Residents, Deputies in No Man’s Land : Law enforcement: ‘Unincorporated Duarte’ has plenty of crime. But some residents say they fear sheriff’s officers just as much. Several lawsuits have challenged deputies’ use of force.
In a tiny no man’s land of a neighborhood in the center of the San Gabriel Valley, a battle is raging between Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies and dozens of residents over the level of force being used to fight crime in the low-income, mostly minority community.
To officers, this half-square-mile unincorporated pocket--unclaimed by the surrounding cities of Monrovia, Duarte, Arcadia or Irwindale--is hostile turf.
Cocaine dealing is rampant, street gangs have spray-painted graffiti threatening police and twice this summer deputies have had to dodge gunfire. They have responded with pre-dawn raids, beefed-up patrols and frequent stops of anyone deemed suspicious.
But many residents of the squat stucco homes and narrow, tree-lined streets contend that the Sheriff’s Department is waging war against an entire neighborhood. The area’s large black population, in particular, has complained about harassment, racial slurs, false arrests, illegal searches and unprovoked beatings.
In the last three years, six black residents and one Latino have filed lawsuits or claims charging deputies with excessive force, according to court records and interviews with their attorneys. Their allegations range from cracked ribs to busted heads to being shot in the genitals with an electric stun gun.
At least a dozen other residents of the neighborhood, sometimes known as unincorporated Duarte, say they are angry about a 5 a.m. raid on June 6 that they contend left homes trashed, possessions destroyed and families shaken.
“It was humiliating,” said Terrence Lee, 29, who appeared half-naked in photographs plastered on the front page of a local paper as he was led handcuffed from his home. He said he spent a night in jail on suspicion of conspiracy to commit murder and was released without charges the next day.
“I got kids, I’m a family man and I’m a taxpayer,” said Lee, a part-time junk hauler who acknowledges that he has a criminal record. “Just because I’m black and live in this neighborhood I have to be subjected to things that citizens in other communities don’t have to.”
Few of the suits have been resolved, and the department has denied that the accused officers acted improperly. Sheriff Sherman Block has repeatedly defended his deputies against such charges, attributing the allegations to an increasingly litigious and violent society.
In fiscal 1988-89, the last year for which figures are available, 275 major crimes were recorded in the neighborhood--a number equal to nearly seven felonies per block.
But black leaders and attorneys say the neighborhood has become a microcosm of the strained relationship between the Sheriff’s Department and minority communities throughout the county, where 151 excessive-force lawsuits were filed against deputies last year and $3 million was paid out in jury awards or settlements.
“They come in here with this Gestapo-type, blanket approach . . . like they’re going to an all-out riot,” said David Hall, who lives in the Duarte neighborhood and is president of the local chapter of the NAACP. “They feel like they’re doing us a service, but they’re alienating the entire neighborhood.”
Officials at the sheriff’s substation in Temple City, which has jurisdiction over the community, said last week that they were unaware there had been so many complaints.
“We don’t want to alienate the good people down there,” said Sgt. Eugene Leslie, who heads the station’s new anti-gang unit. The unit targeted the neighborhood when it began operations Aug. 1. “If we’re not meeting our mission, then we need to maybe make some changes.”
Sheriff’s Division Chief Roy Brown, head of field operations for the region that includes the Temple substation, said he was disturbed that residents had not first talked with the department before airing their grievances in court and in the press.
“If what you are telling me is true . . . then, yes, I’m concerned,” Brown said. “That isn’t the kind of policing we want to do. But unless someone tells us, we don’t know what they’re thinking or what their perception is.”
Some residents say they have been reluctant to complain because they don’t believe it will do any good. Others, such as Geraldine Monroe, 54, say they have tried but were discouraged by desk officers at the Temple substation.
“The man on the phone just told me, ‘Whatever happened that day, you deserved it,’ ” said Monroe, who contends that as part of the June 6 raid, deputies broke into her house, scattered her clothes on the floor and dumped canisters of sugar and flour on top. “Then he hung up.”
Like many high-crime pockets of suburban Los Angeles, the transformation of this corner of town has been relatively sudden, officials in neighboring cities say.
In the 1950s, the area’s 214 acres--bounded roughly by California, Euclid and Mountain avenues and Van Meter Street--were home to little more than orange groves. The subdivisions that came after the Korean War provided attractive, high-quality housing for more than 1,000 middle-class families.
But with time, the community followed a typical pattern. Absentee landlords allowed properties to deteriorate; poorer, mostly minority families bought up the homes, and more affluent white residents fled.
The result, say city officials, is an isolated corner of county land that lacks needed public services and that nobody wants to annex.
“Much of this area feels like it has fallen between the cracks,” said Donald Hopper, the director of community development in neighboring Monrovia. “It must be very frustrating to the upstanding, law-abiding citizens there who would like to have the quality of neighborhood they see all around them.”
Many of those residents say tensions have been high since 1982, when a sheriff’s deputy shot a pregnant woman named DeLois Young during an illegal raid on her house a few blocks across the city line in Duarte. Young, then 22, survived, but her 8-month-old fetus was killed.
The deputy, Robert E. Armstrong, was found guilty of second-degree murder, but his conviction was reduced to involuntary manslaughter by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge. Although an appellate court later reinstated the murder conviction, Armstrong served just eight months in County Jail.
Young and her family, who filed a $10-million claim against the county, settled the suit for $350,000.
“From that point, everything’s been going progressively downhill,” said Don Baity, 49, a longtime resident who served on the short-lived Community Awareness Committee, formed after the shooting to smooth racial tensions. “The more brutality they get away with, the more brutal they become.”
Baity, the plant manager at a San Fernando Valley junior high school, filed a $3-million suit in federal court in 1989. Acting as his own attorney, he alleges that he was stopped without cause by deputies, who he says verbally abused him, twisted his arms behind his back and--when he questioned their actions--arrested him for assaulting an officer.
The case against Baity was rejected by the district attorney’s office, according to records in Santa Anita Municipal Court.
His lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Department was preceded by a $228,000 settlement paid in 1988 to Asmires Ramirez, a 22-year-old forklift operator who was shot twice in the stomach by deputies. The officers said they stormed his garage in response to reports of gunfire and fired their weapons only when the shots came their way.
One of the deputies, George Thomas Markel, had been a lightning rod for complaints almost from the time he joined the Sheriff’s Department in 1978. He was arrested last summer on suspicion of armed robbery and is awaiting trial in Florida.
Before that, Markel had been sued in 1987 by another resident of the neighborhood, Eugene Rogers, a former security guard who alleges that Markel and two other deputies broke several of his ribs with their billy clubs, made racial taunts and threatened to kill him.
Rogers, 45, a Vietnam veteran, was charged with possession of cocaine, resisting arrest and assaulting an officer, but was acquitted on all counts by a Pasadena Superior Court jury.
“Even if a portion of what they’re saying is true, it’s as if the community is under siege,” said Thomas J. White, an attorney representing another alleged beating victim. “The officers are over-zealous in whatever they’re doing, and even presuming what they’re doing is legal, the force they use is definitely unreasonable.”
The county counsel’s office, responsible for defending the Sheriff’s Department, declined to discuss the specifics of any case. But the office usually maintains that any injury to a suspect was due to his or her own reckless or unlawful behavior, not that of a deputy.
“Generally speaking, if there was an altercation of some type, the position of deputies is that only necessary force was used,” said Louis V. Aguilar, principal deputy county counsel. “The deputies usually respond when there’s a provocation and a need.”
That response has been applauded by some city officials, such as Duarte City Manager Jesse Duff, who requested a meeting with Supervisor Pete Schabarum several months ago to seek additional law enforcement in the area.
“It has always been a high-crime area, but it was our impression that it was getting considerably worse,” Duff said. “We wanted to bring it to somebody’s attention.”
Schabarum helped arrange for an Operation Safe Streets anti-gang unit to work out of the Temple City substation. He is also considering proposals--such as fences and lighting--to make Pamela Park, a center of drug activity in the neighborhood, less attractive to dealers, said Judy Hammond, Schabarum’s deputy.
But as the stories of alleged misdeeds add up--from an unemployed truck driver severely beaten over the head with a steel flashlight to a credit union representative who contends that officers ignored her asthma attack during a routine traffic stop--many residents say the hoodlums are not their only concern.
“We got the criminals on one hand, but we got the police on the other,” said Saundra Johnson, a family therapist who recently moved to the neighborhood. “The decent citizens, the honest hard-working people--we’re catching it on both sides.”