Admitting the case was weak, the Long Beach city prosecutor Wednesday dropped charges that Don Jackson, a self-styled crusader against police brutality, resisted arrest during a secretly filmed “sting” in which a police officer appeared to shove Jackson’s head through a plate glass window.
Long Beach Municipal Judge Gary R. Hahn quickly agreed to the prosecutor’s request for dismissal of the case against Jackson, who in turn claimed vindication of his efforts to expose police brutality.
Videotaped by a hidden NBC television crew and later broadcast on the “Today” show, Jackson’s Jan. 14 encounter with two Long Beach police officers focused national attention on allegations that the city’s police force routinely mistreats minority members. The case drew the interest of black community leaders, entertainment celebrities and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who rallied to Don Jackson’s side, donating money for his legal defense and lauding him as a hero.
“I’m very elated,” Don Jackson said outside the courtroom, where his trial on the misdemeanor charges was scheduled to start Wednesday.
He later said he is considering suing Long Beach and the Police Department over his arrest and prosecution and will seek a formal censure of the city prosecutor.
“I think it’s shocking they even took the case this far. . . . I’m requesting that my attorney seek some form of ethical sanction against the lead attorney for this malicious prosecution,” said Jackson, a Hawthorne police sergeant on disability leave.
John A. Vander Lans, the city prosecutor, said he never would have filed charges against Jackson in January if he had all the information he now has. “The facts we had after the 20th of March changed my mind,” said Vander Lans, who declined to specify exactly what had prompted him to seek the case’s dismissal.
However, he said it was not until last Friday that he had received all tapes of the incident from NBC, and it was not until Monday that he received an official transcript of a state Senate oversight committee hearing on the matter.
Both Jackson and Mark Dickey--the officer who appears to push Jackson into the window on the tape--testified at that hearing, and Dickey admitted he had filed an inaccurate report on the arrest.
Normally, Vander Lans said, his office would file a misdemeanor charge the day after the arrest. But in Jackson’s case, he waited several more days, until “we thought we had all the facts.”
The videotaped arrest occurred late on a Saturday night, when Jackson and an off-duty corrections officer donned dirty old clothes and drove into Long Beach with a television crew following discreetly at a distance. Their mission was to demonstrate police abuse and capture it on film.
Dickey and his partner pulled Jackson over, allegedly for a traffic violation. Moments later, as the cameras rolled, Dickey cursed Jackson and appeared to push him into a shop window, shattering the glass.
Dickey, saying Jackson had used profanity and been belligerent, arrested Jackson on a charge of interfering with a police officer.
It was not Jackson’s first self-styled sting, nor, apparently will it be his last. Despite his career in law enforcement, he has stopped hundreds of times to watch police make arrests and sometimes used himself as bait.
In Westwood last year, he was arrested after allegedly blocking a sidewalk, but the prosecutor for that community never filed charges against him.
Jackson, who has filed a lawsuit accusing the Hawthorne Police Department of racial discrimination, said Wednesday he will renew his sting efforts after a brief respite. He added that he intends to establish a foundation to monitor civil rights abuses by any government agencies.
After Wednesday’s dismissal, Jackson’s attorneys insisted that Vander Lans never had grounds to file charges against their client. They claimed the prosecutor had pressed the case in an attempt to fend off a possible lawsuit by Jackson.
“The case was filed maliciously,” insisted Thomas E. Beck, one of Jackson’s attorneys. Beck attributed Vander Lans’ abrupt about-face to Dickey’s Senate testimony, in which the officer admitted that Jackson had never sworn at him, as he stated in his police report.
Dickey, who attributed the errors in his report to a faulty memory, said he had so little faith in his own police report that he would not want it used against him if he were suspected of a crime.
Dickey, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, has been reassigned from patrol duty to desk duties pending the outcome of the Long Beach Police Department’s internal investigation of the incident.
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and the FBI also launched their own investigations of the officers’ conduct, and spokesmen for all three agencies Wednesday said the investigations will continue, unaffected by the prosecutor’s decision to drop the case against Jackson.
Curt Livesay, assistant district attorney, and Long Beach Police Chief Lawrence L. Binkley both said they expect their investigations to be completed within the next couple of weeks.
Binkley, while complaining that Vander Lans had not informed him that he planned to dismiss the case, said he could not comment on the prosecutor’s decision. “There’s very little I can say about the actions of the elected official,” Binkley said, referring to Vander Lans, who has been reelected to the prosecutor’s post several times since first winning the position in 1978.
A spokesman for the Long Beach Police Officers Assn. was freer with his opinion of the case’s dismissal. “This has been a real big slap in the face, not just to police in Long Beach, but all over the state and throughout the country,” complained association spokesman Mike Minton.
As a result, he continued, “The Don Jacksons of the world are going to go out there and try to intimidate police officers, and somebody is going to get hurt.”
Long Beach officials seemed relieved that the case was over, questioning whether Vander Lans ever should have pursued it in the first place. “I kind of felt he had a weak case to begin with, but thought maybe he knew something I didn’t know,” Mayor Ernie Kell said.
Called Isolated Incident
Kell, noting that the publicity surrounding the case was not the kind the city wanted, termed the Jackson-Dickey episode “an isolated incident, an unfortunate incident.”
Larry Davis, chairman of a city commission that advises the City Council on public safety issues, called the dismissal “a good sign” that the community was prepared to deal with the brutality allegations raised by Jackson and others.
“I think any reasonable citizen in this town on Jan. 16 could have reached the same decision it took (the prosecutor’s office) 60 days to reach,” Davis added.