Police Slaying Still Torments Claremont
Claremont’s elm-lined streets and wide front porches befit the town’s genteel air. The mostly white suburb of 35,400, dominated by its six colleges and vaunted New England atmosphere, is where academics and clergy come together to discuss the weighty issues of the day.
But a year ago today, Claremont’s idyllic peace was shattered by a controversial police shooting of a black motorist. The incident has since triggered a convulsive bout of self-reflection, and pushed the debate on race relations out of the classroom and onto the street.
Lofty discussions have been replaced by something painfully real in the community 32 miles east of Los Angeles: A person was killed. Charges of racial insensitivity have ensued. And residents fear that their progressive town is being seen as an ignorant, reactionary backwater.
“Claremont has always understood itself to be of a sophisticated, liberal, cutting-edge crust--not some redneck town,” said Thomas Ambrogi, a 70-year-old former Jesuit priest who has played a key role in the public debate.
“Suddenly we got jolted . . . and began thinking maybe we’re just sophisticated rednecks.”
Ambrogi and others say the city has mishandled the controversy by taking the offensive against its critics. It has released the criminal record of a key organizer of weekly protests against the city, and last month angered many by declaring the two officers involved in the shooting employees of the year.
The fallout has prompted city officials to backpedal. Last week, the City Council issued a public apology for the actions, and Monday night it held a special meeting to review the performance of City Manager Glenn Southard.
But Southard and the officers involved have their strong backers as well, who contend that the officers acted properly when faced with a man who allegedly pulled a gun during a traffic stop.
“I know these people,” said Diann Ring, a former councilwoman. “What has bothered me about the whole thing is the leap made by some individuals, including some of my best friends, to assume the police were wrong.”
The City Council adjourned behind closed doors for several hours Monday night, after hearing from about a dozen residents, to consider both Southard’s handling of his job and a lawsuit filed by the shooting victim’s mother. They said they had no decisions to report.
Three Shots Hit 18-Year-Old
The controversy has haunted Claremont since last Jan. 11, when Irvin Landrum Jr., 18, was driving on Baseline Road and was stopped for speeding at about 1 a.m., according to police.
They say Landrum stepped out of the car at the request of Officer Hany Hanna, who later was joined by Officer Kent Jacks. According to Hanna’s testimony to sheriff’s investigators, Landrum pulled a gun from his waistband and fired. The two officers fired 14 shots back, hitting Landrum three times, investigators found. Landrum died six days later.
The incident was little noticed by outsiders amid an eight-month spate of controversial police shootings in Riverside, Los Angeles and Compton. But while some of the furor over the others has subsided, the debate over Landrum’s death has grown.
Sheriff’s lab tests of the large .45-caliber Smith & Wesson that Landrum allegedly shot showed that the gun had not been fired and bore no fingerprints. It was last registered to the deceased police chief of Ontario.
Police have not explained how the officers saw and heard Landrum’s weapon discharge, but have said that few guns recovered from crimes bear usable fingerprints. Landrum family members say they believe that the gun was planted. The U.S. Justice Department opened an investigation into possible civil rights violations, and Landrum’s mother, Tracy Lee, sued the city.
Meanwhile, the city’s handling of the fallout has created a deep rift in town. Even now, a year after the shooting, it is the subject of debate in cafes, high school classes and the trails that wind up the scraggly slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Landrum’s family has staged weekly protests at City Hall. A group has launched a recall effort against the mayor and a council member for their support of Southard, who has clashed with protesters.
The fight has been joined on both sides of the generational divide. Students from Pitzer College have joined in, but the most potent force against the city has been the politically connected Pilgrim Place retirement community for former clergy and other church professionals.
“The progressive people in Claremont are in a state of shock,” said Ambrogi.
Progressive Claremont, which is nearly 80% white, also is in a state of deep introspection, said Butch Henderson, senior pastor at Claremont United Church of Christ.
“All of us who are white, in power and affluent--we can’t understand the point of view of a black person who knows that one of the histories of police in this country is the killing of black men,” said Henderson, who is leading weekly meetings between city officials and Landrum supporters to ease tensions.
At the protests, some African Americans have complained about being stopped by Claremont police for no reason, and say the city has used racial profiling.
“It was always said Claremont is a town you don’t want to get caught in after dark,” said Obee Landrum, Irvin’s uncle. The 40-year-old Riverside County resident said he avoided driving through the city while growing up in the 1970s.
Others vehemently disagree that the shooting and its fallout are related to race. Indeed, there are weekly counter-protests supporting the 40-person Police Department. Some who know Officers Hanna and Jacks say they are principled men who have been devastated by the incident. Both officers have declined interview requests.
“They are decent men,” said Marci Horowitz, a counter-protester and the wife of a Claremont detective. “They’re not men who would go out and shoot someone in cold blood.”
Noise Ordinance Warning Issued
Community resentment mounted in September, when Southard warned the weekly pro-Landrum demonstrators that their City Hall rallies were violating a noise ordinance. He stationed a police captain nearby to monitor decibel levels.
Weeks later, Southard got into an e-mail exchange with a Pitzer College student who had urged schoolmates and faculty to protest.
Southard wrote to senior Eli Hastings in November: “Your ramblings are for the most part incorrect and rude. . . . The issue is attempted murder by Irvin Landrum, not race. I note you are a senior and will be leaving college soon. I wish you well as you enter the real world.”
About the same time, Southard released to newspapers the criminal record of Obee Landrum, who was organizing the rallies. The move angered many residents, including those who supported the officers. Obee Landrum, a soft-spoken man who sold his computer business to devote himself to the issue, was last convicted for a burglary that occurred in 1981.
The final straw for many was when Southard gave Hanna and Jacks $1,000 awards as employees of the year.
That ignited an outcry, prompting letters to newspapers comparing Claremont to the Deep South. Students and outside activists joined the protests, and retirees decided that it was time to express disapproval.
“That was idiotic,” said Edith Cole, a 71-year-old resident active in the Quaker community. “The city couldn’t have done worse. That brought out the people.”
More than 110 residents of the Pilgrim Place retirement community signed a letter criticizing the city’s confrontational approach, prompting a public apology from the council last week.
Southard has said he picked the officers after getting an overwhelming vote from city employees. Other officials have said the two men deserved the award for working professionally all year under tremendous pressure from the rallies and media coverage.
Southard has denied all recent interview requests.
Those who know him say the veteran administrator was simply trying to support two beleaguered employees.
“He’s being loyal,” said Ring, the former councilwoman.
“If you don’t stand up for your staff and you’re the boss, what are you?”
Ring believes ongoing debate about Landrum stems, in part, from the community’s desire to improve itself.
“This is a town that likes to be perfect,” she said. “When we’re less than perfect, we eat ourselves up. We wish we could be like Pleasantville.”