By John Orona
Tempers flared at the Pasadena Public Safety Committee meeting during a report and discussion on Pasadena Police Department’s (PPD) review into the death of Reginald Thomas Jr. following a violent altercation with police in 2016.
The independent report was compiled by the non-profit law enforcement think tank National Police Foundation (NPF) and provides a critical analysis of the incident itself, PPD’s use of force review, and the LA Sheriff Department’s (LASD) outside agency review.
Tensions first began to mount when Councilmember Steve Madison, who arrived late to the meeting, questioned why the report did not include Thomas’s past criminal history.
NPF Executive Fellow Rick Braziel, who prepared and presented the report to staff, said that officers, to their credit, simply reacted based on the situation in front of them and that past criminal history had no bearing on the incident.
“My recollection is that Mr. Thomas was well known to our officers and that they were well aware of his experience, his history,” Madison said. “I recall he was well known to our officers and viewed as being extremely dangerous.”
Councilmember Hampton said the focus of the meeting should be as a case study of what can be done better in the future, not re-litigating what has already happened.
“I appreciate how the city manager set up the framework and parameters for this meeting,” Hampton said. “My colleague Councilmember Madison wasn’t here for that part of it.”
“[Thomas’s] history, his background, whatever he did in his past was his past,” Hampton continued. “We’re moving forward trying to make our police department a better police department and I don’t think it’s appropriate mentioning that the man was some sort of Ted Bundy criminal.”
The report provided recommendations for improving training, such as incorporating tactical decision-making games as well as increasing de-escalation training or possibly creating training modules solely dedicated to de-escalation.
Braziel noted that de-escalation attempts in the two minutes between the time officers arrived on scene at the Thomas residence and the time tasers were deployed were “minimal.”
The report also recommends using data to review use of force practices and effectiveness and to use less lethal weapons that allow distance between police and suspects, both of which PPD says it is already doing.
The most substantive criticism was aimed at the structure and very nature of Pasadena’s use of force review — the policy-mandated board that determines whether an officer’s use of force in a given incident is within PPD policy.
According to the report, Pasadena’s review “focused on individual officers’ actions as they relate to current policies and training with little time or attention spent analyzing department policy, practice or training.”
“Instead of just saying, ‘[officers are] in policy or they’re out of policy; our training is good, or it’s not good,’” Braziel said, “we need to step back and ask, ‘are we doing the right thing in the right way?’”
To combat this, Braziel recommends publishing more robust use of force review decisions and adopting a “Red Team” approach to encourage more dissent and challenge while developing reviews.
“As much as police chiefs think that people will speak freely in front of them, rank does intimidate people,” Braziel said. “I went to two different use of force reviews and there’s two different tones based on who the leader is.”
Police Chief Perez disagreed with this recommendation, saying they already have a process that promotes rigorous dissension.
“Everybody is a ‘Red Team’ member,” Perez said. “There shouldn’t be one person that is assigned that responsibility, everyone has the ability and confidence to be able to give their opinion and give criticism of an event I think we have that most of the time. I think we do have the red team approach.”
According to the report, however, the hierarchical format of the board review structure may limit organizational self-critique.
The report also recommends creating a formal memorandum of understanding between PPD and LASD for use of force investigations, however Perez said the department plans to return to investigating itself in officer-involved shooting cases and in-custody deaths in order to expedite the process.
“I believe that a more transparent approach is really for us the police department to conduct our own officer-involved shooting investigations,” Perez said. “I believe a local investigation provides this body, our community and the media with more transparent details in a timely manner.”
Councilmember Hampton noted that law enforcement best practices recommend using an outside agency and asked why the department agrees with this recommendation in their report but is still going back to PPD.
“If we stay with the LASD, his recommendation is proper. I agree with it, I support it,” Perez explained. “However, I do think there is a better recommendation and the better recommendation is for us to conduct the investigations.”
The committee left open the idea that a community body outside both LASD and PPD may be able to investigate officer-involved shootings and other use of force cases.
“It is the objective of the community to in fact have an agency, in my view, that is separate and apart from PPD doing these types of investigations,” Vice Mayor Kennedy said.
Emotions were riled again at the public comment portion of the meeting when Pasadena Police Officers Association Treasurer David Llanes recounted his own on-duty interactions with the deceased man.
“We can’t keep using excuses for bad behavior, bad behavior brought us there,” Llanes said. “Our officers were not driving down Orange Grove Boulevard to look for a project to assault a man.”
Over the vice mayor’s objections, Hampton addressed Llanes after his comments. “We’re using this as a learning experience, not to demonize a man who lost his life,” Hampton said.
The Thomas family was not specifically invited or otherwise informed about the meeting by the city and did not attend. The family was awarded $1.5 million as part of a settlement agreement with the city last year.