City to appoint independent investigator for use-of-force case by La Mesa Police officer on student at Helix Charter High
By Jonathan Goetz
February 11, 2018 (La Mesa) - La Mesa's City Council members heard from local residents in a lively townhall last week that filled Northmont Elementary School's auditorium. The townhall forum, unlike Council meetings, allows discussion back and forth among residents and Council members after residents speak out with concerns or praise.
Regarding the January 19th police use of force by a La Mesa Police school resource officer who slammed a handcuffed female student to the ground at Helix Charter High School, City Manager Yvonne Garrett said at the start of the townhall, “The City has determined that the best course of action is to engage the services of a third party” to conduct an inquiry into the officer’s action.
Arapostathis apologized to supporters of the student, at least two or three dozen strong, after a student demanded an apology for the City’s statement that there was an investigation underway when the official inquiry will not begin until the City Council settles on a third party, expected by February 12. Students expressed hope, and doubt, that Council will select a fair arbiter.
The third party will be tasked with determining whether the police officer involved breached any protocol. Many claimed a process should have been in place, and Councilmember Kristine Alessio suggested bringing back the Human Relations Commission. Aeiramique Meeka, an activist who organized a student walk-out in protest after the incident at Helix, suggested a Community Relations Commission.
La Mesa Chief of Police Walt Vasquez was called up by the Mayor to answer questions posed by the students. Chief Vasquez promised that all of La Mesa's police officers are about to receive de-escalation training based on a California Senate bill that requires additional de-escalation instruction.
Photo, right: February 6, 2018 - Councilmembers Colin Parent, far right, and Guy McWhirter, next to him, joked about their chairs, which were determined by seniority.
In response to La Mesa resident Marie Knox, Mayor Mark Arapostathis pledged to continue pressing the Federal Aviation Administration to reduce disruptions to La Mesa's quality of life from low flying planes coming out of Lindbergh Field. Arapostathis has already been in discussion with Lemon Grove, which is also affected by the FAA recently moving flight paths north in the advent of improved GPS technology.
Half a dozen residents complained about homelessness and several complained about a rehab recently opened in the 5900 block of Joel Lane. Many parents testified that they no longer feel comfortable sending their children outside to play now that a drug rehab has opened on their cul-de-sac.
The first speaker at the town hall was a social worker living on Culbertson near Helix Charter High School concerned about homelessness and the recent use of force incident at Helix. “We've had an increase in our homeless community members and we all know that the cost of housing is out of control... services are inadequate throughout the county,” she said. “I would like to hear what the City Council is doing to address it in terms of the root causes... instead of nuisance citations.”
Second, she asked about Helix High School. “I very much want to hear from the Council tonight what you intend to do moving forward. The students at Helix High, their parents, and those of us that pay taxes, and the police officers, need to know that the City Council is going to work with us to make sure students feel safe on campus... to make sure there are processes in place... I have been the first to testify on behalf of our first responders,” she noted, then shared details about times she has publicly supported initiatives to increase the resources of La Mesa’s police and fire departments. But she added, “We need a cultural shift; they need training on emotional intelligence, on harm reduction…”
Councilman Parent addressed her question on homelessness. “I hear the concerns about homelessness a lot in La Mesa. I think it's a real and growing issue in our city,” he stated, adding, “I participated in the homeless count... We recently joined the regional continuum of care. That’s something that we were faulted for by the County Grand Jury report, and we've remedied that.”
Parent said that housing affordability is one of the biggest drivers of homelessness, specifically, a lack of affordable homes. He noted that Mesa has adopted affordability bonuses. “We're meeting those obligations here in La Mesa and my Council colleague Kristine Alessio and I formed the housing affordability subcommittee.”
The speaker replied regarding the police training, “I am a social worker. I am happy to be a resource for this, to better train the staff and make sure we have better relationship …and that the de-escalation training is proactively training. It's a training that the best restraint is no restraint... clearing the room and bringing in counselors… there's lots of things that can be discussed.”
Mayor Arapostathis, a teacher, addressed the speaker’s concerns about Helix, stating that “nothing should be off the table.” No matter what conclusion the investigation reaches, he believes changes are going to happen “not at just Helix High School-- they're the catalyst, but this is being discussed at every school, with every staff--the idea that something needs to be done, there needs to be adequate training…. Where I'm at, we're having staff meetings so the students know that we're doing what's in their best interest.”
Alessio suggested, “One thing that we might do is resurrect…the Human Relations Commission.” She explained that it died due to lack of interest, but could be brought up again in March during Council's strategic planning. “Our city doesn't want people to feel vulnerable... going forward we're going to take all the steps we can to make sure this doesn't happen again,” she added.
Sandra de Danno complimented the City on well-kept roads, but registered concern about homelessness, and people bringing pets into the store. “Every time I found a dog in the frozen food section i complained to the staff... I go to the manager (and they tell me) 'there's nothing we can do and it's not against the law and you can't ask people if they (are service dogs).'”
Mayor Arapostathis told her “We can't pass an ordinance once you're on the private property as a patron of the store... we can pass ordinances about not having pets in the streets or on the sidewalks but we can't pass ordinances about (private property).”
McWhirter said, “I've worked with homeless for decades--Father Joe's Village, San Diego Blood Bank, East County Transitional Living Center in El Cajon, to help people.” But he added, “Homelessness is like a hydra, it has so many different heads: it could be mental illness, finance... homeless counting, what good does that do? They don't just count, they try to connect them with family... The County needs to step up, we need to work, we need to improve,” he said, adding that he appreciates the concern.
A man from the 4300 block of Pomona Ave. talked about progress he's seen since coming to the same Townhall last year on one key issue, shutting down illegal marijuana dispensaries. However, his other concern, traffic, has actually gotten worse.
He said, “We talked about traffic, we talked about speeding, and we got the trailer to come out and it slowed traffic down for a couple weeks, we had police officers giving out tickets.” But now, he added, “Traffic is much worse. Lyft drivers, Uber drivers, I counted 72 cars on our street in one minute... Mr. Morrow said we're going to look at traffic calming plans, but it's been a year and it's getting worse... I have cones, buckets, a ladder, all of these things have flown off cars because they're going over the speed bumps so fast.”
He thanked the City for shutting down unpermitted dispensaries, saying “I know under prop U we were allowed to have medical marijuana dispensaries. I could see six from my house. Thank you for shutting them down.”
One man on Yorkshire Ave. shared how his eldest daughter “was almost snatched going to the YMCA and the police took care of us, the Police Chief took care of us.” He was nearly in tears when he said, “I just want to praise the police department.” In an apparent reference to the Helix situation, he added, “This is a terrible thing but these aren't bad people, maybe a bad day, maybe a bad decision. It's a hard job; I can't imagine to do that job.” He further commended the City, saying, “I respect the City government. I've seen nothing but growth and changes in City management since I came to the City.” To the Police Chief he added, “Thank you from my family to yours.”
A woman from Fletcher Hills in La Mesa spoke about a drug rehab that opened near Harry Griffin Park. “I see some of my neighbors in the audience. The issue is a drug rehab facility has opened on our cul-de-sac of 22 houses. This is a very tight-knit community. We have block parties I know every neighbor on our street. We have had this facility operating on our street for a month. The parking, the traffic, the smoking, the noise, the lack of privacy, the change to the overall feel of our neighborhood-- a medical glove was found on our street. We have kids that used to play on our cul-de-sac and we don't feel comfortable letting our kids play outside unsupervised…We feel that we are at risk because these people know when we're home.”
Another woman spoke on the same issue. “We support those who are recovering and we support those who have an addiction issue, and our issue is with the lack of communication.... We're also concerned about housing values on Joel Lane.” She noted that the group home is allowed to have up to six residents. “We're not sure if they say they have a license; we don't know what La Mesa's zoning restrictions are for unlicensed group homes. Some of these are legitimate and some are less so.”
The City Attorney replied “If it's six people or fewer and licensed by the state, there's nothing we can do. We've had some success in another neighborhood where the residents sat down with the group home issues and came to some resolve on some of the issues.”
Mayor Arapostathis expressed that this has come up before, but there's not much the City can do.
Alessio offered to help the families there, saying “I was the liaison (in a similar situation), I would be glad to help again. I've made it my life's work if you need if you want someone from the City to sit there.”
Someone said, “I spent some time looking at the legislation today. It seems like something can be done at the state (level).”
Arapostathis said he has spoken with Assemblywoman Shirley Weber about the topic.
Another resident said, “It's really changing the neighborhood our understanding is that these people can't interact with us. They don't look up at us, they're not allowed to interact with us.”
Another resident said, “Four year ago I moved into this house, I saved and I moved into this house, and now i have these kinds of people... they don't belong in a cul-de-sac. They do not belong in a residential neighborhood.”
Another woman spoke on the Helix incident. “A lady ran me off the road and said she was going to take my children, but a good Samaritan jumped into the way. It took 30 minutes (for the police to arrive and) they ran her description, they ran her license plate. They knew who she was, nothing was done.” She added that the good Samaritan told her the woman’ smelled of alcohol. ”I said, I'm really concerned because she tried to snatch my kids. They took no report.” She said that the police should have done their job in her incident and they should have done their job at Helix.
A woman complained that her next door neighbors were growing “skunk weed” in their backyard and that it takes a giant, noisy fan to blow the stink away from her patio. “It stinks to high heaven; one of my neighbors came by and said, 'It smells like a skunk.'"
The City Attorney said that under Proposition 64, a state measure passed by the voters a couple years ago, anyone is authorized to grow six marijuana plants or fewer indoors and the city cannot prohibit that, but that “this city has taken action to outlaw the outdoor cultivation of plants” and recommended that she call code enforcement.
A man who lives behind Grossmont High School said that his Toyota Tacoma has been broken into at least five times. “What can i do to get refunded for all the stuff that's been stolen off my truck?” he asked.
City Manager Yvonne Garrett told him, “You can come to City Hall to the front counter at the City Hall and file a claim,” adding, “I would recommend you not leave your valuables in your car.”
Aeiramique Meeka said, “It's been 19 days since Bri was slammed on the concrete,” referring to the Helix student. “In the last town hall, you talked about hiring a third party... Has that third party been hired? What does it look like after this third party does an investigation?” She noted that a county grand jury previously recommended that the city appoint a community relations committee, but didn’t do so. “You have no civilian representation to investigate any kind of injustice,” she observed. “You had an opportunity to do what is right and didn't do that... What are we going to do in terms of putting this officer on suspension? You are on the wrong side, and you have the ability and you have the power over this police officer to do the right thing. So today I'm simply asking what are you going to do?” then called out the Mayor specifically.
A city representative clarified that the Mayor doesn't have the ability to suspend an officer, because in La Mesa the role of Mayor is more ceremonial than managerial; he has the same amount of legislative power as the City Councilmembers. The City Manager has the power to hire an investigator and has just concluded interviews of potential investigators. One Councilmember told East County Magazine to expect a decision by the end of Monday. February 12.
The investigator will evaluate the incident in light of departmental policies to determine if any policies have been breached and if any policies have been breached.
The police officer is currently on administrative leave pending conclusion of the investigation.