NAACP Accuses Pomona Police of Racist Actions
Charging Mayor Donna Smith and members of the city’s police force with “acts of racism,” the president of the Pomona Valley branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People this week called on Smith and other City Council members to enact reforms to improve relations between police and the black community.
In remarks to the City Council Monday night, NAACP Branch President Harold Webb cited the recent shooting of a black suspect and four instances in which the NAACP allege the police used excessive force, racial slurs or abusive language against blacks, none of whom were subsequently charged with any crimes.
However, Webb directed much of his criticism toward Smith, whom he chastised for an Aug. 15 incident in which she brandished a shotgun at an 18-year-old college student who was standing by his car after parking in front of Smith’s house.
Smith has said she believed the student, who is black, was a drug dealer. The district attorney’s office declined to file charges against Smith, citing insufficient evidence.
“The example you are setting for the police and the city administration concerns us gravely,” Webb told Smith. “We must ask you--do you perceive all blacks as a threat? Have you stereotyped all blacks or Hispanics you see in the city or in your neighborhood as threats or dope pushers?”
Webb asked Smith to make a public apology to the student, Eric Johnson, who was present at the meeting. He also asked her to assure the city’s black citizens that she does not perceive all of them as criminals.
Smith apologized to Johnson but denied her actions were racially motivated. She stressed that her neighborhood has long been a haven for drug trafficking and that gang members who sell drugs in the area have repeatedly threatened her life.
“I don’t know why you would think I would stereotype anyone by race,” Smith replied to Webb. “I belong to the NAACP and you know that. . . . The incident that everyone keeps bringing up was definitely not racial.”
Smith, who is of Arabic descent, added, “I am probably more a minority than anyone in this city.”
This response did not mollify Webb.
“What we have here is an act of institutionalized racism,” Webb told Smith. ". . . The (incident) was unbecoming of a mayor. You were exonerated. You look at these people who go to court every day on lesser offenses and they get taken away.”
According to police reports, Johnson said he and a friend, later identified as Tyrone Horn, had just left work on Aug. 15 when they drove to the 1500 block of Palomares Street about 10:15 p.m. so that Horn could visit his girlfriend. After Horn got out of the car, Johnson drove up the street looking for a place to park, and found one in front of Smith’s house.
Shouting Match Ensued
Johnson said that when he got out of his car to catch up with Horn he saw Smith standing about 25 feet away, shouting obscenities and pointing the shotgun at him. Smith denied using profanities, but both parties agreed that a shouting match ensued, in which Smith accused Johnson of buying or selling drugs and he denied it. The argument ended when Johnson agreed to move his car.
Smith stressed that when she confronted Johnson in her driveway, “I did not walk out of my house as mayor, I walked out as a private citizen.” She added that she earns $400 a month as mayor and spent $1,000 of her own money to consult an attorney after Johnson filed a criminal complaint.
In the two months since Smith’s altercation with Johnson, Al Rameriz, director of the Miracle Music Ministry, has circulated flyers denouncing the mayor as a virulent racist and demanding her resignation. Several ministers have also threatened Smith with a recall drive.
“As you know, the community is highly incensed,” Webb told Smith. “We at the NAACP have considered asking for your resignation, but . . . (we) decided to ask for your support and public commitment to not only white Pomonans, but to the youth and citizens of the black and Hispanic communities.”
Hire More Minorities
Webb called on Smith and her colleagues on the council to support proposals by the NAACP urging that the Police Department hire more minority officers and that the city establish a citizens’ oversight committee to investigate complaints against police.
Smith said she favors a citizen review committee, as well as continued efforts to hire more minority officers. However, she said the council could not vote on the matter this week since it was not on the agenda. Smith directed Police Chief Richard M. Tefank to prepare a report on the matters mentioned by Webb and present it to the council at its next meeting Oct. 26.
At this week’s meeting, Councilwoman Nell Soto expressed support for the NAACP proposals. In an interview this week, Councilman Mark Nymeyer said “some type of mechanism to resolve citizen complaints against the Police Department might be a good idea,” but he questioned whether a review board is legally permissible under the city’s charter. Councilman Jay Gaulding did not voice support or opposition to the proposals and could not be reached for comment.
As envisioned by Webb, a citizen review board would feature representatives of the community, the City Council, the Police Department and the city administration. Among its functions would be to investigate allegations of misconduct by police officers and recommend appropriate action.
The incidents cited by Webb in arguing for citizen review of police actions included:
The August shooting of Patrick White by a Pomona police officer who was pursuing the 21-year-old man. Webb said witnesses claim the officer threatened White several times before firing at him, and his partner made racial slurs to White’s friends after the shooting. White’s shooting is being investigated by the county Sheriff’s Department and district attorney’s office, as is standard procedure with all shootings involving officers, said Police Chief Tefank.
The search and handcuffing three weeks ago of four exchange students attending Cal Poly Pomona from Lesotho, South Africa. The students were approached at gunpoint by plainclothes police officers, who said they believed the students had attempted to defraud an elderly woman by having her withdraw money from her bank account. After police contacted the woman at home, the officers let the students go, Tefank said.
The exchange students did not file complaints about their encounter with police, but the department is investigating the matter “to ensure that proper police procedures were followed,” Tefank said. The police chief told the council this week that he had written a letter to Jim Bell, the president of Cal Poly Pomona, apologizing for the incident.
Webb mentioned three other incidents in which he said blacks were roughed up by police or subjected to racial slurs.
Tefank said the department is investigating all cases in which it has received complaints. He said this procedure complies with state law and there is no need for a civilian review panel.
“We’ll clean our own house,” Tefank told the council. “We always have in the past . . . but those incidents that occur must be brought forward so that we have accurate information. I would encourage that anyone who feels they have been wronged by an officer or has knowledge of that, they have a duty to come forward.”
Ida Campbell-Thomas, an attorney with the NAACP, told the council the complaint process is intimidating for many who may have been involved in abusive or violent encounters with police, particularly if the officers arrested them for resisting arrest.
“It is true that the Police Department does have a procedure through which citizens can complain, providing those people have not been charged with assault and battery on a police officer or resisting arrest,” she said. ". . . When people are threatened directly with prosecution, they do not complain.”
In an interview this week, Tefank said he had seen no evidence of this problem.
“We have not had any documented cases of people saying they were afraid to make a complaint because of intimidation or fear of reprisal,” Tefank said.
Tefank added that a citizen review board might infringe on the legal rights of police officers accused of misconduct. He also said that such a board might be subject to the biases of its members.
“Certainly, the perceptions of the individuals who sit on the board are going to weigh on the decisions they would make,” Tefank said. “There is certainly concern relative to the potential of individuals to have their own agendas when they become involved in a situation like that.”
Criticize Low Numbers
Webb also decried the low number of minority police officers in a city that the NAACP estimates is 25% black and 34% Latino. Of 136 police officers on the force in June, 1986, there were only six blacks, or 4.4%, and 12 Latinos, or 8.8%, according to the city personnel department’s most recent statistics. There are no blacks or Latinos in positions above the rank of sergeant.
“One thing that can certainly account for youth having a better outlook on their city is seeing role models,” Webb said.
The Police Department has long encouraged the hiring of minority officers, Tefank said, adding that he also meets with community leaders such as Webb to discuss ways the department can attract officers from all ethnic groups.
“We would certainly like the numbers to be better, but . . . the selection process is probably among the most difficult that anyone has to go through,” he said.
Although he opposes the idea of citizen review, Tefank said he is “open to have dialogue with people, exchange views and get to the facts of the matter.”
At the request of the NAACP, Vermont McKinney, a mediator with the U. S. Department of Justice’s San Francisco office, is investigating the group’s complaints and will try to help the City Council, the Police Department and community groups develop a solution.
“Each city has to grapple with this in its own way,” McKinney said. “At this point, we’re assessing the situation and seeing to what extent we can be of assistance. . . . If city officials are interested, we can provide them with models of these (citizen review) mechanisms that communities of comparable size have in place.”
In an interview at her City Hall offices this week, Smith reiterated her support for the NAACP’s proposals, but said she believed she was faced with an ultimatum at the council meeting.
“I really feel that the message . . . from the NAACP was ‘we want your support for our entire agenda here or we’ll recall you,’ ” Smith said.
Webb said the mayor’s impression was an accurate one, since the NAACP will probably back a recall effort against her if she fails to garner council support for the group’s proposals.
“She said she favors (the review board and increased hiring of black officers). I said, ‘Make that happen,’ ” Webb said. “She has shown that she will fight for the programs she really supports. She can make it a reality through her political prowess, just as she caused that shotgun to be a reality.”