Hawthorne Debates Role of Police, Plan to Expand Force

Times Staff Writer

After an emotional meeting at which Hawthorne residents argued over the role of police in the community, the City Council indicated Monday that it will ask voters in November to approve a tax increase to pay for an expansion of the police force.

During the 4-hour meeting, some residents complained of racism and police brutality. Others called for increased police protection and said they would vote for a tax increase to pay for it.

The council did not vote on what kind of tax plan it would pursue but agreed to vote Aug. 8 on putting some police funding measure on the ballot.

Council members did say that raising the city's utility tax to 6%, from 3.5%, would provide about $2 million a year to pay the salaries of an additional 19 sworn officers.

On Monday, residents were clearly jittery about incidents of violence in their neighborhoods. Several commented on two gang-related shootings Saturday and Sunday in the Hollypark area of Hawthorne.

Hailed as Hero

Police officials and residents hailed an off-duty police officer, Roosevelt Matthews, as a hero for his role in the Sunday night incident. He pursued, shot and wounded a 21-year-old suspect in the gang shooting, who was arrested. A second suspect escaped.

Criticism and support for the Police Department came was not divided along racial lines.

Nine people, including Hollypark Neighborhood Watch chairwoman Darlene Love, urged the council to put a police-funding tax measure on the ballot.

Five other people leveled complaints of police brutality and racism against the Hawthorne department.

'People Are Tired'

Mark Forte, a spokesman for Hawthorne police Sgt. Don Jackson's anti-racism, anti-brutality group, Law Enforcement Officers for Justice, said: "Don Jackson is not alone. . . . People are tired of being harassed."

Jackson, a crusader for fair police treatment of minority officers and citizens, has been on stress-disability leave since last April, when he accused the department of racism. Jackson did not address the council Monday but was said to be listening to the proceedings in the lobby.

Forte, saying that "we shouldn't have police policing themselves," called for a police review board, including residents and council members, to oversee police conduct in Hawthorne.

Detailed accounts of alleged police brutality were given by four parents, black and white, who are seeking damages from the city on behalf of their children.

'Time to Take Notice'

"There is a problem, and it's time for somebody to stand up and take notice of what's really going on," said Robbie M. Williams, who claims that she and her daughters were beaten in a 1983 altercation with Hawthorne police.

"It's a mother's nightmare," said Pat Woodring, who claims that she saw police assault her son and another Leuzinger High School student at a football game last fall.

Council members expressed concern about possible racism or brutality but said they could not comment on specific allegations because litigation is pending against the city.

But at one point, on the brink of tears, Councilwoman Ginny M. Lambert said: "If any one of our officers is doing things he should not, our silence does not mean we condone it. We are all parents. . . . We do not condone police brutality."

Defends Police

Councilman David M. York, who was a Hawthorne policeman for 15 years, said police officers are faced with emergencies daily and must make instantaneous decisions that could mean life or death. "People don't walk around with signs on their backs that say, 'I'm a good guy' or 'I'm a bad guy,' " York said, admitting that police sometimes make mistakes.

"Our police officers have done a doggone good job of policing themselves," York added, referring to instances in which the department itself has sought penalties when an officer may have behaved improperly.

City officials point to an incident June 12 in which fellow officers accused Officer John Garza of assaulting a 17-year-old suspect who was handcuffed and lying face down on the ground. Garza, 25, was charged with assault with a deadly weapon and assault under color of authority. He has pleaded not guilty and faces a preliminary hearing in Los Angeles Municipal Court.

Garza has been on paid leave since the incident. He has received a termination notice and has 10 days to appeal, said a department source.

Garza's attorney, Charles A. Goldwasser, is vacationing this week and was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

Chief Speaks Out

Police Chief Kenneth R. Stonebraker also defended the department at Monday's meeting, saying it thoroughly investigates all allegations of police misconduct. He invited the council to review in closed session personnel files that are not open to public review. "We have implemented discipline up to, and including, termination," he said.

Hawthorne council meetings are often sparsely attended, and the public-comment section rarely lasts longer than 30 minutes. But at Monday's meeting, which was almost entirely taken up with the police issue, about 50 people attended, lining up in the lobby for their turns to speak at the podium. The public testimony took 2 1/2 hours, and the council deliberated over police matters until after midnight.

Early in the meeting, Mayor Betty J. Ainsworth invited people who want more police protection to serve on a residents' advisory committee that will help draft the police measure.

Stonebraker has urged the council and Hawthorne voters to approve a plan that would increase the city's police force to 104 officers, from 85. He said the department needs 19 more officers to cope with Hawthorne's increasing population and with growing gang- and drug-related crime.

Direction Sought

Pressed by an Aug. 12 deadline for putting a tax measure on the Nov. 8 ballot, City Atty. Michael Adamson came back to the council late in the meeting to ask for direction so he could draft the necessary documents for the Aug. 8 meeting.

Lambert, York and Charles Bookhammer said they would support a measure increasing the city's utility tax to 6%, from 3.5%, to pay for increased police protection. Such a tax would affect both residences and businesses.

City officials said people can figure out the cost of the proposed increase by multiplying their utility bills for water, electricity, gas, cable television and phone by 6% and comparing that sum to the current 3.5% tax.

Ainsworth said she wanted to meet this week with the residents' advisory committee to ensure the broadest possible community support before backing the increase.

Last year, a ballot measure that would have provided funds for a second paramedic unit won 52% of the vote but not the necessary two-thirds majority.

Specific-Use Funds

If funds are earmarked for a specific use--such as police or paramedic services--approval by a simple majority of the council would place the measure on the ballot, and a two-thirds majority of voters would be needed to approve it, Adamson said.

On the other hand, he said, if the funds are not specifically earmarked but would go into the city's general fund, the measure would need approval by four of the five council members to become a ballot measure but would need approval of only a simple majority of voters.

The council will decide Aug. 8 whether to seek a general tax or a special-use tax, or whether to put both options on the ballot.

Lambert said that in seeking a special-use tax for police, she also will ask City Manager R. Kenneth Jue to cut $500,000 from the city's $39.6-million proposed budget for 1988-89. She said that in asking voters to pay more taxes, she wants to be able to tell them that the city has cut its expenses "down to the bone."

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