By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
On Jan. 19, a La Mesa police officer was filmed “body slamming” to the ground, a black female Helix High School student, who was already handcuffed. The incident set off a series of student protests, which included a march through the city on Jan. 22 and a special student-run town hall meeting at Helix held on Jan. 29.
Students and other community members outraged by the incident also came out and dominated the discussion at two other already scheduled annual town hall meetings put on by the city, on Jan. 30 and Feb. 6.
In addition to frustration over the incident itself, the students and other community members questioned the city’s response. At one of the town halls, a Helix student asked why the city wasn’t following a process that requires investigations when dealing with police issues.
“There is no standard process because we’ve never experienced this before,” replied Mayor Mark Arapostathis.
No city wants to believe that its officers would use excessive force or act unethically; however, with excessive force by law enforcement officials — especially committed against people of color — making headlines across the nation on a regular basis, small cities like La Mesa need to proactively address the problem before trust breaks down between police and the communities they serve.
That mistrust has already been growing, according to Helix student Melat Ezana, who said she would just like to be treated safely, fairly and with civility by the police.
“Already as a black female, like most people in the black community, the first thing we think of when we hear police is nervousness and anxiety,” she said. “We get scared and we shouldn’t have to feel that way anymore. We’ve felt that way for many years.”
Highlighting how unprepared the city was in dealing with an incident like this, on the Monday following the incident, a few dozen students walked out of classes and peacefully marched to the police station to demand answers on what would be done to make sure police deal with students without violence, only to find the doors locked to keep them from entering the police station when they arrived.
“La Mesa is now reminiscent of Birmingham or Mississippi in the 1960s. I am horrified, I am disgusted, I am distrustful, and have lost all faith in LMPD,” said resident and Helix graduate Sherry Hooper at the student town hall. “You should have greeted these kids, welcomed them and praised them for their peaceful protest; accepted their comments or complaints and addressed them.”
While Police Chief Walt Vasquez did meet with the students the following day and had a discussion about police procedure and safety protocols, he admitted that not meeting with them during their protest march was a mistake.
“I told them it was a decision I made, but I also told them that hindsight being 20/20 that I should not have locked the doors and I should have talked with them and I apologized to those students,” he said at the student town hall. “If I said anything more, it could be seen as rationalizing and making excuses and I don’t want to do that.”
Chief Vasquez’s meeting with students was, as he described it, an “important first step” in regaining some trust with the community and through all three town hall meetings, students recognized his efforts.
If the city wishes to continue that effort, there are several actions it could take to proactively create policy that deals with police oversight that were suggested by community members.
First would be to create a set procedure that lays out how investigations into allegations of misconduct will be handled. The Police Department already has its own internal review process, but the Helix incident showed just how subjective it can be.
For instance, the officer involved was suspended from working at schools while the investigations were conducted, but it was unclear as to what level of misconduct would trigger a total suspension, which was a major point of contention for both the students and concerned community members. If there was a set policy in place that clearly stated, for example, that officers are not put on suspension from duties unless there is severe bodily harm to the suspect, then that question could have been answered at the town halls instead of being dismissed.
Many community members were concerned about the transparency of the third-party investigation the city decided it would pursue regarding the Jan. 19 matter. There was also a question as to whether the person eventually hired to conduct the investigation would be impartial.
A policy in place that included guidelines for releasing information to the public would have also quelled some of those fears and also provided the City Council answers to give, beyond “We don’t know yet.”
Making sure that our police officers have adequate training in how to de-escalate situations and alternatives to the use of force is imperative. Information about which officers have had what training should also be made public.
Finally, a community relations or citizen review committee should be formed, to establish a better dialogue between police and the people they serve. Having a regular avenue for residents to bring up issues and receive solutions would give police an opportunity to hear what is working and what is not in our communities. La Mesa has already taken a step in that direction with its “Coffee with a Cop” and “Citizen’s Police Academy” programs that give community members a chance to get to know their local law enforcement.
But as a man named Carlos said at the second City Council-organized town hall on Feb. 6, “We might have to be a little more creative than just meeting in a coffee shop.”
With a few set rules and fair programs in place that address the concerns brought up by the community, then — as Helix math teacher Jeff Babbitt said at the town hall — the investigations into the incident might produce some positive changes.
“I know full well that some good is going to come out of what was a tragic thing, and I look forward to [La Mesa] being an even better place in the future than it was prior,” he said.
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.