Jeff Clemetson | Editor
A long-awaited report on an incident at Helix Charter High School where a police officer was filmed slamming a student to the ground was met with frustration by community members and councilmembers at the Jan. 8 La Mesa City Council meeting.
Following outcry from the community after the Jan. 19, 2018 incident, the City Council voted to hire an independent investigator to look into whether the officer acted outside of department policies regarding use of force. At the Jan. 8 meeting, attorney Scott Tiedemann delivered the report compiled by investigator Barry Aninag.
The release of the report was limited because investigations of a police officer’s personnel record must be kept confidential by law, Tiedemann said. The only exception to the law is for incidents that result in death or severe injury.
“Thankfully, in this case, we do not have a death nor great bodily injury,” he added.
“In this case, Mr. Aninag interviewed 20-plus witnesses. However, the student involved in the subject incident was not interviewed,” he said. “Her mother and attorney had not responded to requests by Mr. Aninag to interview her. Therefore, the student did not provide her first-hand account of the incident.”
Even without the student’s comments, the investigation was deemed finished.
The investigation looked into four separate allegations:
Was the initial use of force — the first body slam — a violation of La Mesa Police Department (LMPD)’s use of force policy?
Was the subsequent use of force — a second body slam — a violation of department policy?
Was the conduct racially motivated?
Did the officer lose his temper during the incident?
For the first two allegations of whether the officer’s action violated LMPD policy, the findings were “not sustained,” reported Tiedemann. The report also said that LMPD policies were “consistent” with other use of force policies throughout the state.
The third and fourth allegations of racial motivation or a loss of temper by the officer were deemed “unfounded.”
In council discussion and in comments from the community, the report raised more questions than offer answers about the Helix incident. Mayor Mark Arapostathis questioned why a report would be released without the student involved being interviewed and wanted to know how thorough the investigator was in trying to interview her. Tiedeman said that letters and phone calls to the student’s parents and attorney went unanswered.
Arapostathis asked if the investigator inquired about why the school called the police in the first place and also wanted to know whether Helix High School administrators were interviewed for the report. Tiedemann said that he was “not in a position to” answer why the school called the police and did not know whether the school was conducting its own investigation. He added that any interviews with the school involving the incident were confidential because the report is part of the officer’s personnel file.
“Confidential to who? To whom will this be released?” asked Arapostathis.
Tiedemann said the report was released to Police Chief Walt Vasquez, who has accepted the findings.
Councilmember Dr. Akilah Weber asked what was in the department’s use of force policy.
“Is there a stepwise approach that is recommended when you have a situation that needs to be deescalated, or is it just at the discretion of the officer at the time?”
Tiedemann said he did not know what the policy is, but that, in general, policies are that force should be limited to “a reasonable response that a reasonable officer would use.”
“So it is subjective, what an officer thinks is reasonable at the time in that situation?” asked Weber.
“It’s exactly the opposite,” replied Tiedemann. “It is measured by an objectively reasonable standard.”
Weber then asked Tiedemann what led to the officer thinking the body slam was reasonable. Tiedemann said he couldn’t disclose those findings.
Public comments on the report echoed the frustrations of the council.
Yusef Miller, a member of the East County Justice Coalition, expressed his disappointment in a “weak report on a sensitive subject” of police violence in schools.
“We wait all this time to hear nothing in this report. No questions can be answered,” he said. “This is not justice for the community.”
La Mesa resident Jack Shu called the report “a failure of process” and said the incident should be investigated further. He suggested the city form a citizen oversight or advisory committee to deal with complaints against police officers.
“That’s how we mend things in cities. That’s how we become transparent and helpful,” he said.
Aeiramique Blake said that she and other community activists who organized in the wake of the Helix incident developed a good working relationship with Chief Vasquez, but was disappointed in report, which she said was shielded by the “Police Bill of Rights.”
“When a young lady is slammed to the ground twice while she is in handcuffs or any type of restraint … there is never an excuse for that. Obviously, we need to do something different,” she said.
Tasha Williamson called on public officials to change policies and criticized the report as waste of time and money.
“Today what I heard is it was acceptable to brutalize a black girl. That’s all I heard,” she said.
Janet Costanos also voiced support for a citizens advisory council or oversight committee, citing benefits to the city like saving money, reducing litigation, exonerating innocent cops in the court of public opinion and building bridge with community.
“All of these potential benefits support the goals of community policing, which seeks to utilize problem solving techniques … to proactively address concerns so we don’t go through something like this again,” she said.
After the public hearing, the council discussed possible actions that the city could take. Mayor Arapostathis said classrooms need to have de-escalation policies and again voiced frustration with not being informed about the school’s part in deciding to involve the police.
Vice Mayor Colin Parent echoed the frustration about the “sparseness of information” in the report and suggested using the Public Records Act to get information about the incident from Helix High School.
Parent and Councilmember Kristine Alessio both suggested looking at the police department’s use of force policy, but City Attorney Glenn Sabine reminded them that a city council can review and comment on police policy, but by law cannot direct police chiefs on how to operate their department.
“But an educational process as to what’s out there … may be good,” Sabine said. “I think it could open the eyes of the police department, if that’s warranted, by looking at what some other jurisdictions are doing. But if nothing else, it’s an awareness kind of approach and it may be justified.”
Weber suggested to specifically look at La Mesa’s use of force policy and see how it differs for how officers deal with adolescents, the elderly and mental health patients and said that the council should “strongly consider” a citizen advisory or oversight. She acknowledged that La Mesa has a low amount of complaints against police officers, but said a citizen group would add transparency, involvement, engagement and improve community relations.
Parent suggested looking at other smaller cities that have citizen advisory councils to see how they operate “so it’s not a group that meets every four years and doesn’t have established practices.” He also suggested folding the police oversight into another committee if possible.
Mayor Arapostathis directed city staff to start looking into citizen advisory groups and report back.
Councilmember Bill Baber reminded the council that an oversight committee still cannot force a police chief to change policy.
“I don’t want to artificially raise expectations,” he said. “But is it good for the citizens to be involved in a working relationship with the police chief and have a discussion of polices — what they mean, how they can be handled better — certainly.”
Councilmember Bill Baber also added that frustration with the report was in part to “unreasonable expectations” of its scope. The report, he said, was to determine if the officer as a city employee did or did not follow the standards of his job description.
“It was never intended to be an investigation of the whole thing,” Baber said, adding that a separate lawsuit will likely bring more information to light about the Helix incident.
“We’re one branch of the government, and in this function we’re functioning as the executive branch,” he said. “But the judicial branch is working, too. There’s a court case. Some of the things that couldn’t be brought out here can be brought out in court.”
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.