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Inquiry Focuses on Police Election Activity

El Monte chief denies allegations that officers intimidated foes of a June ballot measure aimed at boosting department funding.

July 29, 2006|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

The L.A. County district attorney's office is investigating allegations that El Monte police officers tried to intimidate residents who opposed a measure on the June ballot to provide more funding for the Police Department.

Residents who displayed lawn signs opposing the measure claim that police would drive slowly past their homes and stare at them or knock on their doors and hand them literature that favored the measure.

Others say they were followed by police cars after they handed out fliers against the proposition.

One man who was handing out fliers said he was pulled over by police and falsely ticketed for not wearing a seat belt.

"People are very upset and nervous," said Councilwoman Patricia Wallach, one of the chief opponents of the measure, who compiled nearly a dozen complaints and met with the district attorney's office last month.

El Monte Police Chief Ken Weldon dismissed the accusations and said no resident had ever come to his department to file a complaint.

"No one has ever given us the name of an officer, told us where these things occurred, told us the name of a victim or a witness," Weldon said. "I hope we go to trial, because we know what the truth is."

Police are prohibited from campaigning while on the job, but can do so after hours.

The department's members, Weldon included, did not hide the fact that they were heavily in favor of Measure P, which would have provided police with more equipment, training, pay and benefits, among other things.

But Weldon said his officers played no role in campaigning while they were on the job.

"I know our officers worked hard on this measure, but everything was fair and aboveboard," the chief said. "No laws were broken."

The measure, which needed two-thirds approval to pass, fell short when it got 60.68% of the 6,800 ballots cast in the June 6 election.

El Monte, a city of 115,000, is one of numerous communities struggling to hire more officers. Voters in 2005 rejected a countywide ballot measure that would have paid for more police officers and sheriff's deputies. It also required a two-thirds majority.

Violent crime in El Monte dipped last year, according to FBI statistics, but property crime was up.

The El Monte Police Department has won praise from many residents for its aggressive tactics in cracking down on gang activity that once plagued the city. But some community activists in the past have complained about what they see as officers' heavy-handed style.

The election has stirred passions and controversy on both sides.

Four days before the election, two city officials were arrested for allegedly stealing signs that supported Measure P. They were charged with two counts each of misdemeanor petty theft, but prosecutors dropped those charges earlier this week.

Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, declined to discuss details of the police intimidation probe.

Had Measure P passed, residents would have been taxed $120 annually until 2013 for each "residential dwelling unit" they owned.

Supporters of the proposition say the funding was sorely needed because the police and fire departments are understaffed and as El Monte faces a $10-million budget shortfall.

"We're not going to hurt immediately, but people will feel the difference down the road," Weldon said of the failed measure. "Getting two-thirds of the vote is almost impossible. We did well, but it left a sour taste in my mouth. Some people can't let anything go."

Opponents say the tax would have been too heavy a burden for this largely working-class city. They viewed the funding as a way to boost police pensions and benefits.

"In my community, $120 is a lot of money," Wallach said. "When the absentee ballots came in, I was thrilled."

She believes actions of the police in the campaign had an impact.

"What I think happened was people got mad. People said to me, 'I was going to vote yes, but then I noticed what the police were doing.' "

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