PASADENA — The county district attorney's office has declined to file charges against police officers involved in a violent confrontation last June with community activist Michael Zinzun, who said he was blinded in one eye during the incident.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve Sowders, who heads the special investigations division, said Monday that because of conflicting statements from police officers and the lack of civilian witnesses at the time Zinzun was injured, the district attorney's office was unable to determine whether there was any police wrongdoing in the incident.
Sowders said Zinzun's injuries "probably occurred in the scuffle with officers. But the problem is we don't think we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt how the injury occurred or who was involved."
Zinzun's attorney, Terrence J. Bennett, agreed that the conflicting reports made it difficult to determine who was to blame.
But Bennett added that if the roles had been switched and an officer's eye had been injured, there would have been a more aggressive attempt to get at the truth.
"It's easy to say we can't prove anything," Bennett said.
Sowders said the investigation also failed to turn up sufficient evidence that another man, Frank Taylor, was unnecessarily injured in the same incident.
Choked During Arrest
Taylor has claimed that officers choked him until he was unconscious when they tried to arrest him for obstructing a police officer.
Although the district attorney's office decided not to prosecute police for the injuries to Zinzun and Taylor, it did file misdemeanor counts Monday against two officers, Christopher Vicino and James Ballestero, who were charged with unnecessarily beating a third man, Steve Rivers, during the same incident.
Rivers received bruises to his leg and a cut above his eye, according to police reports.
Police Chief James M. Robenson said Ballestero is no longer with the Pasadena Police Department and Vicino has been assigned to desk duty. Robenson refused to comment further on the case.
The misdemeanor charges carry a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $10,000 fine, Sowders said. The two officers are scheduled to appear in Los Angeles Municipal Court next Thursday.
According to police reports, the incident occurred about 1:30 a.m. on June 22, when Ballestero and Vicino were called to the Community Arms housing project near Summit Avenue and Painter Street because of a family disturbance.
While walking through the complex, the two officers saw Rivers sitting on a bench and began questioning him. Moments later, according to police reports, a car alarm went off nearby, and Ballestero and Vicino said that Rivers tried to run, prompting the officers to try handcuffing him.
Struck with Batons
In their reports, Ballestero and Vicino said they struck Rivers on the leg with their batons to subdue him.
But according to several residents, Sowders said, the two officers repeatedly struck Rivers after he was down and handcuffed.
"We feel he was subdued with blows that were illegal," Sowders said.
While the two officers were arresting Rivers, a group of about 30 residents, including Taylor and Zinzun, began gathering around the scene and demanded the officers' badge numbers, reports said. The police called for reinforcements, and about eight other officers responded.
Several officers said in their reports that during the confrontation with residents, Zinzun provoked police by shouting at officers and trying to strike Ballestero.
According to police reports, Zinzun ran about 30 feet down a driveway, out of sight of the crowd, and was chased by about six officers, including Ballestero, Vicino and Eric Navarrete.
Sowders said police reports on what happened next are conflicting and sometimes unclear.
In their reports, Ballestero and Navarrete said Zinzun slipped before officers reached him and apparently injured himself when he fell on his face.
"Zinzun lost his footing, falling to the hard pavement with all his body weight and landing on the left side of his body with the left side of his face bouncing hard off the ground," Navarrete wrote in his report.
However, another officer, Sgt. Monty Yancey, reported that Zinzun fell to the ground after being struck on the arms and legs by Ballestero and Navarrete. Yancey did not mention in his report how Zinzun was injured.
Officers Vicino and Jayce Ward said they couldn't see what happened, and another officer made no mention of Zinzun in his report.
Sowders said the differing statements made it impossible to determine how Zinzun was injured and which officers, if any, were involved. He added that confusion in the chase could account for the uncertainty of the accounts.
Sowders said a medical report on Zinzun's injury indicates that he was probably hit with a blunt object. But he added that it is possible that Zinzun injured himself when he fell.
Zinzun ran unsuccessfully as the Peace and Freedom Party candidate in the 55th Assembly District last year. At the time of the incident he was head of the Los Angeles-based Coalition Against Police Abuse, a post he still holds.
Police reports say the third man injured in the incident, Taylor, was arrested after he was repeatedly asked to leave the area.
Officer David Osterholt wrote in his report that he grabbed Taylor around the neck in a "carotid artery control hold" because Taylor pulled away and appeared ready to hit an officer.
Taylor said in statements to the police that he was not fighting his arrest or trying to escape.