City Council Takes Up Issue of Police Response to Protest Confrontation

City officials last week addressed the seeming delay of law enforcement action against some members of a pro-Donald Trump rally that occurred before Election Day who allegedly spit on and violently confronted members of an ongoing protest.

Police Chief Joe Ortiz reiterated what the South Pasadena Police Department had reported after the incidents, which was that any potential arrests were pending a decision from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

“In complex cases that require additional investigation or those when conflicting evidence — such as witness statements — is presented, these cases are usually presented to the district attorney’s office at a later time,” Ortiz reported to the City Council last week.

Ahead of the election, the group of several hundred gathered at the intersection of Fair Oaks Avenue and Mission Street on Sunday, Nov. 1, to support President Trump’s re-election campaign. They set up essentially opposite from where a local group of Black Lives Matter demonstrators have gathered regularly since June.

The pro-Trump rally included a number of other political symbols, including the “Thin Blue Line” American flag (signifying support for law enforcement, often in opposition to BLM) and the Three Percenters American flag, representing the militia group that espouses far-right and conspiratorial views.

“Overall, for the first five hours of the event, it was peaceful,” Ortiz said last week.

Public comments at the meeting last week largely castigated SPPD for its response to when the event became less peaceful. Reportedly, a number of teenagers were spit on by members of the pro-Trump rally, and one teenage girl was allegedly pulled to the ground by her hair during a confrontation.

Councilman Stephen Rossi spoke extensively on the matter because he was there, along with other parents, monitoring the situation. Rossi said many of the teens who were spit on, who are friends with his daughter, had to shelter in nearby Dinosaur Farm to escape from the crowd.

“I watched and listened as the South Pasadena Police Department interacted with what were understandably very agitated parents, some who actually were very good about keeping their calm but still had questions,” Rossi added. “Some of those officers did very well and were very professional and responsive and others were in fact very dismissive and frustrated with the resident parents who didn’t quite understand why ‘yet again’ a potential assailant was let go and allowed to drive off seemingly without a lot of questions.”

This comment referenced a prior incident at the same intersection, when officers released a local resident at the scene after he illegally mounted the southwest curb with his pickup truck to confront a group of women setting up BLM banners near Starbucks. SPPD reported de-escalating the situation and, after interviewing all parties, forwarding the investigation to the D.A.’s office for consideration.

There have yet to be any decisions announced regarding either incident.

“I understand the frustration from parents and I understand the frustration from residents, because I was frustrated, too,” Rossi said. “I was frustrated about the fact that our police department is here to keep the peace, our police department is here to protect those who come into our town to make sure that they stay safe, but also our police department is here to protect our residents and our children.”

SPPD is not immune from nationwide calls for law enforcement reform, and has faced fierce criticism this year following other incidents against BLM protestors. Additionally, the department continues to face heat for its response to a wellness call for actress Vanessa Marquez in 2018, in which an officer fatally shot the woman as she wielded a BB gun at them.

An internal review as well as an investigation by the D.A.’s Office upheld the department’s response to that incident, but residents have suggested that the department’s involvement in that response may have unnecessarily escalated the situation.

“Given the amount of agitation that’s built up over the last number of months — not just here but nationwide,” Rossi said, “I think we need to look and review internally — soul-searching I guess would be a better phrase to use — to understand what’s going on with our own department and actually calm those nerves down and treat our residents with the appropriate level of respect that our police force deserve themselves, as well.”