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Frustrated Pico Residents Speak Out on Police Relations

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

July 18 -- Tempers flared during a heated community meeting at Virginia Avenue Park Monday night as several Pico Neighborhood residents indicted Santa Monica Police for allegedly harassing teens and keeping crime information under wraps.

Yards away from the site of an alleged sexual assault and a shooting a week earlier, some 75 people waved makeshift fans to combat the stale air inside the Thelma Terry Center, where City and police officials, as well as former state senator Tom Hayden, packed a meeting hosted by the park’s advisory board.

On the agenda – “police protocol” on how to approach youth at the park and how police can better share crime information with the community.

While some residents aired ideas -- such as appointing a czar to head a regional response to gangs, establishing more effective outreach and contacting parents when teens are informally interviewed by police -- others used the meeting to put how police interact with Pico residents on trial.

“In the case of the rape, I asked two officers what happened,” said resident Art Casillas, who said he received two different responses from officers after an alleged sexual assault at the park that is still under investigation. “I just wish police were more forthcoming with information.”

Resident Lori Williams said she also was frustrated by how the community receives information from police, which usually comes in the form of press releases on the computer or by calling a hotline.

“My parent’s are eighty-years-old… and my mother can barely work a microwave,” said Williams, who suggested that information could better be disseminated through churches. “We have to find out another way.”

Others -- including Virginia Avenue Park Advisory Board member and Pico Neighborhood activist Irma Carranza -- pressed Police Chief James T. Butts, Jr. not only for more information, but to contact parents when they interview teens in the field without detaining them.

“Are you going to let parents know when police talk to our kids?” Carranza asked Butts, as he was exiting during public comment nearly two hours into the meeting. “That’s what parents want to know.”

Chief Butts did not respond, but moments earlier he told the crowd that police do not have the resources to let parents know when they interview youths without detaining them.

“We make thousands of contacts (with juveniles) a year,” Butts said. “Contacting parents in every case would be unfeasible and unreasonable.”

Butts countered that his officers – eight of whom attended the meeting – do not receive credit for their efforts to reach out to youth, including hosting barbecues at the park and running the Police Activities League (PAL).

“I fail to ever see acknowledgment from this community in particular,” Butts said, standing as he spoke. “It’s demoralizing to my officers and staff... There’s no balance.”

Butts said police have established a hotline for crime information (310-434-2650), inform the City Council and select City personnel when serious crimes occur, release press statements on the department’s web site and provide information to the local media.

“We do the best we can, but there comes a point when we have to rely on the mass media,” Butts said.

However, while police provide information to the press -- including extended interviews -- Chief Butts has maintained a long-standing policy of restricting media access to his officers. To prevent leaks and misinformation, all information and interviews must be cleared by the department’s spokesperson, Lt. Frank Fabrega, or the chief, police have said.

A call to the department’s crime hotline Monday showed that only one crime since July 9 was reported, although three other incidents are detailed on the police web site. They include the alleged sexual assault at the park on July 11, a gang-related fight on July 13 and an ex-felon charged with possessing a gun on July 14.

Other indictments were tossed out at the meeting by frustrated parents, such as Gina de Baca, who alleged her son was beaten and stunned with a Taser gun by Police – which sends a powerful jolt of electricity to incapacitate a subject.

“I have seen many arrests, where they spray their eyes with mace,” she said.

Teens at the meeting also said they felt harassed by police -- especially in recent weeks at the park, where patrols have been stepped up to grapple with increased gang violence in the neighborhood, including four reports of shots fired since July 3.

“If you don’t know someone, then you won’t know how to handle the situation,” said Daryl, a youth who hangs out at the park, adding that a couple of officers at the park go out of their way to get to know the youth.

“It’s already a tense situation when they walk up and are asking our names and background,” he said. “You need to know the whole background first to handle the situation.”

Steve Martinez, the police liaison on the board and director of adult education for the School District, cautioned against making public accusations that cannot be proved.

“I hear the concerns that youth are being stopped or questioned, or even roughly handled,” he said. “But remember that allegations are easy to come by.”

Nearly two hours into the meeting – which was hampered by advisory board rules that do not allow direct interchange with members of the public – several suggestions were given, including establishing a sub committee to see which neighborhood groups should be kept informed.

Several members of the Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA) and the Pico Youth and Family Center, headed by School Board member Oscar de la Torre, called on City officials to more effectively use their organizations to inform the community and boost their outreach efforts.

Other suggestions included tackling gangs and youth violence the way that the City has taken on homelessness by appointing a point person, or czar, to oversee a regional approach to stop the violence.

Despite comments by Butts that he does not have the manpower, many parents asked that police contact them when they informally interview youth at the park without detaining them. Some suggested even establishing a youth advocate at the park to help facilitate the interaction.

“Parents have to be a part of the solution,” said resident Louis Jaffe. “This could be used as an opportunity to not let a situation get worse.”

All suggestions at Monday’s meeting will be discussed on August 7 at the park’s regular board meeting, after park staff and an advisory board subcommittee review the recommendations.

However, Park officials announced the community will have a chance to take up the issue in a more open setting at a meeting of the Social Service Commission, Monday July 24 at 7 p.m. at the park. For more information call 310-458-8701 and ask for Setareh Yavari.

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