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La Mesa Was Ready For More Police Oversight. Then The Pandemic Hit

Protesters walking on Interstate 8 to demonstrate against police brutality in...

Photo by Joe Hong

Above: Protesters walking on Interstate 8 to demonstrate against police brutality in La Mesa and in the nation on May 30, 2020.

In January, the La Mesa City Council approved the formation of a task force consisting of local residents and police officers. But a week after the working group’s first public meeting, health officials shut down public gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The Citizen Public Safety Oversight Task Force was the culmination of years of collaboration between residents and police. Its organizers had a plan to create a permanent committee that would serve as a bridge between the community and law enforcement. The pandemic disrupted its work just months before La Mesa, a city with 60,000 residents and a 60-officer police force, became the focus of thousands protesting police brutality against African Americans.

“Looking at the silver lining of these events, this could be the impetus because the La Mesa City Council needs something. The people of La Mesa need something. The chief of police really needs something,” said Leroy Johnson, a community advocate who helped organize the task force. “They all really need something to say we’re moving forward.”

Photo by Joe Hong

A "public square" banner hangs on a wall in La Mesa where people can paint and post stickers related to demonstrations over police brutality, May 31, 2020.

The push for more oversight in the La Mesa Police Department was motivated primarily by a 2018 incident captured on camera. The video that showed a La Mesa police officer body slamming a female African American high school student circulated on social media, and led to a third-party investigation.

When the investigation produced little details and the police officer remained on the force, La Mesa community members began rallying for more accountability in the police department.

“That was a wake-up call for me,” Johnson said. “I’ve lived in La Mesa for 17 years. My idea of being involved was going out and running at Lake Murray. But after that incident at Helix High, that’s when I thought I should get involved.”

Since then, Johnson and other residents have been attending city council meetings and calling for more citizen input into policing policies. Advocates said they wanted a permanent committee that could review personnel records and have input on internal investigations.

“A citizens’ group met for the next several months to develop some sort of citizens’ oversight,” said Janet Castaños, one of the organizers of the task force. “The chief was not keen on that.”

Castaños said she and her team reached a compromise with the police department to form the Citizen Public Safety Oversight Task Force as a temporary working group that would propose a long-term solution to improving the relationship between the La Mesa residents and their police.

“We had to come up with something that the police department and the chief would agree to,” Castaños said. “The task force, since it’s temporary, it just gives us a chance to develop a plan with police officers and come up with some consensus on how to work on this together.”

Castaños said the long-term solution the task force’s members wanted to propose was a permanent committee, one consisting of individuals appointed by the city council. The committee could collect citizen complaints, have input into investigations and access officers’ personnel histories.

Castaños especially wants to make it safe and easy for officers to report their colleagues’ misconduct. She and other members of the task force said more oversight could have mitigated the impact of the last two weeks.

On May 27, Amaurie Johnson, a 23-year-old African American man, was arrested for assaulting and resisting a police officer. Video of the interaction between Johnson and La Mesa Police Officer Matt Dages shows Dages shoving Johnson onto a public bench. Dages and the police department were widely criticized for what appeared to be a wrongful arrest. On Friday evening, La Mesa Police Chief Walt Vasquez said the department would not be seeking the charges.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Amaurie Johnson

A still from a video of Amaurie Johnson being detained by a La Mesa police officer on May 27, 2020.

The incident led to La Mesa becoming the venue for a regional protest after George Floyd died in Minneapolis while being restrained by police. Thousands arrived in the city for what was largely a peaceful march last Saturday.

Later that evening, however, violence erupted between protestors and police. Leslie Furcron, a 59-year-old African American resident of San Diego, was shot in the forehead by a beanbag round, which was embedded between her eyes. Furcron was hospitalized in critical condition.

“This shows a pattern at the La Mesa Police Department and shows how something like the task force is definitely necessary,” said Jamal McRae, a La Mesa resident and a member of the task force. “It’s very important for me, being a father, that officers in the community know what to do and to be professional when encountering a person of color.”

McRae said de-escalation training is especially crucial.

“We would determine if police officers didn’t receive certain training,” he said. “We would give our suggestions as far as training or whatever would fix the problem.”

The task force held its first and only meeting in February. Members of the task force say they should have been able to meet virtually after the pandemic arrived.

La Mesa City Councilman Colin Parent said he was unaware the task force was not meeting in the past several months.

“It’s unfortunate because the city council has been meeting during the pandemic,” he said. “It was a mistake and one that we’ve remedied.”

La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis said no other city commissions held virtual meetings during the past three months.

“I know their frustration, and I understand that. I hear their voices,” he said. “As things have progressed in the nation, the entire city council is committed to moving forward with citizen oversight and transparency.”

The task force will resume meetings starting June 16.

“I feel very strongly the citizens need to be involved with this. I think this is going to be worldwide now,” Arapastathis said. “People are coming on board with the idea that citizens need to have a voice.”

For McRae, an African American man who’s lived in La Mesa for 16 years, the urgency is long overdue.

“It’s no longer a want,” he said. “It’s a need.”

Listen to this story by Joe Hong.

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Joe Hong
Education Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an education reporter, I'm always looking for stories about learning. My favorite education stories put a student's face on bigger policy issues. I regularly sift through enrollment data, test scores and school budgets, but telling student-centered stories is my top priority.

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