AN Internal affair

AN Internal affair

Untwisting the links between a dead ex-cop and an alleged ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaign inside the Pasadena Police Department

By Andre Coleman 07/31/2008

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A personal professional standard of mine is to sit down face-to-face with anyone I write about — whether that’s the mayor, a gang member or the chief of police.

The results of such discussions are not always pleasant. For instance, after an April Fools Day edition a few years back in which the paper humorously depicted then-Superintendent Percy Clark as illiterate (and took aim at Cardinal Roger Mahony, police Chief Bernard Melekian, former LA Times Editor John Carroll and the last pope), Clark, who is African American, viewed the teasing as racist and I ended up explaining what happened to some not-so-happy members of the NAACP.

And in my childhood home of Altadena, several unhappy neighbors let me know exactly how they felt — by mail, email, phone and face-to-face — after I wrote a column last year suggesting that some African Americans use race as a crutch.

Neither experience was pleasant, but I believe everyone in the public eye should give people a chance to sit down with them and do more listening than talking when it comes complaints about the way they do their jobs.

But how does one talk with the authors of anonymous letters, two of which we received over the past few weeks regarding not only the recent death of retired Officer Dave Richter, a resident of Arcadia, but also the performance of Interim Police Chief Chris Vicino?

One of the letters claims Vicino is engineering an “ethnic cleansing” campaign in the department. “Chief Vicino has a hit list of people he intends to go after. He has already started rumors that some top-rank minority employees need to be removed,” states the first letter.

The second letter was more focused in its concern for Noah Beltran, an administrative aide to Vicino and Richter’s girlfriend who was placed on paid leave in January after giving inaccurate information to Arcadia cops investigating Richter’s disappearance at the time. His body was found under a freeway overpass — the possible victim of foul play — on March 21. Beltran is not considered a suspect in Richter’s death, which was first deemed a suicide but is now under investigation by LA County Sheriff’s homicide detectives.

That writer also took exception to Vicino’s alleged temper tantrums in the office. “Since the appointment of … Vicino, it has been observed that the morale and effectiveness of day-to-day operations have been effected in a most negative fashion,” that slightly shorter letter states. In that first letter, the writer insisted on Beltran’s integrity and stated that her leave was part of a much bigger campaign to get rid of minorities — Beltran, a Filipina, being one.

“Everyone knows the very people [Vicino] intends to go after and possibly even remove from their current positions are the very employees he has disliked for years, just like Noah. ... Unfortunately for the department and city most of those on his hit list are African American. … In 2008 when this nation may elect its first African American President, the Pasadena Police Department’s Chief is attempting ETHNIC CLEANSING.”

At least one of those minority officers, Lt. Kevin Hall, who is African America, is mentioned in that letter — which is more like a plaintive plea, containing lines like “We need help NOW!” and “an open grievance would be suicide” and “please help us” — as a victim of Vicino’s allegedly hot temper.

Although he doesn’t mention Hall or any other officer by name, Pasadena Journal publisher and local attorney Joe Hopkins wrote in his paper last week how Vicino supposedly “suspended a black lieutenant [Hall] for allegedly asking a favor [from] another black officer on the department’s command staff” to allegedly help the lieutenant get his daughter get into a summer program. The department currently has only one black commander, and that’s Paul Gales.

Many times anonymous letters contain information that we would otherwise never know about. But they also present problems, one being verifying the potentially explosive allegations made in a case like this. You just have to check them out for yourself, which is what I tried to do last week.

Beltran has not been available for comment. And Gales and Hall could not be reached to discuss the letter and their relationships with Vicino. Although he’s only been in charge since his predecessor, Bernard Melekian, became interim city manager back in January, Vicino has been as open and honest with the Weekly as Melekian ever was, and that’s saying something. He has returned every phone call and answered every question honestly — including those regarding the two letters, both of which he and others at City Hall, including Mayor Bill Bogaard, have received. However, he has declined to talk about any possible problems between himself and Hall and Gales, citing the need for confidentiality in a personnel-related issue.

If Vicino actually behaved that way, it would certainly be out of character, or at least the character that we know. Last week, Vicino allowed me to visit the department and speak directly to his officers. At one point, he left the building while a half a dozen cops were interviewed. A few others were interviewed off the premises.

Not only did no one complain, even with assurances that their identities would remain secret, none — with the exception of Beltran — have asked for help from the Pasadena Police Officers Association. Nor has any employee — including Beltran, Gales and Hall — filed a claim for damages against the city or the department.

We’re not saying everyone at the Police Department is happy. That simply couldn’t be true. Who is totally happy with their jobs? But there are big differences between having problems with someone’s abilities and attitudes and having problems with their ethnicities.

If internal stability proceeds a reduction in crime, and those numbers can be used as any sort of measuring stick, then the Pasadena department must be fairly stable, in spite of what the two letter writers say.

Operation Safe Cities, which was started by Melekian last year in response to 11 fatal shootings, has resulted in 54 arrests of gang members and no shooting deaths so far this year, with Vicino at the helm since January. Other major crimes are also down by almost 7 percent.

“When you’re busy daily with internal strife, it’s a distraction,” Cmdr. Eric Mills told me during my visit last week.

Then again, what if it is true? We all hope the two letter writers are wrong, but I can hardly ignore the possibility that they may be right.

Vicino has already said that there is nothing to the allegations being leveled against him. But if there is any chance of any of it being true, Vicino, Gales and Hall need to get it out in public now,
or let an impartial outside investigator examine the facts, before a potentially explosive situation actually blows up in everyone’s face.

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