The Los Angeles Police Department officers who were captured on videotape beating an Oakwood skateboarder are members of a squad that is not assigned to Pacific division, which patrols the Venice area.
Pacific Division Traffic Commander Capt. Brian Johnson told the audience at a community meeting in Venice last month that the officers are members of the Violent Crime Task Force, which has been operating in the area for at least two years.
The task force officers, whose identities remain unknown, are at the center of an Aug. 18 controversial incident in the Oakwood Neighborhood, where they stopped Ronald Weekley, Jr. on his way home on a skateboard. Police accused Weekley, a 20-year-old college student, of resisting arrest after he was stopped for riding his skateboard on the wrong side of the street.
A cell phone video recording showed an officer punching the student, who was being handcuffed by three other officers – an incident that later initiated complaints against the officers of biased policing and excessive force.
Some of the residents who attended the meeting reacted angrily when it was announced that the results of the investigation of the officers’ conduct would not be immediate.
“These investigations are very complex, and you’re not going to like this, but I think it’s important to understand that no stone will be left unturned,” Johnson pledged.
It is unknown if the officers involved are still on duty.
Inspector General Alexander Bustamante, whose office oversees accusations of police misconduct, told the audience that it was better for everyone involved for the probe to be exhaustive and methodical.
“If you want a thorough investigation, one that looks at all of the issues, you’re going to want one that is deliberate and is not speeded up,” suggested Bustamante, whose office is handling the Weekley case. “That’s what my office looks at.
“I think the priority should be a thorough investigation that looks at every single issue, talks to every relevant person and leaves no stone unturned.”
After hearing that the officers involved in the Weekely case were not assigned to Pacific division, Naomi Nightingale, a Venice social justice activist, did not appear to be surprised.
“We are accustomed to having tactical units in our neighborhood,” said Nightingale, who moderated a panel discussion where Johnson spoke last month.
Ola Mitchell, a Santa Monica resident who lived in Oakwood for 44 years, believes labeling a neighborhood as “crime ridden” makes it easier for police to send units like the Violent Crime Task Force to Venice.
“That’s the history of what’s happened in our community,” said Mitchell, who was at the Venice meeting. “This is not the first time that one of our young men has been beaten by the police.”
Johnson told the audience the reason the task force officers patrol Oakwood and other neighborhoods in the coastal community is due to increased traffic on weekends as well as a high incident of residential burglaries in the area.
The department’s public relations office has taken a battering over a slew of recent incidents in which their high command has taken action against some officers. Some police watchdog groups are also wondering if previous promises to root out officers that engage in brutal acts against the public have any validity.
In addition to the incident involving Weekley, two other citizens have been involved in confrontations with LAPD, one which resulted in a woman’s death. Alesia Thomas died while in police custody after she struggled with officers who were trying to arrest her on charges of child endangerment July 22.
A patrol vehicle recording captured a female police officer kicking Thomas in the groin area during an attempt to get her into the police car. LAPD officials say Thomas died shortly afterward.
Michelle Jordan, a 34-year-old registered nurse, was spotted talking on her cellphone while driving by police Aug. 21, three days after Weekley’s confrontation. Jordan stepped out of her car and according to witnesses, who talked to news station KNBC 4, she cursed at the officers, who tackled her to the ground.
Surveillance from a fast food restaurant showed a second officer tackling her after she was handcuffed and photos showed Jordan with scrapes on her face and neck.
LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck moved swiftly in relieving Capt. James Hiltner, commander of Foothill Division, from his position a week after the video surfaced. Hiltner is a former Pacific division commander.
“Proper steps were not taken, including appropriate notifications and the removal of the involved officers from the field,” Beck said. “Because of these issues, I have removed him from his command and initiated downgrade procedures. Every Los Angeles police officer, regardless of rank, will be held accountable for their actions.”
Accountability is one of the recurring themes that Ronald Weekley, Sr., the father of the Venice beating victim, has stressed in community meetings and other Oakwood residents have taken up the call.
“My family has taken the position that we do not hold vengeance in our hearts, we do not hate anyone and forgiveness is what this family is about,” Weekley Sr. said at a press conference last month. “But forgiveness in a context and the context is on one side accountability and on the other side responsibility.”
The younger Weekley has a Sept. 13 court hearing related to felony charges of resisting arrest and interfering by force on an officer stemming from his Aug. 18 arrest, according to his attorney, Benjamin Crump.
“We want to get clarity on if they are going to charge this young man with felonies. It has always been our belief that these are trumped up charges and we want them dropped,” asserted Crump, who is also representing the family of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen who was killed by a neighborhood watch captain near his home ealier this year.
The attorney said if the charges against Weekley are not dropped, the family will pursue legal action against the police department.
Nightingale is disturbed about the recent cases of what some feel are police brutality.
“I’m wondering what’s going on,” she said. “Are they coming to light because of the (prevalence of video cameras) or is this a new trend (on the part of the police)?”
Mitchell said the mood in the community varies, but there are tangible emotions among the residents that she knows.
“People are angry and frustrated,” she said. “They’re trying to learn to keep their anger in check and do what they can to handle what happened to (Weekley) because many of us have family members who have been attacked by the police.”
Nightingale called the Aug. 28 meeting a “good first step” in seeking solutions to what happened during Weekley’s arrest.
“We expect this to be an ongoing dialogue with the police department on the beating of Ronald Weekley,” she said. “But beyond this, we expect this to create better communications with the department.”
She credited Johnson and Bustamante for “accepting responsibility for the officers” in the Weekly incident and recommended creating a police community board in Venice consisting of community members and the police.
Johnson indicated that he was interested in pursuing Nightingale’s suggestion. The captain was out of the office and unavailable for comment at Argonaut press time.
It is unknown if the task force officers will continue to patrol Venice.
The chief came to Mar Vista in November 2009, shortly after he had been appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
In an interview with The Argonaut, the chief pledged to work with media outlets and the public during his tenure as the department’s highest ranking official.
“I hope that everyone will pay attention to what the message is of the new Los Angeles Police Department,” the chief said. “This is a police department about collaboration, problem-solving and constitutional policing.
“That’s what I pledge to deliver to the public, that’s what we’ve been delivering for the past seven years and that’s how we’re going to expand on it.” ¤