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Civil rights activists seek federal probe of Torrance Police Department

Civil rights activists Sunday called for a federal investigation into allegations of harassment and racial profiling by the Torrance Police Department, following the traffic stop of an African American pastor in early March.

“What we want is a full federal Justice Department probe of Torrance and its treatment of African Americans and Latinos,” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, during a small but sometimes tense protest in the neighborhood where Pastor Robert Taylor was pulled over while driving with his 15-year-old daughter, and subsequently searched.

As Hutchinson, Taylor and others voiced displeasure with the police during a demonstration, about 15 police supporters staged a counter-protest across the street. At times the dueling protests grew heated.

Taylor has filed a complaint with the Torrance Police Department, which has launched an internal investigation, according to spokesman Jeremiah Hart. “The city of Torrance is a multi-cultural city,” Hart said. “We celebrate that. We do not practice racial profiling . . . do not tolerate racial profiling.”

Taylor was pulled over March 4 on Yukon Avenue in a residential neighborhood, after picking up his daughter from school, according to Taylor and police.

Taylor, 62, pastor of Doors to Heaven Global Ministries in Inglewood, lives in the neighborhood where he was stopped. He said the officers told him they had done a background check on his license plate and found multiple arrest warrants. The officers then asked him to step out of his white Ford Thunderbird, demanded that he hold his hands in the air and then proceeded to frisk him in front of his frightened daughter and several onlookers, Taylor said.

Officers eventually showed Taylor a laptop with a list of four wanted men named Robert Taylor. None was the pastor’s age, Taylor said.

The officers, identified by Torrance police as Brent Clissold and Dusty Garver, allowed Taylor to leave.

Hart, the police spokesman, later said the officers pulled Taylor over because they believed he fit the description of a suspect in a series of recent area crimes, including one in which two people allegedly kidnapped a woman from a department store parking lot, stealing $142,000 in jewelry from her home and at least $3,500 cash. Surveillance photos obtained by the police, as well as the woman’s account, indicate the suspects were a black man in his 30s, dressed in a shirt and tie, and a woman who appeared to be in her 40s. The pair drove a white Ford Thunderbird with tinted windows. Taylor said he was wearing a suit when he was pulled over.

On Sunday, Taylor stood in front of his white Thunderbird and pointed out differences between his car and the one shown in a Torrance Police Department photo. His car has a rear spoiler and all four of its hubcaps. No spoiler is visible in the photo of the suspects’ car, which is missing a hubcap. Taylor, 62, wondered why he had been frisked when he and his teen daughter clearly were not the same age as the suspects.

“This was a totally degrading and traumatizing experience for me,” Taylor said. “This means that any black male driving a car that looks like a suspect’s car can just be pulled over, taken from the car, searched in front of everyone. That’s profiling. That’s harassment. . . . They were even talking about putting handcuffs on me.”

The Torrance Police Department is no stranger to allegations of civil rights abuse or to unfavorable court judgments. In 2000, a federal appeals court upheld a $245,000 racial-discrimination verdict against two Torrance police officers. The case involved a traffic stop in which officers stopped three young men, two of them African American, pointed guns at them and squeezed their genitals while frisking them.

In 1995, three Latino men were awarded a settlement after a federal jury found Torrance Officer Martin Dempsey had violated the men’s civil rights during a traffic stop. Two years later, one of the men, Luiz Ortiz, was awarded a second settlement after he alleged that Dempsey had threatened him in 1996 at a Torrance shopping center.

A 1988 case involving claims of police brutality ended in a $105,000 settlement after video emerged showing one of the men being choked and beaten unconscious.

Hutchinson and Taylor said Sunday that African Americans and Latinos remain targets in Torrance.

Their statements were met with loud resistance from the counter-protesters, whose signs proclaiming loyalty to the police drew honks of support from passing drivers. Some of the counter-protesters accused Taylor of trying to profit from a lawsuit. One man shouted that anyone who didn’t like Torrance should leave.

Lynette Vandeveer, a 54-year-old retiree, said the police acted professionally. “You cannot fault Torrance police for following an exact lead,” she said. “They did the right thing.”

kurt.streeter@latimes.com


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