Blacks Say Penn Verdict Reinforces Need for Police to Treat Them Fairly

Times Staff Writer

Shortly after noon Thursday, housewives Cynthia Clantion and Demetria Shelby jumped up and down for joy in front of their television when they heard that Sagon Penn had been acquitted of major charges in his murder trial.

“It is great news. Praise God! Praise Jesus!” cried Clantion, a witness to the mid-evening incident along her Southeast San Diego residential street on March 31, 1985. “After the shootings happened, we all went to praying . . . that Sagon would be found innocent because he didn’t come to our quiet neighborhood to do rough, to be the bad guy. He came here in peace.”

A sense of elation came quickly to the fore in conversations with many Southeast San Diego blacks Thursday about the Penn trial verdicts, from housewives to community leaders. A common theme of police insensitivity ran through their comments.

“I’m sorry for what happened to the family that is grieving over a lost soul,” said Clantion, referring to the death of Police Agent Thomas Riggs. “He didn’t deserve to die--no one deserves to die--but if the police had taken a better approach that night, all could have been prevented.”


Shelby said that, after the incident, her 2-year-old son kept asking if police would shoot him should the family car be stopped and the child be found not wearing his seat belt.

Despite the uneasiness that exists toward police, Clantion said she wants her children to respect all adults, including police officers.

“All officers are not the same, and you can’t think that every officer is out to hurt you. . . . I don’t want kids calling them pigs,” she said. “They are human beings like everyone else. But we also are not dogs, we’re like everyone else.”

Carmen Lindsey, talking with a group of people on 30th Street, said the verdict should tell police that “blacks can’t be treated differently just because they are black.”


“There definitely is elation--and not just a personal elation because Sagon is absolved--but because the (results) are a victory for the underdog, for blacks who have never had a fair shake at justice,” said Ardy Shaw, a radio talk-show host and an officer of a black professional group. “All of a sudden now, blacks find that they can have a voice in the judicial process and can make an impact. Perhaps our general apathy toward the process--the feeling that people don’t pay attention to us--may now change.”

County Supervisor Leon Williams, who represents Southeast San Diego, said the verdicts did not surprise him because he has faith in the judicial system.

“It was a tremendous tragedy that the incident even occurred in the first place,” Williams said. “I have no problem with what the jury found but I think that it shows we need to work very, very hard on improving community-police relations.

“Maybe this might provide the impetus to improve the situation. I hope both sides react with respect to what the judicial system concluded.”


Kathy Rollins, executive director of the Black Federation, called herself “very, very happy with the outcome” and said it reinforces the need for all San Diegans to understand that police must improve their conduct with regard to blacks and other minorities.

Rollins said that the advisory committee recently set up by the City Council to recommend improvements in police-community relations must be allowed to draw up detailed recommendations. “They cannot just be put on a shelf because, as the Penn incident showed, they can affect life and death in San Diego,” she said.

A May meeting between community leaders and top police officials, called by City Manager Sylvester Murray, covered many of the problems but did not come up with any conclusions, Rollins said.

Murray’s office declined any comment Thursday on the Penn verdict or its ramifications.


Shaw said she hopes that Police Chief Bill Kolender acts forcefully to prevent any bitterness that could worsen current relationships.

“The Police Department must make clear to its officers that they did not suffer a defeat, but that they simply did not get their way under the judicial system,” Shaw said. “It’s Kolender’s duty in particular to sensitize the police; I don’t want this to become a police versus blacks issue.”

Shaw said that, when her son was growing up, she drummed into him an admonition that applies to all blacks who live in Southeast: “If ever stopped by police, I told him that no matter how they act, don’t react because when the police stop you, you have no rights.”

Yet, on a ride-along with police in Southeast a couple of years ago, Shaw said she found that many police officers knew residents by name and had positive relationships with many of them.


“The key is that the police accept the verdict as the way our system of justice works and treat blacks the same way they treat people in La Jolla,” Shaw said.

The Rev. Robert Ard of Christ Church of San Diego said the verdict shows that justice does not depend on ethnicity and geographical location. “As Americans, we should all be supportive of that, whether we individually agree with what the jurors did or not,” Ard said.

Another longtime minister in Southeast San Diego, the Rev. George Walker Smith of Christ United Presbyterian Church, declined comment, saying that “everyone should sit back, keep quiet, and just see that sanity prevails.”