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National City Police Brutality Complaints Spur FBI Probe

April 09, 1987|H.G. REZA | Times Staff Writer

Minutes after midnight on March 8, Arthur Velasco and Bennett Moore were released from the downtown County Jail. Velasco says they promptly took a car for a joy ride. It turned out to be a ride that the two men will never forget.

Pursued south on Interstate 5 by two San Diego police patrol cars, Velasco, who was driving, made a "bad mistake," he now says, and exited the freeway at National City, where five National City police cars joined the chase.

What happened next was confirmed by San Diego police officials.

National City and San Diego police finally cornered Velasco, who says that, while surrendering to the seven officers, he looked at a San Diego policewoman and "hoped that she would arrest me." Instead, the National City officers hit him on the forehead with a flashlight and beat him severely before turning him over to San Diego.

San Diego Deputy Chief Manuel Guaderrama said that San Diego officers had handcuffed Moore and put him on the ground when "three to five" National City officers "threw some blows at him."

Two San Diego officers who attempted to pull their National City colleagues off Moore were injured in the process, Guaderrama said. According to a San Diego Police Department report, one officer suffered a broken finger when he was hit on the hand with a baton or flashlight wielded by a National City officer; the other San Diego officer was injured when hit on the back with a baton by another National City officer.

San Diego police say they have filed an internal investigation report concluding that National City police used excessive force on Moore.

Long-time community activist Roberto Martinez, head of the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego--a civil rights watchdog group funded by the Quakers--called the Velasco incident typical of the numerous complaints about National City police that he has filed with District Attorney Edwin Miller, National City Police Chief Terry Hart and the FBI over the past four years.

And last fall the FBI began an investigation of the National City police, its third in recent years, The Times has learned.

Specifically, the federal agency is seeking to learn if the department is systematically violating the civil rights of Latino residents, who make up more than 50% of the city's population.

Chief Hart acknowledges that there is a belief among critics of National City police, including other law enforcement officials, that his officers are undisciplined and unsupervised. But he called those impressions a "false image" and vehemently denied that his officers work outside the law.

"If you ask any officer in the county which agency (gives) more independence and discretion to its officers, I bet almost to a man they would tell you National City P.D.," said Hart. " . . . There is a belief outside the department . . . that I don't hold my officers responsible for conduct; that they're not disciplined . . . But I've got the same rules and liability guidelines that govern every law enforcement agency in the state."

Hart said he does not mind the aggressive reputation that the department has built up over the years.

"National City has had a reputation for being a kick-ass, take names type of department . . . We have had federal reviews. We've had congressmen ask questions from time to time. . . . Those things are in many cases an exaggeration. But in some cases they work to our advantage, in some cases to our disadvantage. . . . We make more arrests per officer than any department in the county," he said.

Too many of those arrests, say critics of National City police tactics, involve the use of excessive force and brutality. "There's nothing unusual about what happened to Velasco," Martinez said. "The same day that Velasco's mother called me to complain about what the National City cops did to her son, Albert Nava's wife called to say that the National City cops beat him severely when they arrested him for being drunk."

According to Martinez, Nava's wife complained that her husband was arrested in March for being drunk in public and the arresting officers beat him about the face and body. Five days later, the man's face was still swollen, Martinez said.

District Attorney Miller, the top law enforcement official in the county, said that he has met frequently with Chief Hart to express his concerns about citizens' complaints of police brutality.

High Number of Complaints

"Historically, there have been an incredible number of citizens' complaints that have been filed against that department," Miller said. "In numerous meetings that I've had with Terry, I've suggested that he ought to establish a policy that protected people against unreasonable abuse from police officers." But, Miller said, he has been unsuccessful in his attempts to convince Hart to change his "attitude and philosophy" on police work.

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