A former Irvine deputy police chief said he believes one of two Pasadena police officers involved in a local traffic stop that led to the violent arrest of an Altadena motorist was lying when he said he did not know why his partner decided to pursue an African-American driver who later suffered a broken leg and head and other injuries in the incident.
That was but one of numerous violations of police policies and procedures in the bloody takedown and arrest of then-21-year-old Christopher Ballew of Altadena by Pasadena police Officers Zachary Lujan and Lerry Esparza. The incident occurred in the parking lot of a gas station on the corner of Woodbury Road and Fair Oaks Avenue just before 8 p.m. on Nov. 9, 2017.
The encounter turned violent after Ballew refused to let the officers handcuff him. Video footage of the incident recorded by a passerby standing at a bus stop on Fair Oaks showed Ballew being hit in the head with fists and across his legs and ankles with an extended metal police baton. The footage was posted weeks later on Facebook, prompting outraged residents to demand the firing of the two officers involved.
Instead, then-Police Chief Phillip Sanchez assigned them to desk duty, where they remain today.
As part of a civil rights lawsuit filed against the city, the department and the two officers involved, Jeffrey Noble, a retired 28-year veteran of the Irvine Police Department who currently works as a consultant and expert witness on issues related to police policies, procedures and use of force, was retained by Ballew’s attorney, John Burton of Pasadena. Ballew is suing for excessive force, false arrest, falsification of reports, delay or denial of medical care, and excessive bail in relation to the incident.
Although he was not available to be interviewed, Noble said in a declaration that the traffic stop was made on “a racially motivated pretext that went sideways.”
Not Everyone is a Gangster
According to court papers, Esparza said he claimed that he believed Ballew was a gang member because he was driving in a known gang area where there had recently been a shooting, and Ballew was wearing a blue sweater. Esparza claims the Altadena Bloc Crips gang wears blue.
The claim about the Altadena Bloc Crips disputes Esparza’s claim that he did not know he had traveled outside of his Pasadena jurisdiction. Unincorporated Altadena is patrolled by LA County sheriff’s deputies. The two Pasadena officers, both recent lateral hires from other police agencies, were several blocks north of Woodbury Road — the dividing line between Altadena and Pasadena — when they saw Ballew’s vehicle, a late-model Mercedes Benz with tinted windows and missing a front license plate. Many of Noble’s opinions were based upon the officers’ body worn camera video, which was released by City Manager Steve Mermell — a defendant in the lawsuit — after the incident drew national attention.
Noble also reviewed the video recorded by the bystander, who has never been identified, and the depositions of Esparza and Lujan.
According to data compiled by Burton, 43 Hispanic and 31 African-American motorists were told to get out of their cars during traffic stops in 2016, 2017 and the first half of 2018, while information about them was recorded by officers on field interview cards. Two white motorists were removed from their vehicles and subjected to field interviews during that time period. Fifteen of the people told to get out of their cars and sit on a curb while their vehicles were searched were arrested.
Esparza claimed in court documents that he has never contacted a white Altadena Crip and that white gang members are rare in Pasadena.
According to city officials, the discrepancy in numbers does not confirm racial profiling but instead reflects the demographics of local gangs which they say are primarily Latino and African American.
Failure to Communicate
According to a court declaration, Noble said the two officers never discussed why they were pulling Ballew over.
“Even though [Officer Lerry Esparza] saw Mr. Ballew’s vehicle did not have a front [license] plate and had its windows tinted in violation of the Vehicle Code, Officer Esparza claimed he did not know why Officer [Zachary] Lujan made a U-turn and began to follow Mr. Ballew,” Noble wrote.
The officers were part of the department’s Special Enforcement Unit — which works to suppress gang activity — on the night of the incident. Ballew has no gang affiliation and was not charged with a crime.
Noble wrote the officers’ claims that they did not discuss the decision to turn around and follow Ballew could mean they are trying to hide facts from investigators.
“The supposed failure to communicate between officers is inconsistent with generally accepted police practices, and is suggestive of officers who are concealing information from their questioner,” Noble wrote.
Last week, city spokeswoman Lisa Derderian told the Pasadena Weekly that Noble’s conclusions are designed to favor the plaintiff’s litigation, not to objectively review the overall work of the department.
The city has hired its own police expert, Robert Fonzi, who claims the force used that night was justified. The former San Bernardino undersheriff concluded that the two officers acted in self-defense during the incident. Punches and baton strikes, Fonzi wrote, were consistent with standard police practices and were reasonable, given “the totality of the circumstances.”
Noble, according to his resume, has been retained as both a defense and a plaintiff’s expert in over 150 cases in the states of Washington, Missouri, California, Louisiana, Ohio, Texas, New York, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, Illinois, Georgia, Arkansas, Minnesota, Virginia, Florida, New Mexico, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Idaho, Connecticut, Colorado, Arizona and New Jersey. He’s also testified as an expert in the states of California, Washington, Tennessee, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Ohio.
In the course of his evaluation in Pasadena, Noble reviewed police reports; complaint documents; body camera documents; a use of force report; depositions by police Cmdr. Cheryl Moody, City Manager Mermell, police Sgt. Det. Tim Bundy, Officers Esparza and Lujan; civilian video; body cam video from Esparza and Lujan; body cam footage of Bundy interviewing Ballew; the Pasadena Police Department Policy Manual; and declarations from Bundy, Lujan, Sgt. Roger Roldan, and former Chief Sanchez.
In the final analysis, he found that:
* The detention of Mr. Ballew was contrary to generally accepted police practices.
* A reasonable police officer would not have believed that Mr. Ballew was a gang member or that he was associated with any criminal gang.
* Police officers are trained that uses of force must be objectively reasonable and must be proportional.
* The use of force by Officer Esparza by grabbing Mr. Ballew’s arm was excessive, objectively unreasonable and inconsistent with generally accepted police practices.
* Officer Esparza’s and Officer Lujan’s use of force after Mr. Ballew’s initial detention was excessive, objectively unreasonable and inconsistent with generally accepted police practices.
* The arrest of Mr. Ballew for assault with a deadly weapon upon a peace officer was inconsistent with generally accepted police practices.
* Any reasonable neutral supervisor would have seen the same issues that I have discussed throughout this report and would have never approved the arrest of Mr. Ballew.
* The Pasadena Police Department failed to investigate serious allegations of misconduct.
In the summary of his opinions on the incident, Noble also found:
* The officers were working “gang enforcement” outside their assigned jurisdiction, not traffic enforcement. The detention of Mr. Ballew appears to have been improperly motivated based on race rather than minor Vehicle Code infractions, and the measures taken exceeded the scope of any detention required for such a stop, and thus were contrary to generally accepted police practices.
* A reasonable police officer would not have believed that Mr. Ballew was a gang member before he parked his vehicle, after he parked his vehicle, or after his arrest.
* Officer Esparza’s decision to physically control Mr. Ballew for the purpose of a pat down search was inconsistent with generally accepted police practices. There were no articulable facts suggesting that Mr. Ballew was armed and dangerous.
* The Pasadena Police Department’s ongoing refusal to investigate, and therefore to discipline, Officers Lujan and Esparza is inconsistent with generally accepted police practices.
On the Border
During the brutal confrontation, the former John Muir basketball standout grabbed the police baton as Esparza was striking him, but he never gained control of the weapon. Lujan drew his handgun but holstered it. The baton fell to the ground after Esparza struck Ballew.
“Officer Esparza acknowledges that Mr. Ballew made no attempt to strike him or Officer Lujan with the baton, and officer Lujan also testified that he never saw Mr. Ballew attempt to strike anyone with the baton,” Noble wrote.
But even after the baton was on the ground, the officers continued to strike Ballew with punches to the head and strikes to legs with the baton, which Esparza immediately picked up before trying to arrest him.
Ballew suffered a broken leg and multiple cranial contusions after the officers slammed his head into the pavement.
“All force used in this incident was excessive, objectively unreasonable and inconsistent with generally police practices,” Noble wrote.