Mayor James K. Hahn’s citizens commission formed to examine the televised beating of a suspect in a car chase got off to a rough start Monday when its most outspoken member abruptly resigned and some city officials questioned whether the panel is needed.
Najee Ali, founder of Project Islamic Hope, was one of 11 community leaders Hahn selected Friday to review the investigations of the incident, in which an LAPD officer was videotaped kicking at the African American suspect and striking him 11 times with a flashlight. But Ali said he decided to step down after some city officials expressed doubts about whether he should serve because he is awaiting trial on charges of identity theft and leaving the scene of a car accident.
“I’m not going to be used as a pawn to hurt someone else politically,” he said, accusing his detractors of attacking him in an effort to hurt Hahn. “I insist I am completely innocent.”
The resignation comes as Hahn and Police Chief William J. Bratton are trying to quell public criticism over last Wednesday’s beating. Hahn said he formed the commission to allow members of the community to monitor the official police investigation and provide their perspective. But critics said Monday that they believe the mayor had another motive.
“I think it was clearly political,” said City Councilman Dennis Zine, a former police sergeant. “It’s an attempt to appease certain people in the African American community.”
Zine said it was inappropriate for Hahn to select Ali because he was the subject of a police investigation into a Feb. 22 accident in which he allegedly hit a car head-on and ran into a nearby movie theater. Zine also criticized the appointment of Ronald Antwine, a former gang member and community activist.
Hahn defended the appointments.
“We want to have a broad cross-section of the community because it’s important for the community to feel they have a right to watch this process and watch it very closely and be told what is happening every step of the way,” he said. “We weren’t putting together a blue ribbon commission here. We were putting together a commission of people who represented all aspects of life in the community.”
While Ali said the mayor’s office was not aware of his criminal case, Hahn insisted Monday that he knew about it.
“I obviously was concerned about the charges, but to me what was important about the citizens’ monitoring committee was that we have the broadest range of viewpoints on this,” the mayor said.
Hours before Ali and the others were named to the panel Friday, Bratton described Ali during a CNN interview as “one of the biggest nitwits in Los Angeles.”
“That nitwit that you were interviewing, basically, you’re doing a disservice to your viewership and a disservice to the citizens of this city by putting him on camera,” Bratton said of Ali. “You need to check out the credentials ... of some of these people that you choose. They make good camera, they make good TV, but they don’t make good common sense.”
Bratton has since apologized for the remarks. On Monday, he emerged from a meeting with Ali and former Democratic presidential candidate the Rev. Al Sharpton and described his CNN comments as intemperate and unfortunate.
Ali rose to prominence in 1998, when he became the spokesman for Yolanda Manuel, whose 7-year-old daughter was murdered in a Nevada casino bathroom. He has since been a leading critic of police brutality, including the videotaped beating of a teenager by Inglewood police in 2002. He has also criticized those in the rap community who portray a violent lifestyle, even leading protests outside the NAACP Image Awards. Recently, he has also organized protests in support of singer Michael Jackson.
The panel includes members from a cross-section of the city, including Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries; Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center; John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League; the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray of First African Methodist Episcopal Church; the Rev. Leonard Jackson of the First AME Church; attorneys Angela Park and Angela Reddock; William “Blinky” Rodriguez, executive director of Communities in Schools Greater Los Angeles/San Fernando Valley; Bishop Charles Blake, pastor of West Angeles Church of God in Christ; and Geraldine Washington, president of the NAACP’s Los Angeles chapter.
Despite the inclusion of respected community leaders, Councilman Bernard C. Parks raised doubts about whether the panel is needed because the Police Department has an extensive process for monitoring and investigating allegations of police misconduct as part of a federal court consent decree.
“People are expressing concern about why are we creating an additional layer when we haven’t seen what is going on as it relates to the pieces that are in place,” said Parks, a former police chief who is challenging Hahn for mayor. “We’ve heard for well over a year about all of the review processes we put in place and yet when we have something of this magnitude we immediately have a new committee without seeing whether the new processes work.”
Zine went even further, calling the panel unnecessary because the incident is already being looked at by numerous organizations, including the Police Department inspector general, the FBI and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
“I question why the mayor didn’t have enough confidence in the layers of investigation that already exist, and why he had to add another layer,” he said.
The top police union official said that he was surprised to learn about the formation of the new panel late Friday and that the union had yet to be contacted by any of the mayor’s representatives about the purpose or the scope of the committee’s involvement.
“We realize it’s important to keep the community informed,” said Bob Baker, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League. “However, people need to understand that there’s an ongoing investigation and we need to let the process go forward and the facts speak for themselves.”
The incident that touched off the uproar occurred Wednesday during a car chase that ended when the suspect, 36-year-old Stanley Miller, ran from his car along a concrete wash.
Two television news helicopters taped Officer John J. Hatfield hitting Miller 11 times with a flashlight after two other officers were on top of Miller. Sources said Hatfield told investigators he responded with force because another officer said Miller had a gun. The sources said Miller had a pair of wire cutters in his pocket -- an assertion that Miller’s attorney denied.
On Monday night, Ali, Sharpton and about 100 other people gathered at a South Los Angeles church to discuss the beating.
Hahn’s decision to appoint the citizens panel is a double-edged sword, said Jaime Regalado, director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute at Cal State L.A.
“The mayor has been inundated with criticism about poor leadership,” Regalado said. “I think he felt he had to deal with this issue head-on and make sure, at least symbolically, the community is involved. He can’t afford any more chipping away at what was considered to be his base, the African American community.”
But Regalado said Hahn should also not be surprised that there will be some who criticize the decision.
“Those who do see it as pandering or political, that can’t help him,” Regalado said.
Formation of the commission has won praise in some circles.
Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU’s Southern California chapter, said the idea of another independent panel needed to be better defined but had its merits.
“You can’t deny the history of the LAPD and the African American community,” Ripston said.
“It is raw. It doesn’t even take a situation like this to open up those old wounds because those old wounds have never closed.”
Times staff writers Richard Winton and Jason Felch contributed to this report.