Police Discuss Race and Other Issues with Altadena Youth

A dialogue forum featuring a Pasadena police officers panel and hosted by the Altadena NAACP Youth Council answered many questions about police involvement in the community...and left just as many unanswered

By Justin Chapman, Altadena Patch, 6/16/2011

On Tuesday evening about 100 people filled the Jackie Robinson Center for a dialogue forum between the Pasadena Police Department, which was represented by six officers, and the Altadena and Northwest Pasadena community.
The event, which was called "Words I Never Said: A Conversation with Cops," was organized by the Altadena NAACP Youth Council.  A majority of the audience appeared to be teenagers, though there were also some older attendees.
Pasadena Police Chief Philip Sanchez was scheduled to make an appearance, but regrettably had to forego the event due to the Kevin Sandoval of the South Pasadena Police Department.
The reason for including a panel of Pasadena police officers instead of Altadena Sheriff's deputies, according to Youth Council President Destiny Iwuoma, is because the 24 members of the council all attend high schools in Pasadena.
"The campus police at these high schools are Pasadena PD," said Iwuoma. "So that's why we decided to do that, because it's a youth event and we wanted to reach out to the high school students. Summer time is coming up and students tend to get a little more rowdy, so we decided to have this event now so we can ease any tensions that will be going into summer time."
He said the event wasn't related to any specific incident and that he wasn't looking for any particular answers from the meeting, just "more understanding from the youth and community regarding what the police are about. That's really what it is. I'm not necessarily looking for any particular answer, I'm just looking for understanding."
While a meaningful dialogue did occur at the meeting between the police panel of six officers, many audience members were from Altadena and had complaints about the Sheriff's Department in their community, which the police panel swiftly used to their advantage by saying that they cannot account for other departments' or officers' conduct, only for the Pasadena Police Department.
The six officers on the panel included Lt. Rodney Wallace, Det. Robert Tucker of Youth and Family Services, Sgt. Cheryl Moody of Employment Services/Internal Affairs, Officers Steven Oberon and Mac Adesina of the Safe Schools Team, and Officer Rodney Saunders.
The meeting was organized into several categories, including getting pulled over, gangs, harassment and targeting, and Pasadena police involvement in the community, including parts of Altadena. Other topics that were planned for discussion had to be tabled when the meeting ran into overtime.

Talking to Police
The meeting itself was basically a question and answer session in which some confusion about protocol when dealing with law enforcement became a little more clear.
"The best advice I can give you in any situation where you are talking to a police officer, whether you've been pulled over or whatever, is to cooperate," said Wallace. "Do not make your situation worse by arguing with the police, even if you think you've done nothing wrong or you think they are being disrespectful towards you. We are required to carry business cards on us. If you think you've been treated unfairly, ask for the officer's business card and come down to the police station later to file a complaint."
Moody of Internal Affairs said that every complaint that is filed is taken "very seriously." She added that as a member of Internal Affairs she is often the one to investigate those complaints, but she said that every one is investigated as required by law.

Race a Factor?
Despite the high number of African Americans compared to Caucasians in jails and prisons, as well as research showing that young black men are more likely to be pulled over, searched, and arrested than any other demographic, several of the officers present said that race is not a factor when they pull someone over, approach a person or a group of people for suspicious behavior, or even dealing with gangs.
The only white officer on the panel, Oberon, said to an audience of mostly African Americans that he "doesn't see race." What he does look for in certain areas, especially dealing with known or unknown gang members, he added, includes gang colors and a style of clothing often worn by gang members.
"It's not a crime to be a gang member," said Oberon. "We do make a distinction, but gangs do commit crimes and so it's our job to know who the gang members are in our communities."
Questions about the ratio in jails were quickly deflected by the police panel as out of their jurisdiction. Wallace, who is the Vice President of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, acknowledged that officers are human and therefore make mistakes, but directed the conversation back to the Pasadena Police Department, leaving questions about the conduct of Altadena Sheriff's deputies and those deputies who run the LA County jail system out of the discussion. His response, however, was a genuine attempt to address the reality of bias in the criminal justice system.
"As far as the institutionalization of a lot of African Americans, yes the number is larger," he said. "But it is not only from the police department. The entire criminal justice system has a part to play in this. But this department, the Pasadena Police Department, we pride ourselves on getting to know our communities. We pride ourselves on trying to do our best in trying to make sure everything is fair and equitable. Do we make mistakes? Yes we do. Regarding statistics nationwide, I can't speak to that. What I can speak to is how the Pasadena Police Department treats you."
Check the site tomorrow for more coverage of Tuesday's discussion of community and police relationships.