After Ceres arrests, trust chasm widens

CERES -- Food4Less store director Boyd Fuller never has had a problem with police officers.

"They're good guys. They're family men," Fuller said, adding that he hasn't seen a "John Wayne" or "big badge" problem in Ceres that he's seen with some police in other areas. "I trust them."

Karen Cooper has a different view. One reason Cooper recently moved her mentally ill 25-year-old son to Modesto from Ceres was, she said, that police were hassling him because he is half black. Police, she said, stopped her son four times on the street, saying he fit the description of a crime suspect.

"They need fairer police officers and better coverage for people that really need help. They should be here to protect us," Cooper said. "I don't think they should be trying to harm anyone unless they're in danger. They take out their frustrations on people because they have that cop power. That's not right."

A recent confrontation between Ceres police and college students at a house party again has put those racial divisions under the microscope. The young people allege officers used excessive force and hurt partygoers, who were mostly Latino. Police said the students became rowdy, hurling insults and using obscene gestures, and the officers worried for their safety and needed to gain control.

The party is one of several examples during the past two years of confrontations between Ceres police and residents:

In August, a Ceres officer shot and killed a man wielding a bowie knife during a domestic dispute. Witnesses claimed they didn't hear warnings from the officer before shots rang out.

In May, an officer shot a man several times after a high-speed chase through Ceres and onto Highway 99. The officer said he thought the man, who is black, was armed, but he was not.

In 2005, after an AWOL Marine with gang ties shot two officers, killing one, police con- ducted searches of 270 homes, vehicles and people in one day. The gang sweeps were followed by a march, community meetings and a lawsuit alleging civil rights violations. The lawsuit ultimately was dropped.

In the latest incident, Ceres police, in response to complaints from the partygoers, have launched an internal investigation. Those arrested, as well as witnesses, assisted by the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, are asking the Police Department and City Council to set up an independent oversight committee to investigate the officers' behavior.

Those who witnessed the officers' actions have filed a complaint with the county civil grand jury. Two of the seven officers, they said, have histories of confrontations with residents, records show.

Police and Fire Chief Art de Werk denied there is friction between his department and most of the residents it serves.

"It's a mistake to use this party as a litmus test for the condition of relations in this community," he said.

Although de Werk conducted a number of community meetings to address racial tensions after the 2005 gang sweeps, he said he believes what happened last month is an isolated incident.

'It's about trust'

Ceres, a city of about 40,000 between Turlock and Modesto, has grown rapidly in the past decade, from an agricultural town to a medium-sized urban city. It isn't the only city to have accusations of racial bias in the police ranks levied against it. For example, some attendees at a 2006 hyphy concert that got out of control claimed Modesto police targeted blacks.

Emily Garcia Uhrig, an assistant professor at the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, said the relationship between the community and the police is like a contract.

"It's about trust," said Uhrig, who specializes in criminal justice issues. "The fact is that there is a lack of trust on both sides -- the police are fearful for their own safety. And the communities that they're policing often are communities that they're not from, that they don't know. So the tendency is going to be to stereotype and generalize. So they might harass and antagonize a lot of people who are just trying to live their lives."

On Sept. 8, Ceres police arrested seven people involved in the party at a house in the 3100 block of Burton Drive. They face 32 charges, including resisting arrest, public intoxication, violence against a peace officer, refusal to disperse and inciting a riot.

Those arrested say police roughed them up because, seeing that they were Latino, officers assumed they might have been "gang bangers." Most partygoers turned out to be college students. Two of the seven arrested are studying criminal justice at local colleges. A few also have family members who are police officers.

Police, sent to the house on a 12:30 a.m. call of excessive noise, found about 50 people at the party.

Officers contend the crowd did not obey orders to leave the area, became disorderly and tried to prevent officers from arresting others. Partygoers said police attacked people without reason and used tactics that were more violent than necessary to control the situation, including dragging women to the ground by their hair and using a Taser gun and pepper spray. One man was taken to the hospital because of the pepper spray and hits to his head.

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

Residents split over treatment

At last week's City Council meeting, witnesses at the party spoke about what they saw and heard. Afterward, residents, one of them black, spoke about how wonderful officers are and how they've never encountered a problem with the force. But one Latino man said he was rethinking his move from Modesto to Ceres in light of the alleged police misconduct.

De Werk said he has no interest in setting up an outside committee to investigate the altercation. The students contend an internal investigation of officers by their peers will be biased. De Werk disagrees, saying there are two reasons departments have to ferret out the truth -- to stop officers from thinking that behavior is acceptable and to make sure the department covers its bases in the event of other investigations if future complaints or lawsuits are filed.

The Ceres Police Department has investigated and ultimately fired a handful of its own officers in the eight years de Werk has been chief. He recalled an incident earlier in the decade in which an officer performed a traffic stop, got angry and ended up hitting someone in the face with the butt of his gun, knocking out teeth. The officer also was prosecuted on criminal charges, de Werk said.

NAACP representatives are set to meet with de Werk and Mayor Anthony Cannella this week.

"I'm disappointed in the representatives of the NAACP and their willingness to take a stand on this issue when neither they nor I know all the facts," de Werk said. " ... I also know my officers, and at this time, I have no reason to believe they concocted this story."

But de Werk acknowledged that mistakes are made by officers, just like at any job. He's awaiting a final decision on the officers' actions until the internal investigation is completed. That inquiry started at the end of September and likely will take several months to finish.

De Werk said the fact that the district attorney's office is pursuing charges lends more credence to the officers' side of the story. Although prosecutors and police departments work closely to-gether and belong to the same justice system, de Werk said the district attorney's office isn't going to take on a case it can't win just to protect law enforcement.

None of the officers involved has been placed on administrative leave. Most of the seven have been with the department for less than three years. Police responding to the scene were Sgt. Jose Berber, 35, and officers Bryan Ferreira, 29, Julio Amador, 27, Vanessa Garcia, 24, Arthur Hively, 51, Chris Melton, 35, and Mike Perez, 28.

De Werk said four of the seven officers who responded to the party are Latino.

"People might say they've been acculturated into the white world," he said. "I don't buy that."

Wendy Byrd, president of Stanislaus County's NAACP chapter, said it doesn't matter that half the officers were La-tino.

Assumptions questioned

In a city the size of Ceres, race relations shouldn't be as tense, said Simón Weffer-Elizondo, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced. He focuses on urban issues, race, poverty and politics.

"One of the arguments against racial profiling is that police are making assumptions based on things other than probable cause," he said.

"Maybe they made an assumption at this party that, because there were young Latinos or African-Americans in a party setting, it was most likely to be gang-related. So perhaps they went in and used the force they might use with gang members. If you talk to most people, they have no problems with police using force with gang members. The problem is when it happens with normal people."

Different people's experiences with police officers may color their perception of law enforcement.

"For a long time, (minority communities) just haven't been served by police in the same way," said UOP's Uhrig.

"When you teach in law school, one of the subjects that provokes the biggest divide between white students and people of color is police power and how much good faith people provide. There's an enormous chasm of trust. Especially with men of color, it's like there's a presumption of guilt, not a presumption of innocence. Exert force and ask questions later."

Staff writer Emilie Raguso contributed to this report. Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.

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