Protect and Serve

In Los Angeles, Questions of Police Brutality Dog LAPD

After Rodney King, the LAPD vowed to clean up its act. But new incidents are tarnishing its image. Christine Pelisek reports.

Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

In the early hours of Dec. 4, 2010, the Los Angeles Police Department was called to a parking lot in Hollywood by a couple who couldn’t get a woman to come out of their Scion. After a bit of coaxing, the officers were able to get the visibly intoxicated woman, who was later identified as Natasha Dennis, out of the backseat of the car. She was arrested for public intoxication, handcuffed, and officers attempted to place her in the back of a squad car.

One of the officers videotaped the incident with his personal video recorder. The video, which later ended up in the hands of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, appeared to show Officer Jorge Satander firing a Taser twice at the handcuffed woman and later displaying a Superman logo under his shirt. Another officer could be heard laughing and singing in the background.

The District Attorney’s office investigated the incident and determined that Satander had lied about the night in written reports, as did three officers who corroborated his tale. The officers also didn’t initially tell their supervisor that they had shot video of the incident. It was later discovered that Satander hit the woman four times with the Taser within a two-minute period. But in July of 2011, the D.A.’s office determined that there was not enough evidence to charge Satander with a crime.

The 2010 incident, which came to light after a report in the Los Angeles Times about the existence of the D.A.’s memo, is the latest use-of-force incident to surface in recent months involving the Los Angeles Police Department, which has been grappling with a series of brutality claims—some of which have been caught on tape. In one case, an officer was caught on tape sucker-punching a skateboarder who was being restrained on the ground by officers. In another case, a female officer kicked a 37-year-old woman in the groin. The woman later died in the patrol car. And last month, a man was shot by officers who mistook the handcuffs he was wearing for a gun. The press release about the incident failed to mention that the man who was shot had been wearing handcuffs.

The Los Angeles Police Commission, a civilian body that oversees the police department, says it is planning to examine the cases to determine whether they are isolated incidents—or if something else is going on. The Los Angeles Police Department’s use of force division is also investigating the cases.

“It seems that the Los Angeles Police Department is spiraling out of control with these controversial shootings and beatings,” says longtime Los Angeles activist Najee Ali, the author of Raising Hell, about his life as a community activist.

Los Angeles Police Department commander Andrew Smith says the department is looking into the incidents.

“We are looking at it as random isolated cases,” he told The Daily Beast. Smith said that in three of the cases, the LAPD discovered the misconduct themselves. “We took action by initiating a complaint investigation.” Smith said the officers involved in the 2010 incident have been relieved of duty and are awaiting a board of rights hearing. The officers involved in the other incidents are either on paid leave or have been taken off their usual duty pending an investigation.

Some community members are skeptical that the officers involved will end up being punished at all. “Nothing ever happens to the officers,” said Paulette Simpson with the Compton NAACP. “There has to be some consequences because they aren’t justified beatings. When you beat someone who is handcuffed there is something wrong with the picture. When you start beating up women, now you have really gone crazy. It is almost as if no one is safe.”

The LAPD’s Smith says the investigations are very open and thorough. “There is no hiding the ball,” he said. “There is a representative from the District Attorney there, then the Inspector General [a civilian watchdog] is there overseeing the investigation and doing their own investigation, and finally every fact of the case is disclosed completely and posted on the Inspector General’s website.”

In 2011, the LAPD had 1,700 use-of-force incidents, Smith said, ranging from officer-involved shootings to someone claiming their arm was twisted by police. He says in “the vast majority of use of force cases,” it’s determined that the officers acted appropriately.

Simpson says that in the past, the public never knew about the incidents, but now with the advent of technology they are coming to light more often. “There seems to be a disconnect between the citizens and the LAPD,” she said. “It has always been there, but in the age of the telephone a lot of it is caught on tape and exposed. In the past it was hard to get a witness. Now, people are turning it in and putting it on You Tube.”

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Earl Ofari Hutchison of the Urban Policy Roundtable says that he and other community leaders have been trying for months to sit down with Police Chief Beck to discuss the excessive force claims, but he has not gotten anywhere. Hutchison said he warned police officials that if they didn’t start disciplining officers, there will be more issues. “There will be another Rodney King,” he said. “These things are beginning to pile up. We thought transparency was the watchword with the LAPD.”

The cases have caused controversy. Last April, 48 minutes after porn star Marland A. Anderson walked away from his suburban Los Angeles apartment and into an ambulance with a police officer, a paramedic and a driver, he arrived at Northridge Medical Center in full cardiac arrest, unconscious, and in critical condition. Months later, the Los Angeles County Coroner determined that the 39-year-old man died from “neck compression” that “involved considerable force.”

However, the coroner could not pinpoint how and when the injury occurred. A ligature mark found around Anderson’s neck was consistent with a belt, according to the autopsy report. The coroner left open the issue of whether the officers’ actions contributed to his death.

Then, on July 22, 35-year-old Alecia Thomas told officers at LAPD’s Southeast station that she was a drug addict and no longer capable of caring for her three young children. Officers later found her at her South Los Angeles home and attempted to arrest her for child endangerment. Police say that Thomas resisted arrested, so they had to handcuff her and forced her to the ground. A female officer threatened to kick her in the crotch if she didn’t get into the back seat of the patrol car, and then followed through with the threat, according to the LAPDS’s account of the incident. The kick to the groin as well as insults about Thomas’ weight was captured by a patrol car’s video camera. It’s unclear if the cameras caught Thomas dying in the back seat of the car a few minutes later.

Thomas’s grandmother, Ada Moses, told the Daily Beast that she was devastated to learn about what happened to her granddaughter. “I’m waiting for the [coroner] to let me know what happened,” she said. “I pray to God they give us answers soon. What you do in the dark will come into the light one day where everybody can see.” [The cause of Thomas’ death is still pending with the Los Angeles coroner’s office.]

About one month later, on Aug. 18, Ron Weekley Jr., a 20-year-old college student from Venice, Calif., was allegedly roughed up by LAPD officers after he was caught skateboarding against traffic on the wrong side of the street. Weekley Jr. claimed that cops broke his nose and cheekbone. A bystander capture the incident on videotape, where an officer can be seen punching Weekley in the face.

Three days later, in another part of Los Angeles County, a video surveillance camera at a Del Taco Restaurant in Tujunga caught a police officer body slamming a 34-year-old registered nurse and mother of three to the ground twice, once while she was wearing handcuffs, after police pulled her over for using her cell phone while driving. The officers were later seen sharing a celebratory “fist bump.”

“I think it is horrible,” said Arthur Corona, the attorney for Michelle Jordan, the nurse. “They kept her out of the car and then without provocation he slammed her face into hot asphalt. By sheer luck my client pulled into a Del Taco that had a videotape running at the time. It is almost impossible to prosecute against the police department unless you have overwhelming evidence. This isn’t regular contact. You would assume that is not what they are taught to do. In Michelle’s case we learned it can happen to anyone and that is what is most frightening to me.”

Earlier this month, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said he and his department made a mistake when they decided not to tell reporters details in an Oct. 12 news release about a shooting where an officer opened fire on a man who was wearing handcuffs. Beck admitted the oversight after a Los Angeles Times inquiry. The shooting occurred after officers pulled the man out from under an SUV by his ankles. They thought the shiny metallic color of the handcuffs resembled a gun.

“In retrospect should we have released it? Yes,” Smith told The Daily Beast. “Some people were trying to say we were trying to hide the facts, but we can’t hide the fact the Inspector General is there and all the information is put on the Inspector General’s website.”

But the way Ali, the community activist, sees it, Chief “Beck is trying to sweep controversial cases under the carpet so it won’t get advocates like myself to look into it,” he said. “The chief is hoping this will go away. He doesn’t want to see a black eye for his department.”