Ceres police accused of heavy hand

CERES -- Several college students claim that police breaking up a birthday party dragged women out of the house by their hair and used a Taser gun on a man, then sprayed him with pepper when he was handcuffed.

Ceres police paint a different picture of the events early last month, saying the partiers cursed at them, used obscene gestures and did not disperse when ordered.

Last week, the Stanislaus County district attorney's office charged seven of the partygoers with 32 counts -- including two felonies -- of resisting arrest, public intoxication, violence against a peace officer and inciting a riot.

Complaints from the partygoers have launched an internal investigation by the Ceres Police Division. Those who witnessed the officers' actions have filed a complaint with the county civil grand jury and asked the City Council on Monday night to form an independent committee to investigate the accusations. They pointed out that two of the seven officers who responded to the house party call have histories of confrontations with residents.

The actions have caused irreparable damage to those arrested and to wit- nesses, who say they no longer trust police officers and see them as "modern-day Nazis," according to one complaint submitted to police.

Seven people out of about 50 attending a birthday party Sept. 8 were arrested about 1:30 a.m. Police were sent to the house in the 3100 block of Burton Drive on a call of excessive noise.

This is where the stories diverge.

When resident Brianna Garcia opened the door, the partygoers say, officers yanked her out of the house to talk to her. Three officers then barged into the house without a warrant or asking for consent, according to complaints filed with police.

Because police believed a crime was being committed -- minors drinking alcohol -- they had probable cause to enter and did not need consent, Cmdr. Mike Borges said Tuesday.

What happened next traumatized some of the witnesses, according to the complaints. One man was shoved into a wall, beaten by several officers, shocked with a Taser and eventually pepper-sprayed. Two women were pulled out of the house by their hair, and a woman who tried to document the altercation with her cell phone camera had it knocked from her hand and was pushed to the ground by an officer, who then confiscated the phone as evidence. The complaints also allege taunting by officers.

"The Ceres police department has no right to go around treating the people they are supposed to protect this way," Jesse Alvarez, one of those arrested, said in his complaint.

The people arrested at the party were Alvarez, 21, of Ceres; his sister, Marlyn Alvarez, 18, of Ceres, who wasn't in the house but was picking up her brother; Mario Gabriel Armendariz, 22, of Ceres; host Garcia, 22, of Ceres; Desiree Gonzalez, 21, of Ceres; and Modesto residents Erica Tapia, 25, and Daisy Mayorga, 21.

The partiers say they were drinking alcohol, but that everyone at the party was of legal age.

Officers disagree. They say they came across one minor in Garcia's front yard who had been drinking and that there were more.

Hair-pulling, Taser use acknowledged

According to the police report, officers arrived after neighbors called the department about 12:15 a.m. to complain of loud noise. After an officer knocked on the door, the music and lights were turned off. Officers could hear cussing and see the partygoers making obscene gestures, Borges said. When the door finally opened, people leaving the house were irate and combative, he said.

One complaint alleges that Garcia tried to tell the officers the party was winding down.

Borges acknowledged the hair-pulling and use of a Taser. He said the man who was shocked and pepper-sprayed, Armendariz, was taken to the hospital and later booked at county jail.

None of the officers involved has been placed on administrative leave. Most of the seven have been with Ceres police for fewer than three years, Borges estimated.

Two have been in the public eye.

Steroid use and trauma

Officer Bryan Ferreira was accused of severely beating Marcus Aue, a man arrested at the Merced County Fair in July 2004 when Ferreira was a deputy with the Merced County Sheriff's Department.

Aue and another man caught up in the altercation sued the department and received settlements totaling $335,000.

The Merced County Sheriff's Department conducted an investigation into steroid use among deputies shortly after the fair and punished four officers for past use of the drug. Ferreira left the department that summer. His supervisors consistently declined to describe the terms of his exit. In court records, Aue's attorney claimed Ferreira and other deputies who injured Aue were under the influence of steroids.

Officer Chris Melton failed probation with Ceres when he suffered trauma in January 2005 after witnessing the slaying of Sgt. Howard Stevenson and the wounding of officer Sam Ryno. Melton experienced fits of temper and made profane comments to the public and co-workers, according to a psychologist's report. Before the shooting, Mel- ton's performance was at or above standard, according to his job evaluations. He sued the department and was reinstated in early 2006.

Neither officer wanted to comment on the party allegations.

The claims of excessive force come after years of attempts to mend bridges between police officers and the community. After a shootout with the former Marine who killed Stevenson, the department carried out sev- eral gang sweeps that many residents thought unfairly targeted Latinos, sometimes using aggressive force. A resulting lawsuit against the police department eventually was dropped.

A community liaison was added to the force to repair those relations, and it appeared to be working to some extent.

The people arrested after the party and witnesses brought their complaints to the council Monday night.

After about 30 minutes of public comment, Mayor Anthony Cannella said he wanted to sit down with Wendy Byrd, president of the Stanislaus County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which is helping the people at the party seek recourse.

Byrd, who attended the council meeting, said the group is focusing on constructive solutions and asking for an independent review of the incident.

"They can't objectively investigate themselves," she said Tuesday.

Borges denied that internal reviews -- police investigating police -- are conflicts of interest. Borges said officers are pursuing facts and that officers have been found in violation of policies in the past. The department has six internal investigations under way, he said.

Ceres police respond to numerous house party calls each week, the majority of which are settled by a simple agreement to drop the noise level or by citations. They rarely go this far, Borges said.

"Interaction (with law enforcement) is a two-way street," he said. "People want police officers to respect them. On the same token, officers should be treated with respect."

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.