Officer hit in face, taunted, police say

Gangs take over after dark, fearful neighbors explain

March 31, 2009 

The hostile crowd that confronted a lone Modesto police officer and his police dog early Sunday threw glass bottles at the officer, and one suspect punched him in the face, according to details released by police Tuesday.

Witnesses and police say some in the crowd taunted the officer as they closed in on him, shouting, "Shoot me, shoot me!" when he drew his weapon. Someone in the crowd said, "You know you're not going to make it out of here," said Sgt. Brian Findlen, the police spokesman.

Some witnesses said the face-off was "horrifying" and "like something you would see on 'Cops,' " the TV show that showcases confrontations between police and criminals.

Residents described their neighborhood as "scary," especially after dark. Gang members and regular people live side by side, they said, and neighbors fear retaliation if they call police.

In Sunday's incident, the officer couldn't call for backup during the five to eight minutes he was alone with the crowd because the radio on his belt was broken during the struggle, said Findlen. About a dozen officers responded after 911 calls from neighbors.

The incident happened about 2:15 a.m. in the 1700 block of Pelton Avenue in southwest Modesto.

The officer happened upon the crowd while responding to a report of a stolen car. The officer stopped when he saw a group attacking one man. When he tried to break up the fight, the crowd turned on him, police say. One man challenged the officer to a fight.

When the officer tried to arrest the man, some people pulled the man out of the officer's control, said Findlen. Three suspects were charged with "lynching," a term for removing a suspect from police custody.

A loaded assault rifle magazine was found later near the scene of the assault, said Findlen. During a follow-up investigation, police said, officers found a loaded, banned assault rifle. Callers to 911 earlier that night reported gang members were shooting a rifle into the air.

Six arrests

Six people were arrested in connection with the struggle. Some suspects who contacted The Bee on Tuesday said police treated them unfairly, beating them and arresting them in connection with crimes they didn't commit. Police deny those accusations. Two witnesses said police did not use excessive force on the suspects.

Police say some in the crowd were gang members; three of the suspects told The Bee that they're not involved in gangs.

The officer and his dog were slightly injured, said Findlen. Reports from officers at the scene described the size of the crowd as 20 to 60 people.

Some in the crowd were listening to a police radio scanner, police say. When they heard other units were responding, they ran, Findlen said. One witness said others in the crowd tried to help the officer during the struggle.

Coverage of the incident, posted on the Drudge Report's Web site, struck a nerve, prompting online comments, phone calls and e-mails from across the country to The Bee. Some linked the confrontation to the recent shooting deaths of four Oakland police officers, which exposed a deep divide between police and residents there. Authorities say a parolee shot the Oakland officers. "Where do people get this boldness?" said Patrick Manion of Morro Bay. "I want to go to Modesto and say, 'Who are you?' "

Findlen said he didn't see the attack as evidence of a new level of hostility toward police. "Are we seeing specific incidents or ties between incidents that lead us to believe that violence is shifting more aggressively to police officers?" he asked. "I don't think we have enough information to say something to that effect."

He called the incident a "brazen attack" that reverberated throughout the Police Department. Police will not release the officer's name. Findlen said that's standard practice.

He said the department will review the incident but that police don't plan to make policy changes. Some have questioned why the officer responded to the incident alone. Findlen said it's standard for Modesto patrol officers to ride alone in their cars. The officer did what officers are trained to do when he stopped to break up a fight.

Residents on Pelton Avenue said police respond regularly to trouble in their neighborhood.

One described her neighborhood as a "scary" place, where "decent" families live alongside people involved in gangs. During the day, children play outside. But when the sun goes down, mothers lock their kids inside, she said.

"At night, it gets nuts," she said. "That's when all the hoodlums come out."

Police often needed

After dark, the gazebo in Robertson Road Park turns into a pot-smoking hangout for gang members, she said. Almost every weekend, police chasing suspects on foot ask for access to her back yard.

The woman didn't want her name used because she worries about retaliation from gang members. She said that's the reason some people didn't call 911 on Sunday — out of fear of the gangs, not hostility toward police.

"They're afraid of gang members trying to come back at them," she said. "That's what those people do."

Another woman who lives nearby said she keeps her house stocked with homemade weapons, including a length of metal pipe stowed in a closet. She said her front door has been broken three times by people trying to break in. She's the single mother of a toddler. She said she knows she can call the police if she needs help, but if they don't make it in time, she said, she wants to be able to protect her family.

"You might have to take it into your own hands," she said.

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at lalbrecht@modbee.com or 578-2378.

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