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Hermosa Police Probed by FBI

Department, accused of civil rights violations and a coverup, says it has turned over documents.

June 20, 2005|Matt Lait and Scott Glover | Times Staff Writers

The FBI has launched an investigation into allegations that Hermosa Beach police officers roughed up and falsely arrested three area residents last spring and then lied in police reports and in court to justify their actions.

At least two of the three said they have been interviewed by agents in recent weeks.

Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Los Angeles office, confirmed that the bureau had opened a preliminary inquiry into alleged civil rights violations, but she declined further comment.

Hermosa Beach police spokesman Paul A. Wolcott said the department has turned over all documents relating to the arrests of Diana "Michelle" Myers, Robert Nolan and Joel Silva.

Wolcott said the department also turned over the results of an internal affairs investigation that exonerated Officer Todd Lewitt and several others involved in the arrests.

Wolcott defended the officers' actions, adding that Myers, Nolan and Silva "have gone on a crusade against this department."

Meanwhile, the FBI has also interviewed Lewitt, who declined to comment. A source familiar with the case said Lewitt's interview dealt with "upper police and city management issues," however, not with his role in the May 2004 incident that sparked the civil rights complaint.

The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, declined to say who initiated the interview or to provide further details about what was discussed.

The three residents were arrested May 23, 2004, as they walked along a seaside plaza in downtown Hermosa Beach.

Nolan, 31, a mechanical engineer, and Myers, 36, a bartender, are a couple and live in Hermosa Beach. Silva, 31, owns a hair salon in Manhattan Beach and lives in Lawndale.

According to police reports, the three friends were obstructing the path of a sergeant who was attempting to drive his patrol car along a public walkway leading to the city pier.

When the sergeant blew his car's horn, one of the pedestrians struck the hood of the car and all three started yelling profanities, police reports say.

The sergeant got out of his car and attempted to detain them. Lewitt, who was standing nearby, said he grabbed Nolan as he tried to leave the scene. When Nolan resisted, Lewitt said, he took him "to the ground" to arrest him.

At that point, police allege, Silva and Myers tried to assist Nolan. When they refused to stop, they were arrested as well. All three were booked on suspicion of obstructing police and being drunk in public.

Nolan and Silva acknowledged shouting a profanity at the sergeant, but all three denied striking the police car or interfering with the police in any way.

They said that had been at a local bar that evening but that none of them had been drinking to excess or was intoxicated. They claimed Lewitt approached Nolan from behind, without warning, and placed him in a chokehold. Myers and Silva said they were arrested for no reason.

Myers said an officer grabbed her by the arm and arrested her after she had asked people nearby if they had witnessed any brutality. She said she had bruises for weeks after the officer grabbed her. Nolan said he suffered shoulder and neck injuries.

In February, a jury acquitted Silva of obstructing police. The public drunkenness allegation had been dropped before the trial. The jury also acquitted Myers on the drunkenness charge and hung 9 to 3 in favor of acquittal on the obstruction charge. The jury hung in favor of acquitting Nolan on both counts. All charges against Myers and Nolan were ultimately dismissed.

"The bottom line is that these cops were out of control," said Thomas E. Beck, the attorney representing the three.

After their arrests, Nolan wrote letters to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office and the U.S. attorney in which he alleged that many other people have been victimized by Hermosa Beach officers and that the city leadership has turned a deaf ear to their complaints.

Myers was interviewed by the FBI last week; Nolan was interviewed two weeks ago.

Wolcott, the police spokesman, said he was confident that the vast majority of the city's residents supported the police. "If we had a pattern or a culture of out-of-control brutal cops, we wouldn't exist," Wolcott said. "There would be a hue and cry from the community. They wouldn't tolerate it."

City Councilman Sam Edgerton said Police Chief Michael Lavin told him that the FBI investigation was merely a routine inquiry. "It's a big yawn," Edgerton said.

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