The child’s piercing cries through Bluebird Canyon in the early morning darkness were what first drew two police officers to the home of Joslyn Aitken and Peter A. Hands in September, 1987.
What followed was a harrowing night that included a struggle between Aitken, 38, and a female police sergeant. Hands, 43, was Maced, beaten and taken naked to the city jail.
The incident had begun when a neighbor, thinking a child had been locked out of the house, called police, who suspected child abuse. But no child abuse was ever proven, and criminal charges against Hands for allegedly assaulting an officer and interfering with an officer were dropped after one trial resulted in a hung jury.
On Tuesday night, 3 1/2 years after the incident, City Manager Kenneth C. Frank recommended to the City Council that the city pay the couple $137,500 to settle a lawsuit filed by Aitken and Hands.
The couple, both practicing attorneys, said they pressed ahead with the lawsuit because the Police Department pursued criminal charges against Hands. And they wanted to clear the allegations of child abuse and continue to raise their three children in Laguna Beach.
Hands said he is still afraid for himself and his family.
“If I had an emergency, I think I would think twice about calling the Laguna Beach Police Department,” Hands said.
In a case that was their word against the police officers’ reports, proving their side of the story became difficult, Aitken said.
“But if two lawyers can’t do it, nobody else can, unless there’s a videotape,” she said. “Laguna Beach does have a problem with its police. It’s either ignoring the fact or it’s covering it up.”
But the city manager said the actions of the police officers were warranted with one exception: Hands should not have been left nude in the jail cell.
“We have an officer who clearly did something wrong,” Frank said, referring to the officer who forced Hands to sit in jail for a long while before giving him jail clothing. “It’s clearly embarrassing, it’s clearly dumb. There’s no way we could go to court and win the case with that happening.”
But, he added, “this is not a brutality case.”
The couple said Tuesday that their son’s cries that night stemmed from a temper tantrum. Angered that his parents had gone out for the evening, Brenton, then 4, cried loudly later when his parents would not let him sleep with them.
When the neighbor heard the boy scream, “Mommy, Mommy, let me in,” Hands said, the youngster was not outside the house but inside, trying to get into bed with his parents.
According to police reports that were included with the sworn pretrial testimony of the police officers, Sgt. Danell Adams and Officer Thomas Jones entered the house and Adams followed Aitken to a downstairs bedroom to see the child. Adams claimed in her statement, made available recently by Hands, that the couple was uncooperative and verbally abusive.
In a memo to the council, Frank said that an argument between the officers and the couple concerned “the officers’ right to enter the premises and see the child and an officer’s use of the home phone to call the (Orange) County Child Abuse Registry.”
But Aitken said that instead of leaving after seeing that the child was OK, Adams began “badgering” her and threatening to arrest her.
Hands, who could hear the exchange between the two women through an intercom, said he called the Laguna Beach Police Department and asked to speak to Adams’ supervisor because the officer was harassing his wife.
But Adams, who was the commanding officer in charge that night, ordered the dispatcher to disconnect the phone line, and returned upstairs to where Hands and Jones were standing, Hands said.
The statement by the police sergeant claims the couple interfered with her attempts to telephone the child abuse agency. But the couple claim the phone call was not made until later, after Hands was taken to jail.
Aitken claimed Adams then forced her down and they struggled as the officer threatened to arrest her. When Hands tried to use the phone again, he was brought to the floor by Jones.
Hands said that as he was being taken to the patrol car, a third officer who had arrived moments before, Jon Fehlman, and Jones threw him against his car, breaking the window. He also said he was beaten and the officers pulled down his pajama pants, leaving him naked.
However, the city staff memo states Hands “was struggling as he was placed in the police car and his dressing gown dropped off.”
The city manager said he believes the officers acted properly when they entered the home to investigate the suspected child abuse, and the phone call to the child abuse agency was also justified.
But he concedes, “While we dispute claims of the plaintiff that unnecessary force was used in arresting Mr. Hands, there are some uncertainties regarding the necessity of a restrain hold during the arrest.”
In an interview, Frank said disciplinary action may be taken against Fehlman, the officer who left Hands nude in jail.
But Frank said there have been few legal findings against the city’s Police Department, and that this proposed settlement is unusual.
“I don’t think we have had a settlement of a police case of this magnitude in 10 years,” the city official said.
“Every once in a while,” he said, “we have a $500 claim, where it’s just worth it to pay the $500 and just get rid of it.”
The FBI and the Orange County district attorney’s office are investigating an incident last June in which Laguna Beach police arrested a homeless man. That arrest was videotaped by a witness in a nearby building and shows a police officer kicking at the suspect, who is on the ground and out of view. That man has also sued the city.
Frank said another jury finding two years ago resulted in a citizen being awarded $1 plus attorneys fees, totaling $25,000. And because of the number of attorneys involved in the Hands/Aitken case, it would have been more costly to go to trial and pay legal fees for a case the city was probably not going to win.
Hands said it bothers him that the city will not acknowledge that the officers may have used excessive force.
“I feel a little bit like a rape victim whose attacker has made a plea bargain and then is allowed to say, ‘Well, I never really did it anyway,’ ” Hands said.
He added that if anything good comes out of this case, he hopes the city will improve the training procedures of its police officers.