Anaheim Neighbors Confront Police

Donna Acevedo with distraught residents (p)

Donna Acevedo and other Anaheim residents at a highly emotional news conference where they called for officers involved in fatal police shootings to be transferred out of their neighborhoods. (Photo by Adam Elmahrek / Voice of OC)

Anaheim police officers are met with confrontational crowds every time they answer calls for service at West Guinida Lane, a poor Latino neighborhood wracked with gang violence, police spokesman Sgt. Bob Dunn said in an interview Wednesday.

The acknowledgement confirmed that nearly a year after back-to-back fatal police shootings ignited a downtown riot and shattered the Latino community's trust in the police department, relations between the two groups have remained sour, if not worsened.

At a Wednesday news conference in Anaheim, one activist publicly warned that rising anger could lead to more riots.

Dunn said he is also concerned about the safety of officers and the escalating situation.

“Every time we respond to a call in that area, groups of people engage the police officers,” Dunn said. “We want to work on those concerns with the community, but it's a two-way street. We would ask that people do it in a way that works toward dialogue, not confrontation.”

Dunn's remarks came just after a news conference where activists and relatives of police shooting victims accused Anaheim officers of taunting youth in Latino neighborhoods and bragging to teenagers about the men they've shot and killed.

The group demanded that the officers involved in fatal shootings be transferred out of those neighborhoods and called for respectful dialogue with the police department.

“I want [Officer] Dan Hurtado off the streets. I want him to stop bragging about killing my brother. I want him to stop bragging period,” said Sonia Hernandez, who's brother, 21-year-old Martin Angel Hernandez, was killed by Hurtado last year.

Last weekend, West Guinida Lane neighborhood residents  confronted police officers at least twice in the area, with some pelting police cars with eggs, apples and bottles, according to Dunn.

In the first incident last Saturday, Donna Acevedo, mother of Joel Acevedo, who police say was a gang member killed in an exchange of gunfire with officers following a pursuit in a stolen vehicle, was issued a traffic citation after confronting the officer who shot her son.

While in her car, Acevedo shouted at the officer, Kelly Phillips, and demanded that he leave the neighborhood, she said. Phillips' partner later cited Acevedo, Dunn said.

After the traffic citation, officers also allegedly desecrated a memorial to Joel Acevedo by kicking over candles and confiscating a poster, according to three elementary school-age girls who claimed to have witnessed the event.

Alex Salazar, a former Los Angeles Police Department officer turned activist who has been working in Anaheim, recorded the girls' testimony and posted it on the Internet.

Voice of OC also interviewed the girls at the memorial site on Sunday.

Dunn said in a previous interview that the allegation is under investigation and urged witnesses to contact the Anaheim Police Department.

In the second incident early Sunday morning, officers arrived at the neighborhood with guns drawn because of a report that an armed gang member had invaded a resident's home, according to Dunn.

Hostile residents again challenged police officers, he said.

Dunn described situations when officers are forced to call for backup because they are being questioned by angry residents, which diverts the officer's attention from the incident he was called in to handle. Dunn said officers would be happy to field questions afterward.

“If you divert the attention of the officer who's handling the call away, you could be endangering the officers' lives and the people they're there to help,” Dunn said.

Further complicating the the allegations and rising tension is a turnover in leadership at the Police Department and City Hall after both the police chief and city manager departed this month.

Dunn said that he would discuss the residents' request to transfer officers with temporary Police Chief Raul Quezada.

Talk of police harassment has been aired publicly for months, often during public comments at City Council meetings. But Dunn said that the police department first became aware of the allegations when a Voice of OC reporter called.

“At this point we are looking into that allegation,” Dunn said. “If [Voice of OC reporter] Nick Gerda had not called me to tell me what their concerns are, we would not know.”

To defuse the tension, Dunn said, police officers are extending an invitation for dialogue. And he said that since last summer's riot, officers have been consistently reaching out to local communities.

“Our hand is extended to have dialogue to anyone who had concern with the police on Saturday and Sunday,” Dunn said.

If there is a successful formula to neighborhood policing in gang-ridden neighborhoods — one that combines combating gang violence with youth services and outreach to wary residents — Anaheim leaders have yet to find it.

One recent report by the Olin Group,  commissioned by Disneyland, found that the city's youth, particularly teenagers, have limited access to services in a city with rising crime rates.

Mayor Tom Tait has been touting a proposal to create a civilian review panel to examine police incidents. That plan, however, has drawn intense opposition from police union officials along with former Mayor Curt Pringle and the City Council majority.

Some residents have argued that the disconnection in these neighborhoods reflects a larger problem: Latinos in Anaheim lack representation at the highest levels of city government.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of Latino activists, alleging that the city's at large City Council election system violates the California Voting Rights Act by effectively denying Latinos' representation on council.

The ACLU has proposed council districts whereby a district's council member would be elected only by residents in that district.

Until that issue is resolved, activists like Amin David say that Anaheim police can also do simple things to defuse anger.

“We just don't understand why they don't transfer the officers,” said Amin David, founder of Los Amigos of Orange County, the grass-roots Latino group that hosted the news conference. “Make our life better. Don't put it in our face and stomp on it.”

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek.

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