National City Police Brutality Complaints Spur FBI Probe

Times Staff Writer

Minutes after midnight on March 8, Arthur Velasco and Bennett Moore were released from the downtown County Jail. Velasco says they promptly took a car for a joy ride. It turned out to be a ride that the two men will never forget.

Pursued south on Interstate 5 by two San Diego police patrol cars, Velasco, who was driving, made a "bad mistake," he now says, and exited the freeway at National City, where five National City police cars joined the chase.

What happened next was confirmed by San Diego police officials.

National City and San Diego police finally cornered Velasco, who says that, while surrendering to the seven officers, he looked at a San Diego policewoman and "hoped that she would arrest me." Instead, the National City officers hit him on the forehead with a flashlight and beat him severely before turning him over to San Diego.

San Diego Deputy Chief Manuel Guaderrama said that San Diego officers had handcuffed Moore and put him on the ground when "three to five" National City officers "threw some blows at him."

Two San Diego officers who attempted to pull their National City colleagues off Moore were injured in the process, Guaderrama said. According to a San Diego Police Department report, one officer suffered a broken finger when he was hit on the hand with a baton or flashlight wielded by a National City officer; the other San Diego officer was injured when hit on the back with a baton by another National City officer.

San Diego police say they have filed an internal investigation report concluding that National City police used excessive force on Moore.

Long-time community activist Roberto Martinez, head of the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego--a civil rights watchdog group funded by the Quakers--called the Velasco incident typical of the numerous complaints about National City police that he has filed with District Attorney Edwin Miller, National City Police Chief Terry Hart and the FBI over the past four years.

And last fall the FBI began an investigation of the National City police, its third in recent years, The Times has learned.

Specifically, the federal agency is seeking to learn if the department is systematically violating the civil rights of Latino residents, who make up more than 50% of the city's population.

Chief Hart acknowledges that there is a belief among critics of National City police, including other law enforcement officials, that his officers are undisciplined and unsupervised. But he called those impressions a "false image" and vehemently denied that his officers work outside the law.

"If you ask any officer in the county which agency (gives) more independence and discretion to its officers, I bet almost to a man they would tell you National City P.D.," said Hart. " . . . There is a belief outside the department . . . that I don't hold my officers responsible for conduct; that they're not disciplined . . . But I've got the same rules and liability guidelines that govern every law enforcement agency in the state."

Hart said he does not mind the aggressive reputation that the department has built up over the years.

"National City has had a reputation for being a kick-ass, take names type of department . . . We have had federal reviews. We've had congressmen ask questions from time to time. . . . Those things are in many cases an exaggeration. But in some cases they work to our advantage, in some cases to our disadvantage. . . . We make more arrests per officer than any department in the county," he said.

Too many of those arrests, say critics of National City police tactics, involve the use of excessive force and brutality. "There's nothing unusual about what happened to Velasco," Martinez said. "The same day that Velasco's mother called me to complain about what the National City cops did to her son, Albert Nava's wife called to say that the National City cops beat him severely when they arrested him for being drunk."

According to Martinez, Nava's wife complained that her husband was arrested in March for being drunk in public and the arresting officers beat him about the face and body. Five days later, the man's face was still swollen, Martinez said.

District Attorney Miller, the top law enforcement official in the county, said that he has met frequently with Chief Hart to express his concerns about citizens' complaints of police brutality.

High Number of Complaints

"Historically, there have been an incredible number of citizens' complaints that have been filed against that department," Miller said. "In numerous meetings that I've had with Terry, I've suggested that he ought to establish a policy that protected people against unreasonable abuse from police officers." But, Miller said, he has been unsuccessful in his attempts to convince Hart to change his "attitude and philosophy" on police work.

In September, the FBI launched its most recent investigation, prompted by citizens' complaints received by or forwarded to the agency. Martinez told The Times that he met with FBI agents in August and gave them a package of about 35 complaints against National City police that had been filed by Latinos with his group since 1983.

In the 35 cases, the residents--virtually all of whom were Latinos--alleged to Martinez that they were victims of brutality or excessive force by National City police; in others, that police officers routinely harassed them by cavalierly entering their homes without search warrants or probable cause.

FBI investigations of law enforcement agencies are not uncommon, FBI spokesman Jim Bolenbach said. And by Hart's own count, the current probe is the third FBI investigation of civil rights complaints against National City police since he was hired to head the department in March, 1979.

In the current probe, federal officers have interviewed alleged victims and have contacted Hart, National City elected officials and former officers.

"Sooner or later these complaints were bound to get the attention of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division," Miller said.

Miller said that his office has lost prosecutable cases brought by National City police when "the arrests were legitimate and made under color of authority . . . but then got out of hand and we ended up with a victim rather than a suspect."

Said Martinez, "We're not saying that all National City cops are brutal. But it's very frustrating when the same officers are mentioned in citizens' complaints and Hart doesn't do anything about them. His failure to act only encourages these guys to continue beating people and abusing them."

Emphasis on Safety

Others in law enforcement defend National City. Mike McMullen, a district attorney's office investigator who worked as a National City officer for 11 years, denied that his old police department is "running amok with rogue cops." While acknowledging that there are problem officers within the department--as in most police agencies--McMullen said that National City police do a good job of policing their own.

"Let's face it, National City is not a good place to live," said McMullen. "The administration of that department understands that their function . . . is to provide for the safety of that community . . . and being nice to everyone has to be sacrificed in some incidents. If we offend someone, we're sorry. In police work you can't please everyone all the time."

National City, a poor, blue-collar community of 55,000, has the highest crime rate and incidence of violent crimes per capita in San Diego County, according to the latest study by the San Diego Assn. of Governments (SANDAG).

National City officials said they do not know how many claims or lawsuits have been filed against the Police Department over the years. But a check of the records in U.S. District Court shows that there have been 25 suits filed against the department, Chief Hart and various officers since 1982. The majority of the suits allege police brutality or excessive force, and the complainants are seeking damages.

More than two dozen interviews by The Times--with victims who talked to the FBI, with defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges and current and former National City officers--indicate that the Justice Department is attempting to determine whether there is a pattern of civil rights violations against Latinos by National City officers. Many of those interviewed agreed to talk on the condition that they not be identified because they still have dealings with the department.

Latinos Said to Be Targeted

The interviews suggested that among the allegations under investigation are:

- That officers have targeted poor or uneducated Latinos and Mexican immigrants--who are ignorant of their rights and not in a position to complain about police use of excessive force or illegal tactics--for harassment.

An officer who quit the Police Department last year said that "Mexicans, and particularly low-riders"--those who cruise city streets in customized cars--were considered "good contacts" by National City police.

"In all reality, we would stop them just because they were Mexican or low-riders. That was all the probable cause we needed. We were told (by department supervisors) that these were good stops, good contacts," said the former officer, who said he has been contacted by the FBI.

This was angrily denied by Hart, who said that all arrests and stops "are based upon the concept of probable cause."

Arrests and stops, said Hart, stem from "certain circumstances or facts that lead an officer to entertain a strong belief or suspicion that a crime has been committed."

In the case of the low-riders, Hart said, National City police responded to complaints from citizens about youths--most of them Latino--cruising on Highland Avenue, creating traffic problems and often engaging in criminal activities.

- That officers, without obtaining search warrants, have routinely entered and searched the homes of Latino families with sons who are drug users, according to family members who have complained to Martinez or directly to the police.

Hart denied that his officers conduct illegal searches of homes, but said that not all house searches require a search warrant.

"Now, we do have complaints from time to time where officers have pursued people into a house and effected an arrest . . . and have searched parts of the houses," Hart said. "They can lawfully do that . . . All searches of a house do not require a search warrant."

- That the department has an unofficial "beat and release" policy.

Some former officers told The Times that under the policy, persons with drug or criminal arrests--many of whom are Latino--are stopped, manhandled and released without being arrested.

Hart said that National City has a high concentration of heroin addicts and narcotics users, but he denied that his officers "are out there significantly violating rules and procedures" while enforcing drug laws.

Drug Arrest Program

- That a controversial drug arrest program called the 11550 Program (police code for drug arrests) pressures officers to stop suspects without probable cause.

Current and former officers told The Times that they are graded on the number of "11550 contacts" they make a day, sometimes resulting in as many as four officers taking credit for one contact.

"Drug arrests aren't always made when an officer has probable cause. Many arrests result from an officer's subjective judgment," said a former officer. "You see someone who may have been arrested three years ago on a drug-related charge . . . and that's all you need. The guy's already been tainted, so that gives you reason enough to stop him."

Hart denied repeatedly that arrests were based on anything other than probable cause.

After the FBI investigation is complete, FBI spokesman Bolenbach said, the local office will submit a report of its findings to the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, which will decide whether to bring suit against the Police Department and officers named in the complaints. Such a lawsuit could lead to criminal action against the department and officers for deprivation of civil rights, and penalties could include prison sentences and fines for those found guilty of civil rights violations.

Hart remains optimistic that his department will be vindicated in the investigation. " . . . My belief is that they will come to the same conclusion that we have, and the courts and the juries . . . The conclusions were that the officers have not violated anybody's civil rights," he said.

Some former National City officers interviewed by The Times said that the department's aggressive enforcement policy against drug users often skirts the law. Prosecutors said that many drug arrests, particularly heroin arrests, are flawed.

"They're arresting people for being under the influence of heroin who are testing negative, exhibiting heroin withdrawals or simply because they are known addicts," said a South Bay prosecutor who was allowed by his superiors in the district attorney's office to talk to a reporter.

One former officer who left the department last summer for another professional career described the department's policy, including for drug arrests, this way:

"Individual officers are given wide latitude to do things. . . . A lot of things that I did may not have looked right . . . and the public would not have understood a lot of things. But it's the nature of the job." He also has been contacted by the FBI regarding National City police treatment of minorities.

Herman Baca, head of the National City-based Committee on Chicano Rights, said that the comments of former officers confirm what he has been charging for 18 years.

Rift Called Non-Existent

"They break the law to enforce the law. The officers' attitude reflects an inherent racism. . . . It's an attitude that manifests itself from the top, from Chief Hart down to the cop on the street."

Hart said that he is aware of the distrust that the Latino community has of his department. But he blames Martinez, Baca and defense lawyers for promoting a rift between the two groups that Hart said really does not exist. He especially singles out Martinez for criticism.

"In my opinion, Roberto Martinez has a personal vendetta. . . . He is creating and reinforcing fear and anxiety in the majority of the people he deals with," Hart said.

Martinez said that he is not going to engage in "a long-distance debate with Chief Hart."

"I don't go out looking for victims to present to Chief Hart. I don't have to. Look at the Velasco and Nava arrests. I didn't solicit the calls from their families," said Martinez.

Despite the Velasco incident, Hart heatedly denies that his officers are brutal or use excessive force when making arrests. He said that in the eight years that he has been chief, he has fired "three or four, maybe five" officers as a result of citizens' complaints, and "only one or two of those were even close to the allegations of brutality."

"Brutality is different from excessive force. Brutality is beating the . . . out of somebody when they have no means of defense," said Hart. San Diego police said that Moore was beaten while handcuffed.

Hart said that he fired an officer in 1986 for hitting a handcuffed suspect with the butt of a shotgun.

"I fired him not because of a complaint that I received from a citizen, but from a fellow officer who complained that it was inappropriate for the suspect to be hit when he had already been taken into custody," said Hart.

But while Hart said that he does not tolerate the use of excessive force, he also said that the use of excessive force alone is not reason enough for firing an officer.

" . . . The guy is going to be disciplined for excessive force, but he's not going to lose his job unless it's repetitive. A lot of citizens say there is no difference between (brutality and excessive force)--baloney," he said.

Another officer who left the National City Police Department in 1986 said that supervisors would often look at the use of excessive force with a wink and a nod.

"We called it 'catch up' on the street. Sometimes a suspect wouldn't cooperate or you'd have to fight him and would be embarrassed because your authority was not respected. After you had him handcuffed you'd give him a couple belts. I mean don't overdo it, but let him know that next time he'd better do as he was told," the former officer said.

A prosecutor who has worked closely with National City police said that his office has "counseled National City officers on how to make a good arrest without getting physical."

" . . . Their (NCPD) attitude is that some words are crimes; that a shrug of the shoulder is showing disrespect, an attempt to get the edge on you. . . . I've seen their reports. . . . Despite the charges against a suspect . . . these are the only reasons for their arrest."

Mayor Defends Policy

In an interview, National City Mayor George Waters defended Police Department policy and said that National City officers enjoy "a very good relationship" with the Latino community.

Latino community leaders and some former officers offer a different interpretation.

"If the department has a relationship with Hispanics, it's an adversarial relationship. That's how they (the department) want it, an us-versus-them attitude," said one former officer. "As far as departmental rules and policy go . . . they'll show you a book of rules and regulations, but these are arbitrarily applied. The truth is that they expect you to go out and kick ass. They expect you to go out and manhandle someone."

The former officer underscored the observation with an anecdote of an incident that occurred five years ago and that is still talked about in the department.

On that night, four National City patrol cars descended on a field where several Latino youths had parked. As the cruisers rushed to the area with overhead lights flashing, the lead car had playing on its public address system Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," which was played over a helicopter-mounted loud speaker during a battle scene in the Vietnam War movie "Apocalypse Now."

When the incident was mentioned to Hart, he said that the playing of the music "was not necessarily appropriate." But he added:

"It was a tongue-in-cheek kind of thing. 'Here come the National City cops. . . . If the National City cops are getting here, I'm leaving.' From time to time we'll use our reputation to our advantage."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
70°