Guarding paradise is not always easy.
"What we have are people who have worked damned hard in their lifetime, and when they come to Newport Beach they anticipate being able to sit back and unwind a little bit and have other people do things for them," said Charles R. Gross, 57, who will retire Jan. 1 after eight years as Newport Beach police chief. ". . . When somebody threatens their level of comfort, they will call us."
But department critics say Newport police are often too aggressive in minding the palace gates of this resort town of 65,000 mostly white, affluent residents. They contend that the officers frequently harass young people, minorities or anyone who appears to be "an outsider."
"There is a decided policy on behalf of the police to go out there and protect the vast wealth of the residents," said Los Angeles attorney Stephen Yagman, whose dentist-client this week lost a $5-million brutality suit against four Newport officers.
"It's perceived that if a police department has a rough image, it will act as a deterrent to crime," Yagman said. "Consequently, they are . . . rough and tough, and an unwanted consequence of that attitude is (that) frequently the officers violate the rights of people who are not criminals."
Yagman, who said he plans to appeal Monday's federal court jury's decision, filed another suit against the city the following day for $10 million on behalf of the dentist's brother, alleging that he, too, was clubbed by police during the same incident.
But Gross, a 28-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, from which he retired as a deputy chief, challenges those who say his officers are overzealous. He boasts only "one complaint for every 3,000" encounters his officers have with members of the public.
He said his officers have a high-visibility approach because the department reflects the community it serves.
"If you were doing anything other than to be responsive to what the community perceives as its threats to safety, you would not be performing the role that society requires," Gross said.
"The way I try to explain it here," Gross said, "is that if I could split open the head of one of our community members, without harming that community member, and be able to get into his mind and list his priorities, you'd find those priorities start with traffic, then they go to annoyances of their peace and quiet, dogs and litter. . . . Those are the things that they would say are impinging upon us in this community--those are the day-to-day annoyances that we have."
Still, the Newport Beach Police Department has found itself in the eye of its share of legal storms, including a substantial number of lawsuits and claims alleging excessive force, false arrest or civil-rights violations.
According to city records, more than 100 such lawsuits and claims have been filed against the department in the last eight years. In the last five years, the city has paid about $270,000 to people who filed such claims against the department, according to the records.
One pending case was filed by F. Eugene Westhafer, a Newport Beach attorney who has represented police officers in the past and is currently representing Doug Killian. Killian, 26, allegedly suffered facial cuts, broken teeth and a jaw injury at the hands of a Newport Beach officer.
Westhafer said his client and some friends had gone to a Corona del Mar bar for a few beers in December, 1983, after playing in a basketball game. "Apparently there were some undercover officers who came in for some sort of stakeout or observation," the attorney said. "They arrested some people at the bar who were obviously intoxicated and started questioning my client's girlfrend about whether she was of age to be drinking beer."
Westhafer said Killian was subsequently arrested for interfering with the questioning of his girlfriend.
"He was taken down to the floor and handcuffed by two of the officers," Westhafer said. "Sometime later, while he was still handcuffed on the floor, one of the officers approached him and, without provocation, slammed his head into the floor twice."
Westhafer said the officer is no longer with the department.
Killian Called Clean-Cut
"The more I begin to hear how many other suits are pending," Westhafer said, "the more I'm starting to question my own impression, which was that, as Orange County police departments go, Newport Beach was one of the better ones and this was an isolated incident. Now I don't know."
Westhafer said Killian, a "clean-cut, gregarious USC graduate" and his father, local attorney Donald Killian, are, "needless to say, quite resentful."
"I don't think these activities are sanctioned at the highest level of the department," Westhafer added. "I discussed it with the chief of police at the time and I'm convinced he was seriously sorry about the incident."
Some department critics say police are quick to stop and question minorities in Newport for seemingly little reason.