Five San Diego police units recently responded to a report of two "suspicious black males" loitering outside a Hillcrest liquor store. As the officers grabbed their batons and approached the sidewalk, one of the men shouted:
"Look at this! Five cops coming after two black guys walking down the street. Don't you have anything better to do than harass niggers? . . . Go ahead. Beat us up. Just like Sagon Penn."
A day rarely passes in San Diego without patrol officers hearing some reference to the case of Sagon Penn, a 24-year-old black man who is charged with fatally shooting one police officer and seriously wounding another on March 31.
"The blacks put on a big act that we're harassing them," said Ron Manaigre, one of the officers who responded to the Hillcrest call. " . . . We go through this all the time."
To embattled police officers in San Diego, where nine police officers have been killed in the line of duty during the past decade, Penn is a "cop killer" who should be sent to the gas chamber. Many officers, including Police Chief Bill Kolender, were furious when the San Diego County district attorney's office elected not to pursue the death penalty in the case.
For many black community leaders, Penn's murder trial presents a rare opportunity to focus public attention on their belief that San Diego police officers are verbally and physically abusive toward minorities.
"We know that this harassment does not occur every day, but it happens often enough," said Ernest McKinney, administrator of St. Stephen's Church of God in Christ in Southeast San Diego. "Many black and minority people in the community believe that the Police Department is not really their protector."
The murder trial, which is to begin Wednesday and could last four months, has strained once-promising relations between San Diego police and the black community. Many black leaders, who claim that officers provoked Penn by beating him with batons and taunting him with racial slurs, are openly criticizing Kolender for the first time during his 10 years as the city's popular police chief.
They say Kolender has alienated the black community by calling Penn a "cop killer" before the case goes to trial, by refusing to acknowledge witness accounts that his officers may have acted improperly, and by criticizing celebrities' appearances in San Diego to help raise money for Penn's defense.
Kolender insists that neither his popularity nor his rapport with the black community has faded. He said he encountered no animosity during the recent Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade and that his officers in the Southeastern Division report no overt antagonism toward police.
"I think the minimal support (Penn supporters) are getting is indicative that the community is not buying the premise that there is a deterioration of police relations," Kolender said. "They're saying let's wait and see what the trial has to say."
Sagon Penn, a graduate of Hoover High School, had never been charged with a crime until he was accused of murdering Agent Thomas Riggs, 27, and shooting Agent Donovan Jacobs, 29, and Sarah Pena-Ruiz, 33, a civilian who accompanied Riggs on the police ride-along program.
The events that led to the early-evening shootings were described in detail by two dozen prosecution witnesses at a May preliminary hearing. At the trial, at least 39 people are expected to provide eyewitness accounts. A transcript of the preliminary hearing provides the following scenario:
Penn was driving a white pickup truck with seven passengers on Brooklyn Avenue in the Southeast San Diego community of Encanto when he was pulled over by Jacobs, a seven-year member of the San Diego Police Department who said he was looking for an armed gang member.
"What do you claim--'Cuz' or 'Blood'?" Jacobs asked Penn, referring to the nicknames of two black youth gangs. Neither Penn nor his passengers claim any affiliation with an organized gang.
Jacobs asked Penn for identification without explaining why he had stopped the truck. When Penn refused to take his driver's license out of his wallet and began to walk away, Jacobs grabbed Penn's arm. The two exchanged words and Jacobs began striking Penn, an expert in martial arts, in the back and shoulder area with his baton.
Riggs, who had followed Jacobs to the scene, tried to restrain the crowd that was gathering around Jacobs and Penn. The two officers used their batons as well as their fists and feet in trying to subdue Penn, witnesses said.
At one point, Jacobs stood above Penn, who was sprawled on the ground, and reportedly said, "You think you're bad, nigger? . . . I'm gonna beat your black ass."
In addition, several defense witnesses will testify that Jacobs repeatedly called Penn "a black bastard" and "nigger," according to defense attorney Milton Silverman.