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Group looks for change to reduce racial profiling

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

Following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the ensuing protests that swept the nation, residents have demanded the Claremont Police Department, as well as the Claremont City Council, make meaningful changes to reduce racial profiling and the use of force against people of color.

Claremont natives Josue Barnes and Noah Winnick started the group Claremont Change with the goal of effecting transformation of the city’s police policy. Both men are currently pursuing graduate degrees but found themselves back home after the coronavirus pandemic shut down in-person study at their universities.

Claremont Change organized the Walk a Mile in Our Shoes march on June 6 that attracted more than 1,300 people.

Mr. Barnes, who is black, said he felt angry, hurt and hopeless at seeing another black man die at the hands of police.

“Our normal is not your normal,” he said, which is why they organized the march.

They also launched a Change.org petition, which has received more than 3,100 signatures.

“The purpose of this petition is to urge Claremont City Council to implement policies aimed at reducing police brutality. Our purpose is to end the unlawful abuse of power by law enforcement against blacks and minorities in this country and specifically, the Claremont Police Department,” the petition’s introduction reads.

They also demand Claremont commit to eight policy changes in the police department—#8CantWait—developed by Campaign Zero, a police reform advocacy group. The changes include: ban chokeholds and strangleholds; require officers to de-escalate; require warning before shooting; exhaust all alternatives before shooting; duty to intervene when another officer is using excessive force; ban shooting of moving vehicles; establish use of force continuum (restrictions of higher levels of force, only to be used when necessary); and require all force, including aiming a weapon, to be reported.

On June 9, the CPD published a transparency report on the city’s website and on social media. In that report and in an agenda brief for the June 23 city council meeting, Claremont Police Chief Shelly Vander Veen addressed several of the issues brought up under #8CantWait.

“Since the killing of George Floyd there has been a renewed call for law enforcement agencies to adopt eight policies that the campaign’s creators say reduce police violence. The city has received numerous letters demanding that the police department adhere to the policy proposals of #8CantWait. The police department believes that its existing policies and training are largely aligned with #8CantWait principals,” Chief Vander Veen wrote.

In 2019 California lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 392 and Senate Bill 230,  which created a new statewide legal standard for peace officers’ use of deadly force. The legislation set a national precedent by establishing a minimum use of force policy standard for all departments, according to Chief Vander Veen.

Chief Vander Veen said the requirement to exhaust all alternatives before shooting is, “arguably the most controversial provision in the #8CantWait platform.” She suggests the focus should be on training alternatives to deadly force, de-escalation and proportional force.

“This requirement [to exhaust all alternatives] was rejected in the Assembly Bill 392 debate because of the untenable position it puts officers and departments in by permitting second guessing of split second decisions,” Chief Vander Veen said.

Claremont’s use of force policy also deviates from #8CantWait in that officers are allowed to shoot at moving vehicles.

During Tuesday’s city council meeting, Chief Vander Veen illustrated a possible scenario in which a vehicle was plowing through the crowds Claremont’s farmers market and asked rhetorically, “What would you want a police officer to do?”

She also announced that as of June 4, the carotid control hold—a neck restraint that briefly restricts the flow of blood through the arteries—is no longer an approved use of force technique for Claremont police officers.

“I heard the community’s concern and it is clearly detrimental to the community we are sworn to protect, so it is no longer part of the Claremont Police Department,” Chief Vander Veen said.

Mr. Barnes and Mr. Winnick are unconvinced any real change will come from just restating the policies that are already in place.

“Any statement that is not followed up with meaningful action is hollow,” Mr. Winnick said.

They characterized the #8CantWait platform as a starting point. More specific goals include creating a civilian oversight committee that would review officers’ actions following a use of force incident. Currently the police convene a use of force review board which is comprised of senior members of the Claremont Police Department.

Mr. Barnes and Mr. Winnick emphasize the problem extends beyond CPD, and that systemic racism is evident across the Claremont community. They also want Claremont to revaluate its budget, which includes an increase for police spending while cutting funding to human services. 

“The fix will not be easy. It is going to require work. It’s going to require ideas, but the status quo is broken—it’s flawed,” Mr. Barnes said.

Mr. Barnes says that growing up in Claremont he experienced racism in both subtle and blatant forms. He described the “micro aggression” of watching a white youth about his age crossing the street so he would not have to pass Mr. Barnes on the sidewalk. A few years ago when he parked his BMW near the tennis courts at Pomona College, an older white man questioned whether it was really his vehicle.

In the past few weeks, a black friend had racial slurs yelled at her by an older white man with a bullhorn because he thought she took too long at the ATM machine at the Chase Bank in Claremont.

Mr. Barnes and Mr. Winnick also question CPD’s decision to contract with a private company called Lexipol to update Claremont’s police policy manual precisely at a time when transparency is an issue. They said the company’s manuals focus on limiting liability for police departments’ use of excessive force.

Several speakers during Tuesday’s city council meeting echoed those concerns about Lexipol. However, Chief Vander Veen said the company was just providing a framework and actual policy would be determined locally.

Claremont Mayor Larry Schroeder told the COURIER on Tuesday that, “the police department, the police commission and the city council make policy for Claremont police and not an outside company.”

The police reform advocacy group Campaign Zero also collects data on police departments and issues a “police scorecard” evaluating policing in California.

Claremont’s scorecard includes four uses of deadly force over 21 years, which includes the death of Irvin Landrum Jr. in 1999. Mr. Landrum, an 18-year-old black man, was shot by police after being pulled over on Base Line Road. His death continues to be divisive.

Between 2013 and 2019 there were, on average, 14 uses of force per year by CPD in the less than lethal category. Last year there were 23 such incidents, which can include complaints of pain resulting from handcuffing, pepper spray, TASER, K9 or physical strikes.

The scorecard includes one incident of potentially deadly force in the past seven years when an officer shot into a vehicle, striking the Hispanic suspect who was backing up directly toward him.

Campaign Zero reports that among the people arrested by CPD, 47.7 percent were Hispanic, 30 percent were white, and 17.8 percent were black, with the remainder being Asian, unknown and other.

Citations issued during traffic stops include 37 percent white, 36.9 percent Hispanic, 7.7 percent black and three percent Asian. Claremont’s 36,466 citizens are 50.1 percent white, 26.4 percent Hispanic, 13.6 percent Asian and 5.2 percent other.

In 2019 there were 1,918 arrests, 894 misdemeanors, 497 drug possessions, and 22 violent crimes. The department’s budget was $12,496,360.

The majority of people arrested or issued citations did not reside in Claremont.

Claremont received, on average, 3.4 civilian complaints annually. Since 2013 there have been four use of force complaints and six for discrimination.

Critics say the raw statistics may not fully reflect racial profiling because they do not include incidents in which people of color were pulled over but not cited, or who were simply followed by police.

Furthermore, 65.5 percent of those arrested by Claremont police were black or Hispanic when, on average for Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, those groups comprise 49.4 percent of the population.

“Nationwide we have seen pressure on cities to change and we want to make sure Claremont is in no way exempt from that pressure. We will see this through,” Mr. Winnick said.

“We, at Claremont Police Department, will continue to work hard to rebuild trust by maintaining the highest of standards to serve the community of Claremont, and to hold one another accountable to that end,” the Claremont Police Department wrote in a statement condemning the killing of Mr. Floyd.

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