claim--'Cuz’ or ‘Blood’?” Jacobs asked Penn, referring to the nicknames of two black youth gangs. Neither Penn nor his passengers claim any affiliation with an organized gang.
Jacobs asked Penn for identification without explaining why he had stopped the truck. When Penn refused to take his driver’s license out of his wallet and began to walk away, Jacobs grabbed Penn’s arm. The two exchanged words and Jacobs began striking Penn, an expert in martial arts, in the back and shoulder area with his baton.
Riggs, who had followed Jacobs to the scene, tried to restrain the crowd that was gathering around Jacobs and Penn. The two officers used their batons as well as their fists and feet in trying to subdue Penn, witnesses said.
At one point, Jacobs stood above Penn, who was sprawled on the ground, and reportedly said, “You think you’re bad, nigger? . . . I’m gonna beat your black ass.”
In addition, several defense witnesses will testify that Jacobs repeatedly called Penn “a black bastard” and “nigger,” according to defense attorney Milton Silverman.
During the struggle, Angela McKibben was kneeling on her living room floor and watching through an open front doorway when she decided to call police. “I’d like to report some police brutality right in front of my house,” McKibben told a police dispatcher, according to court papers.
Jacobs, in testimony from his hospital bed last May, recalled the moments before he was shot: “I was telling him to roll over . . . to give up . . . and I recalled that he began . . . making a movement to turn to the left . . . . He was turning over, so I reached back with my left hand and brought out my handcuffs and then . . . the next thing I know . . . I heard a gunshot . . . .”
According to witnesses, Penn grabbed Jacobs’ .38-caliber revolver and shot the officer once in the neck. He turned and shot Riggs three times, then stood up and fired two more shots through a police car window, striking Pena-Ruiz.
Court papers filed by Penn’s attorney state that evidence shows the six shots were fired within a span of 5.9 seconds.
Having used all six bullets in Jacobs’ service revolver, Penn picked up Riggs’ weapon and jumped into Jacobs’ patrol car. He ran over Jacobs while backing up the car.
Penn drove the police car to his grandfather’s house, then turned himself in at police headquarters within the hour. Since then he has been held without bail at County Jail downtown.
Riggs, who died at the scene, is survived by a wife and two young children.
Jacobs remains disabled from a single gunshot wound to the neck, and Pena-Ruiz has recovered from her injuries. Both will be called as witnesses at the trial.
Black leaders in San Diego are hoping to capitalize on the Penn trial as an important first step in getting police administrators to acknowledge their concerns that patrol officers routinely mistreat black youths. They have staged rallies, organized fund-raisers and brought celebrities to San Diego to call attention to Penn’s case.
Kolender has said that he resents black community leaders bringing outsiders such as former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and Vernon Bellecourt, co-founder of the American Indian Movement, to town to support Penn.
“That’s showmanship,” Kolender said. “Muhammad Ali didn’t even know what he was doing here. To try to get people who are legitimate to come here to criticize this community and its police without knowing any of the facts, I think is improper.”
The Rev. Robert Ard, for years one of the Police Department’s staunchest allies in San Diego’s black community, said Kolender’s statements lack sensitivity toward black leaders who want to ensure that Penn gets the best defense possible.
“People rally for Sagon because they are so tired,” Ard said. “His name just happened to be Sagon this time. It could be any of us out here. We can no longer sit by idly and let these things take place.”
Kathy Rollins, executive director of the San Diego Black Federation, said she feels that the Police Department and some of its practices will be on trial in the Penn case.
“People are fearful but looking forward to some kind of resolution as to why all of this happened and how it can be prevented from happening again,” Rollins said. “Many people in the community feel the police will come out and approach us in a different way, because the Penn case has already heightened some of the problems.”
Black leaders said that, since the Penn case, they have received growing reports of police mistreating black youths during routine street stops. They said the youths do not report the cases to police because they believe that police internal affairs investigators are not sympathetic to their concerns.
Last year, citizens filed 73 complaints of abuse against San Diego police officers, compared to 116 in 1984. The Police Department could not provide the number of complaints from residents in the city’s southeastern area.
Both the prosecutor and Penn’s defense attorney emphasized that the outcome of the trial will rest on what the individual actions by Penn and the two officers were on March 31, not the Police Department or its policies.
“I view this case as a relatively simple one from a factual standpoint,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Carpenter. “If the verdicts are guilty and they reflect the evidence, then Penn’s supporters should not be upset with that. If the verdicts are not guilty and they reflect the evidence, then the Police Department should not be upset with that.”
However, defense attorney Silverman predicted that police administrators will face intense criticism in San Diego if they continue to support Jacobs’ alleged misconduct prior to the shootings.
“I can’t imagine Bill Kolender being in Donovan Jacobs’ uniform and doing what Jacobs did and saying what Jacobs said,” Silverman said. “If he is standing behind that at the end of the court case, then I think the Police Department itself would be on trial. But I can’t believe, after all the evidence is heard, that any thinking human being would say that what Donovan Jacobs did was proper.”
Silverman has attempted to show in pretrial court sessions that Jacobs and a fellow officer illegally detained and photographed hundreds of black youths who they believed were gang members. He also alleged in court papers that Jacobs belonged to an extremist paramilitary organization and white supremacy group.
Jacobs admitted in testimony that he kept an unauthorized portfolio of suspected gang members but denied allegations that he is affiliated with any racist group. Superior Court Judge Kenneth A. Johns ruled in a pretrial hearing that Silverman failed to substantiate many of the charges.
Kolender said in a recent interview that his investigators have told him there was no evidence of inappropriate police behavior. He has accused Silverman of acting irresponsibly by lodging false allegations of racism against Jacobs to attract attention and try the case in the media.
The police chief himself made headlines recently when he described Penn as a “cop killer.” Angered by the remark, black leaders are demanding an apology from Kolender.
“The chief could help us a great deal if he said, ‘Look, I made a mistake here. I should have withheld my verdict until adjudication of the case is completed,’ ” McKinney said. “That would help a lot to restore confidence in the Police Department.”
But Kolender said he has no intention of retracting his statements.
"(Penn) is charged with being a cop killer,” Kolender said. “I’m a cop. He killed one of my officers. How can they be upset with that? I don’t think that’s fair. Look at the people who are saying, ‘Free Sagon Penn, arrest Jacobs.’ I mean they are making a judgment. . . . I’ve made a judgment based on the evidence given to me. I’m saying he is charged with killing a policeman. I believe he is guilty.”
Kolender, whose 10 years at the helm of San Diego’s 1,400-member Police Department surpasses the tenure of any current big-city chief in the nation, has enjoyed remarkably good relations with the city’s black community. He regularly attends meetings in the minority neighborhoods of Southeast San Diego, just as he does society functions in La Jolla.
At City Hall, Kolender receives strong backing from his new boss, City Manager Sylvester Murray, and from City Council members.
Murray, appointed last fall, said he disagrees with Kolender’s stinging criticism of black leaders for organizing rallies and attracting celebrities to raise money for Penn’s defense. But he praised Kolender’s relationship with minorities.
“Blacks and Hispanics in San Diego have told me that Bill Kolender is a person who they can talk to and who is willing to talk to them,” Murray said. “That is unique. I have not witnessed that in a lot of other cities.”
City Council members were pleased that Kolender supported the recent formation of the Citizens Advisory Board on Police-Community Relations, a group of appointed citizens that has met several times to discuss police issues.
“The police chief used to make a real strong effort to keep in contact with the community,” said Rich Juarez, an aide to Councilman William Jones, who represents Southeast San Diego. “I guess people felt there was a breakdown in communication (and) some complaints weren’t being responded to. The meetings are a chance for the police chief to restate a commitment to work with the community.”
Others, however, contend that Kolender has not responded to concerns within the minority community.
“It’s not enough for the chief of police to say, ‘No, everything is fine. We don’t have these problems,’ ” said Ard, who recently announced that he is running for a seat in the state Assembly. “They have this mentality of circling the wagons every time you bring up something. I want to work in harmony with the police. It shouldn’t be them and us. It becomes very discouraging.”
Nate Harris, a black community activist who worked as a San Diego police officer for seven years until he was fired in 1983 for insubordination, gives Kolender high marks for his interest in minority affairs. But Harris said that, with the exception of establishing police storefront operations in the Southeast community, he has seen little substance from Kolender’s office.
“The attempts to make the police administration take a very hard look at what some of its officers are doing in the community have been going on for years,” said Harris, who taught ethnic awareness for two years at the San Diego Police Academy. “Everything Sagon Penn said happened to him does happen, and it happens every day with San Diego police officers out in the field, especially in Southeast San Diego.
“I think a majority of the guys who come out there to become police officers do their best. But there are at least 10 officers I can think of right now working in Southeast San Diego who have no more business wearing a badge than I do flying a 747.”