SLAMMED: LA MESA RESIDENTS AND COUNCILMEMBERS VOICE ANGER, FRUSTRATION OVER SKETCHY REPORT ON OFFICER’S USE OF FORCE AT HELIX HIGH

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By Miriam Raftery

January 9, 2019 (La Mesa) – La Mesa’s Mayor, Councilmembers and members of the public voiced frustration and at times, anger at the outcome of an independent investigation commissioned by the city into use of force by La Mesa police school resource officer Scott Wulfing, who was shown on video knocking a handcuffed female student to the ground at Helix High School in January of last year.

Attorney Scott Tiedemann gave the presentation on the report prepared by Barry Aninag of B.A. Investigations, a former Irvine police commander. Aninag reportedly interviewed some 20 witnesses—but the public and council will not be permitted to read the report or statements from any of those interviews, due to confidentiality laws protecting investigations into police misconduct.  Those witnesses did not include the student, Brianna Bell, who was knocked down, and who has filed a lawsuit against the city.

Nor did the report include any details on what transpired on campus before the take-down show on the video. The report also had zero information on whether any investigation was conducted by the school or the school district, or results of any such inquiries.

The report did examine four allegations -- and found no wrongdoing on the part of the officer. Tiedemann (photo, lefft) told Council that the report concluded that the officer’s initial and subsequent actions against the student did not violate the La Mesa Police Department’s use of force policy.  The report also found that an allegation of racial motivation (the officer is white and the student is African-American). An allegation that the officer lost his temper was also deemed to be unfounded.

Mayor Mark Arapostathis, a teacher, (photo, right) pressed Tiedemann on why the student was not interviewed. Tiedmann stated that repeated calls, letters and emails to the student’s mother and attorney were not returned. The Mayor also pushed back on claims on confidentiality of the report given during a public meeting.  “Confidential to whom?” he asked, appearing flummoxed when Tiedmann replied that the report will be provided only to the La Mesa Police Chief.

Councilwoman Kristine Alessio asked if LMPD’s use of force policy is similar to that of other police departments in the state;Tiedmann stated that it is similar. 

Councilman Bill Baber asked how the report will tie into the federal lawsuit.  The City Attorney replied that the information could be presented in court or become public if the plaintiff is able to obtain the report through a subpoena.

Newly elected Councilwoman Akilah Weber, M.D., asked, “Is there information on why the officer felt this was necessary?” Tiedmann fired back that he was prohibited from disclosing this information.  Weber then said she would like to hear from LMPD regarding the racism issue. “Is there any cultural sensitivity training?” she asked.

Mayor Arapostathis wanted to know, “Was  it necessary to call the police department instead of handling this at the school?” adding, “Is the school conducting its own investigation?” 

Members of the public took to the podium.

Yusef Miller (photo, left) with the Council on Islamic Relations and East County Justice Coalition railed, “This is not justice for the community. There needs to be justice for La Mesa.”  He called it an “empty report with zero satisfaction” adding, “We’ve come all this way, we sit all this time to hear nothing about this incident…no questions can be answered.” He voiced his view that the officer should be jailed or fine, then rattled off names of African-Americans killed or injured by police across San Diego County, adding, “All this abuse in law enforcement and we come and hear a report of absolutely nothing.” 

Next up, La Mesa resident Jack Shu told the Council, “There has been a failure of process.” He pointed out that if you ask law enforcement to do an investigation, “you don’t get answers…We should know what happened,” adding that there should be alternatives to force.  Shu proposed that the city establish a citizens advisory commission for police “so we don’t have this happen again” with a potentially even more harmful outcome.

Aeiramique Meeka, a community activist who has been a spokesperson for the family in the past, praised LMPD Chief Walt Vasquet for being receptive in meetings to suggestions for more trainings.  But she told Council, “I’ sorry you wasted y our money on the report,” she said of the study that cost taxpayers $22,089. 

Then she called for actions to set things right.  “Just because something is legal doesn’t make it right,” she said, citing the past legality of slavery as an example.  She criticized the Police Bill of Rights for shrouding the investigation in secrecy and faulted Council for not contacting the school about any additional investigation a year after the incident occurred. “I was shaking back there,” she said after the presentation, “because we’ve all seen the video…We see it and you know it was wrong, when a young lady is slammed to the ground twice while she’s in handcuffs, when a grown man slams a young lady to the ground. There is never an excuse for that.”

Tasha Williamson told Council she believed the student was significantly injured and that the investigation should be made public. “Today what I heard is that it is acceptable to brutalize a black girl…until you get it right, there will be public unrest,” she warned.  “Racism still exists in La Mesa and the city of San Diego…This has to stop.” She said activists plan to “shut down” the city of Sna Diego “and if this should happen again here, it will be different.”

The next speaker, a white woman, said she agreed that a Citizens Advisory Council is needed “or better yet, an oversight council” to benefit the entire community.  She suggested this could save money and encourage mediation instead of litigation.

After public testimony punctuated by signs held by audience members displaying their concerns, the Council shared their views.

The Mayor voiced frustration. “We were thinking that this was going to shine a light…We are going to have to make some other policies.”

Councilman Colin Parent observed that issues raised by the report are a “reflection on why the Legislature is starting to change policies.” A new law allows disclosure of information in use of force investigations –but only when there is a death or serious injury, which does not appear to have occurred here. Parent said he’d like to hear at a future Council hearing about the policies and “what appeared to be a disproportionate response to the circumstances.”  He suggested contacting the Grossmont Union-High School District. The Mayor clarified that Helix is a  charter school with its own board, adding, “I was under the impression they were conducting an investigation…but now it appears that was not so.”

Councilwoman Alessio, also frustrated, stated, “I guess we will need to wait for the federal lawsuit to see the report,” adding she agreed that a discussion of the standards is needed.

But City Attorney Glenn Sabine warned, “The Council cannot direct the police chief” which would violate state law. It can however provide “awareness” on the issue.

Councilwoman Weber (photo, right)then spoke out. “It would be nice if Chief Vasquez can give us a review of our use of force policy” adding that she was to hear about options for deescalating a situation without violence including incidents involving adolescents, the mentally ill and seniors.

Councilman Baber, an attorney, chimed in, suggesting there may have been “unrealistic expectations” about what could be disclosed in the investigation into the officer’s conduct. “All we got tonight was a personnel report that is very limited by the Police Officers Bill of Rights. The high school should do its own investigation,” but added, “We can’t make them.”  However he observed, “The judicial branch is working. If she (the student) has a court case, she can be deposed.” Other witnesses could be put on the stand, as well as the officer, Baber later told ECM.  In the meeting Baber noted that if the officer, a city employee, followed policy, “We can’t punish him, but if the policy is wrong,” it can be changed, he suggested.

The City in December filed a motion asked that the lawsuit filed by Brianna Bell be dismissed. Bell’s attorney, Troy P. Owens Jr., who made a counter filing opposing dismissal, told EMC he understands the request has been denied, though the court records have not been updated as yet to reflect a decision.

Mayor Arapostathis noted, “I wanted to hear what happened in the classroom and before…I wanted to hear from the student in her own words…We don’t have the right to direct the police department, but the public can ask for it.”

Councilwoman Weber, the only African-American Councilmember, then proposed that the city adopt an oversight council or citizens advisory board. “I do believe that forming this will help with transparency and community engagement,” she said, adding that an oversight committee “gives you added confidence” that the police department is not merely investigating itself.

The Mayor concluded the discussion by asking staff to bring back information to the Council for a future public discussion on use of force policies as well as models from other cities for police review boards.

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