Critics say awards dinner featuring Police Chief as emcee illustrates a relationship too close for comfort between authorities and the NAACP’s Joe Brown
By André Coleman 10/18/2012
As NAACP Pasadena Branch president, Joe Brown has been one of the most politically influential African Americans in Pasadena, providing the community with a powerful voice during such stressful situations as police shootings, battles for better public education and calls for equal opportunities at City Hall.
When those situations occur, it’s usually Brown, a former army sergeant and retired Postal Service supervisor, who attends the official meetings and asks hard questions of city and police officials, while simultaneously imploring calm in communities directly affected by those controversial policies and sometimes deadly police actions.
But now, largely because of what could be called a potentially revealing social faux pas, Brown is being marked for removal as head of the venerable 93-year-old civil rights organization. Those calling for his ouster — among them the attorney for the family of a teenager recently shot to death by Pasadena police officers and a former NAACP official — criticize Brown for allowing Pasadena Police Chief Phillip Sanchez to host a prestigious Sept. 14 civil rights awards banquet at the same time Sanchez was the target of lawsuits and community criticism for allegedly failing to rein in what some see as renegade officers following a recent police-related shooting death.
They claim Brown betrayed the black community by allowing Sanchez to host the Ruby McKnight Williams Award ceremony less than six months after the death of 19-year-old Kendrec McDade, a Citrus College student and football standout who was unarmed when he was shot to death on March 24 by two Pasadena officers following reports of a robbery in the Northwest Pasadena neighborhood.
In fact, having Sanchez at the event was only part of the problem for some people, who believe Brown may be becoming too cozy with not only police, but but with city officials as well. That’s because also at the Pasadena Hilton dinner, attended by some 400 guests and protested by two dozen or more McDade family members and friends who carried picket signs outside the hotel during the event, was City Attorney Michele Beal Bagneris. An African American, Bagneris is also representing the city and the two officers who shot McDade in separate federal lawsuits filed over the incident by the teenager’s parents.
The two officers, Matthew Griffin and Jeffrey Newlen, were suspended but allowed to return to work after being cleared of impropriety by the department and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. The shooting incident is still being investigated by the US Department of Justice and the Los Angles County Office of Independent Review.
“Having Sanchez host the awards caused a controversy that was not necessary,” said onetime City Council District 1 candidate and former NAACP Pasadena Branch Second Vice President James Smith. “I did have a problem with it, because of the timing. I heard [Brown] was asked by a high-level official in the NAACP to delay it, because it was not a controversy the NAACP needed, and he refused, for whatever reason. People in the community thought he had flip-flopped.”
“How can we say we want to see some type of change if we can’t break bread or sit down and say we don’t like that decision?” asked Brown, who is also an ordained Baptist minister. “As much as I believe the officers were out of policy in the McDade shooting, if I make the conclusion that I can’t have anything to do with the Police Department and the findings come back and the NAACP needs to call for change, what can I do?”
A full plate
Historically, Sanchez has not been the only police chief honored with a seat at the head table of the Ruby McKnight Williams Award ceremony amid controversy. Before Brown became president, former Chief James Robison, who is African American, was honored with the award in 1986. That year, former Black Panther Michael Zinzun lost an eye after being struck in the face with a police flashlight by former Officer James Ballestero during an alleged domestic quarrel at the Community Arms housing project, causing a near riot. Ironically, that event forever cast former Deputy Chief Chris Vicino — Ballestero’s partner that day — in a negative light among many African Americans and has been cited as one of the factors that led City Manager Michael Beck to choose Sanchez over Vicino for the chief’s position in 2008.
In 2005, a few years after Brown took over as president, former Chief Bernard Melekian emceed the awards dinner, shortly after the officer-involved deaths of Maurice Clark and LaMont Robinson. Racial tensions ran high at that time.
But today, Sanchez’s plate seems especially full. Along with the McDade case, two other officers have come under suspicion of corruption in unrelated cases, one for allegedly withholding exculpatory evidence, another for allegedly giving false testimony in a murder trial.
Caree Harper, an attorney representing Kenneth McDade, the teen’s father, in a federal civil rights lawsuit, is now vying for Brown’s position, saying the NAACP should not be as close to the authorities as it has become under Brown’s leadership. Harper, Smith and others are also challenging Brown’s legitimacy as president, given that he and his wife actually live in Altadena.
In addition to the president’s post, other positions to be decided in the Nov. 8 election are: first vice president, second vice president and six seats on the executive committee. According to a candidate consent form acquired by the Pasadena Weekly, candidates for all positions must be members in good standing as of April 1 of the election year and live or work within the branch’s “jurisdiction.” However, in the case of Pasadena and Altadena, which have their own separate NAACP chapters, those jurisdictional boundaries are loosely defined. Brown holds memberships in both groups.
Simply by observation, however, it appears the organization recognizes few boundaries in the causes it backs. The Pasadena NAACP has always taken up Altadena issues — including claims of police brutality against young African Americans by sheriff’s deputies from the Altadena substation. The organization has also been vocal in opposing gang injunctions, most recently in neighboring Monrovia, that limit where people can visit and who they can associate with.
According to Brown, the group has members from several surrounding areas, including 62 members in Monrovia and Duarte and 15 people who live in Glendale. Brown said the group would probably lose between 300 and 400 of its 600 members if it kicked out members not living in Pasadena.
The NAACP’s state and national office did not return phone calls seeking clarification.
“This has not been an issue for the past 30 years,” Brown told the Weekly. “When they allowed Altadena to be formulated, people who moved between Altadena and Pasadena were permitted to remain in the Pasadena branch, because at one point there was only one branch serving Pasadena and Altadena. They do the same thing in Carson and Watts.”
On Oct. 2, Kenneth McDade and Harper, his attorney, showed up at a meeting of the Pasadena NAACP board to, as Smith put it, “call Brown on the carpet” for no longer returning the family’s phone calls and aligning himself politically with Sanchez. According to several NAACP members in attendance, Brown initially refused to allow McDade family members to speak at the meeting, primarily because they were not members of the organization. At that point, Harper, who is a member, paid Brown $90, making the McDades members is good standing and granting Kenneth McDade — who was reportedly near tears — the opportunity to take Brown to task.
After that, Harper got up to speak and nominated every person in the room, including Smith, for the president’s position. When those nominations were turned down, Harper successfully nominated herself. The meeting ended when Executive Board member Gary Moody called on the rest of the board to finalize the nominations for next month’s elections.
“[Brown] should give them the money back. [McDade] just lost his son and he was forced to pay to speak at an NAACP meeting?” said a board member who did not wish to be named. “It’s just wrong. The NAACP should not do that to people. We’re supposed to fight for justice.”
Brown told the Weekly he had been asked to remove Sanchez from the awards program by the NAACP’s national office but refused. He had asked Sanchez to host the program nine months prior to the event — four months prior to the Kendrec McDade shooting. Brown said he wanted to maintain “the integrity of the organization,” because the local group made a commitment to Sanchez and was determined to keep it. At the time of the dinner, Sanchez and Lt. Phlunte Riddle had just been dropped from a second federal lawsuit filed by Woodland Hills attorney Dale Galindo on behalf of the teenager’s mother, Anaya Slaughter, against the department and the city. However, Sanchez is still named as a defendant in the suit filed by Harper on behalf of the elder McDade.
On Oct. 10, Smith sent a letter to the state and national branches of the civil rights organization asking that next month’s elections be postponed due to what he believes are violations of the group’s bylaws. If the nominations, which were finalized locally on Oct. 2, are upheld by the state office, Brown will face Harper for the presidency.
Since Pasadena resident Maurice Clark was killed by police in 2005, Brown has become one of the first people to receive a call from the police chief following officer-involved shootings, and he’s been known to visit with grieving family members within 48 hours of a shooting death — that is, if he doesn’t hear about it before they do.
In the case of Kendrec McDade, Brown took an uncharacteristically aggressive tone, accusing police of covering up information and demanding to see autopsy reports and other related documents before they were completed. Brown even publicly stated that he was wrong to dismiss past complaints against the department, at that time standing up at public rallies last summer alongside McDade’s parents and Harper.
Those relationships eroded quickly, however, after it was announced that Sanchez would be hosting the awards dinner. At the event, McDade supporters carried signs and screamed “Shame on you Joe Brown” as Brown entered the hotel. Harper was later escorted from the premises by hotel security, despite her membership status.
On Oct. 10, Smith sent a letter to the state and national branches of the NAACP, asking them to stay the elections scheduled for November. In the letter, Smith asserts that the group’s bylaws were violated in the nominating process for president.
Brown has admonished Smith several times for violating protocol in speaking to the Pasadena Star-News and the Weekly without prior permission from Brown, and once for a meeting Smith held in April after the McDade shooting. At that meeting, held the same day as Kendric McDade’s funeral, Sanchez spoke about the incident to several community members.
“I think that the lack of transparency is the biggest issue,” Smith said. “It causes a question of integrity. I have been asked questions about the NAACP’s stance on local hiring at the Rose Bowl and local hiring, and I took those questions to the NAACP. When people started asking about the McDade shooting, and I couldn’t get any answers, I held my own meeting independent of the NAACP, and I couldn’t get any answers. It is highly hypocritical when the organization calling for transparency in the community is not transparent to its members. That is highly hypocritical.”
“It’s a very complex and delicate issue,” said Latino community leader Randy Ertll, who also met with Sanchez shortly after the McDade shooting. “People perceive the NAACP as the leading civil rights African-American organization, so the expectations on Joe are high. I think sometimes Joe gets caught in the middle. It is not easy. On Monday you can have one side upset, and on Tuesday the other side is upset, and on Wednesday everybody is upset. If you are a leader or an advocate, you have to be able to stand the heat. It is a tough one. Traditionally, the NAACP has stood on the side of the people. That’s the legacy, and that is what people are expecting from Joe.” n