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Claremont officer exonerated in police complaint

The Claremont city council has denied the appeal of two people who claimed they were racially profiled during a traffic stop.

Miranda Sheffield and Evan Bunch, who are African-American, both claim that Officer James Summerfield of the Claremont Police Department racially profiled them during the stop on December 9, 2018. They were initially stopped because Ms. Sheffield, who was driving without a license, had run a stop sign, police said.

Mr. Bunch brought his concerns to the Claremont police commission and filed a formal complaint in January. In an April 1 letter sent to Mr. Bunch from Claremont Police Chief Shelly Vander Veen, Officer Summerfield was “exonerated” of wrongdoing after the investigation was concluded.

“A decision of ‘exonerated’ under our department policy means the allegations did not occur, or the employee’s actions were justified, lawful and/or proper,” the letter read.

Mr. Bunch appealed the decision, and the matter was discussed in a closed session meeting on April 23. When reached by phone on Wednesday, Ms. Sheffield said the city denied the appeal.

“They went along with what they already said,” Ms. Sheffield said, adding she found out about the decision on Wednesday.

A copy of the decision, written on April 24 by Claremont City Attorney Alisha Patterson, was provided to the COURIER. The letter details how, after careful consideration, the council agreed with the chief’s determination to exonerate Officer Summerfield.

The letter further states that although the council found the officer did not act improperly, Mr. Bunch’s concerns “did not fall on deaf ears, and we are grateful that [he] brought them to our attention.”

“Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, the city takes any allegation of officer misconduct seriously,” Ms. Patterson wrote. “The police department is reviewing how it provides service in the community, including reviewing their training needs.”

Ms. Patterson told the COURIER that due to the issue being discussed in closed session, there was no reportable action.

“Out of respect for the privacy of both the employee and the person who filed the complaint, the city is not going to be releasing any additional information,” Ms. Patterson said.

The COURIER obtained an audio recording of a portion of the traffic stop. The recording lasts more than three minutes and captures only the final section of the exchange. The audio is sometimes choppy, and some parts of the exchange are difficult to hear.

At no point in the audio recording do Officer Summerfield or Ms. Sheffield raise their voices.

In the recording, Officer Summerfield is heard explaining to Ms. Sheffield that since she wasn’t driving with her license, he “technically” could arrest her.

“So technically, if I wanted to, because you don’t have ID on you, I can take you to jail and impound this car because you’re driving without a license, not in your possession,” the officer is heard saying. “However, I don’t want to do that to you guys, okay?”

Ms. Sheffield responds that it is her birthday, at which point Officer Summerfield wishes her a happy birthday then tells her he will be issuing a citation for running the stop sign.

“Like I said, I’m not going to tow the car, I’m not going to take you to jail, because I don’t want to do that,” Officer Summerfield says. “Plus it’s your birthday, okay? I’m not going to do that.”

The officer is then heard explaining how to resolve the citation online, as well as offering an option to appear in court. He tells Ms. Sheffield the ticket may cost anywhere between $200 to $300.

Ms. Sheffield then asks, “Is there any way where that could be prevented?” Officer Summerfield responds that she would need to go to the website in order to see what she can do, but that “it’s up to the court.”

“Oh, it’s such a hassle on my birthday to have to do that,” Ms. Sheffield says. “And I know you have to already do what you need to do to prevent certain things from taking place.”

The two are then heard discussing whether or not Ms. Sheffield should get a ticket.

“But somewhere between $200 and $300, do you think this is the best way to be able to get that understanding?” Ms. Sheffield asks.

“How do you think the best way to do it is?” Officer Summerfield responds. 

After additional back and forth, the audio gets choppy. Officer Summerfield says, “I can take you to jail if I wanted to,” to which Ms. Sheffield says she perceived as a threat.

The audio ends with Ms. Sheffield asking, “What am I going to do online? Do you mean like I do a class or something?”

“You just take care of it,” Officer Summerfield says. “You pay for it and be done with it.”

The first part of the exchange was not recorded, but Ms. Sheffield claims the officer didn’t initially tell her why he pulled her over, but asked only for her license and registration. When she responded by asking why he pulled her over, she alleges, “he got frustrated with me.”

“I think I made a comment to him like, ‘you’re pulling us over and this could quickly escalate into something else, given the nature of how things go down like this.’” she alleges. “And he said, ‘Don’t try me, that’s not this. Don’t do those games with me.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’”

Mr. Bunch spoke during public comment at the April 23 city council meeting, noting he and Ms. Sheffield had followed the appropriate process of making a complaint and accused Chief Vander Veen of a cover-up. He called for the dash cam video from the officer’s car to be released.

“I hope you all look at that dash cam video with fresh eyes,” he told the council. “So you look at this thing and see it for what it really was.”

Mr. Bunch is a Los Angeles-based activist who was most recently seen protesting the death of a Torrance man as recently as May 7. According to the Daily Breeze, Mr. Bunch has been thrown out of the Torrance City Council chambers multiple times while protesting the officer-involved shooting death of Christopher De’Andre Mitchell.

Mr. Bunch was also seen protesting against the Pomona Police Department on April 1, according to an article in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.

Mr. Bunch said the next step would be to take the complaint to a grand jury. He said he wanted more detail in Ms. Patterson’s letter on why Officer Summerfield was exonerated.

“I want details on what is in policy and what is out of policy,” he said. “I deserve that.”

—Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com