Chino gang prevention measure draws wrath of parents, students

Chino gang prevention measure draws wrath of parents, students
Mayor Eunice Ulloa says parents will now be contacted when children are questioned, which was the root of conflict.
By David Hermann
Inland Valley Voice

March 3, 2003

CHINO — Long-simmering tensions between members of this city’s large Latino community and local police have boiled to the surface again as some Latino residents are complaining about what they describe as discrimination and harassment by police officers.

“They treat us like dogs,” Elio Mendo told the City Council during its Feb. 18 meeting. “We’re not dogs. We’re human beings, just like you guys.”

Mendo is one of half-a-dozen local youths who claimed at the meeting that they had been victims of police harassment and mistreatment in recent months.

Five Ramona Junior High School eighth-graders told the council how they and five of their fellow students were unexpectedly called out of class and sent to the principal’s office in December to be interviewed and photographed by two Chino gang task force officers regarding alleged gang recruiting at the school.

Edwin Badios, 13, told the council that he had asked one of the officers who had interviewed him if it would be reported to his parents.

“I won’t say anything if you don’t,” Badios said the officer replied.

Neither school officials nor police ever told the boys’ parents about the interviews or the photos, something that has angered the teens’ families.

A grandmother’s fears

Emma Valencia, 56, is the grandmother of one of the boys who was interviewed by police.

“My grandson has never been arrested, never been in trouble with the law,” she said. “So when Leo first told me about this, I couldn’t believe my ears. I thought, ‘Why didn’t I get a phone call? Why didn’t someone tell me?’ ”

Valencia said she regularly picks up the boys who police questioned in her minivan after school.

“They are all good kids,” she said. “They’re not gang members, they’re just typical eighth-graders.”

Valencia, who is caring for her grandson because his father is in jail for a drug conviction, said she still worries about her grandson’s future.

“I lost my son — he made his choices and he’s paying for what he got involved in,” she said. “Now, my little grandson that’s never done anything to merit this, they’ve already labeled him a gang member. I want to see these boys be something, be productive in this community. But how can they if already at the age of 13 they’re [police] already stepping on them and not giving them a chance to open up and be the good young men that they want to be?”

She said the parents want the police to return the photos that they took of the boys and take their names off of the department’s gang member list.

Within the law

Police Chief Gene Hernandez said the department has no formal list of gang members. He added that any information the officers collected on Leo Valencia and the other boys is confidential and will not be released.

As for returning the photos, Hernandez said that is not an option.

“We can maintain intelligence photos and we’re going to maintain them,” he said.

Hernandez said officers were operating within the law when they interviewed and photographed the teens.

“The law allows us to photograph if we’re conducting a criminal investigation and gang recruiting on school grounds is a crime,” he said.

Hernandez said police had been informed that the boys in question were involved in gang recruitment.

If the boys were involved in a crime, why weren’t any of them arrested or at least suspended from school, asked Maria Gonzalez.

Gonzalez is the chairwoman of the Chino/Ontario chapter of the Mexican Political Assn., a Moreno Valley-based statewide community activist organization that focuses on Latino issues.

She said she has heard the department’s claims and been frustrated by its lack of parental notification three years ago.

In that instance, a Chino Police Department school resource officer was interviewing Chino High School students without parental knowledge or consent.

A U.S. Department of Justice mediator helped broker an agreement that was signed by local police and the parents that Gonzalez said was supposed to stop police officers from contacting high school students without notifying their parents.

“Now it’s at the junior high level and you’re talking about 12- and 13-year-olds,” Gonzalez said. “Why can’t they [police] go to the parents and say we have a concern about your son? We feel like it’s a slap in the face to the parents to go behind their backs.”

Gonzalez said police are profiling, labeling and treating Latino teens as criminals without any proof of criminal activity.

She cited Elio Mendo’s tale at the council meeting as evidence that police in Chino are out of control.

Mistaken identity

Mendo, 17, told the council that he was walking home from boxing practice at Chino’s Neighborhood Activity Center on Nov. 18 when an officer stopped him in front of a friend’s house.

The Buena Vista High School student said the officer called for backup and a short time later he was on the ground, surrounded by police with their guns drawn and pointed at him.

Mendo said one officer jumped on his back and asked him if he had known a local teen who recently had been killed. When Mendo responded that he did know the boy, he alleges that the officer put his gun to the back of his head and threatened to “blow you away just like him.'”

When Mendo’s Spanish-speaking father arrived and attempted to ask police why his son was on the ground, he said he was told by one officer that he was in the United States and should speak English.

Mendo said after police determined that he wasn’t the teen that police initially thought he was, some officers apologized.

He said the officer who had threatened him simply laughed and said, “Oops, wrong guy.”

Inappropriate conduct

Chief Hernandez said what happened to Mendo was a case of mistaken identity and that officers confused the boy with another teen who had just stolen a car.

“There were legal reasons for the contact and the resulting actions,” Hernandez said. “He looked like the individual we were looking for. He admitted that.”

As for Mendo’s allegations about his officers’ conduct, Hernandez said they have been addressed.

“We investigated the claims and inappropriate conduct was dealt with,” Hernandez said, adding that he could not elaborate on what disciplinary actions had been taken.

Hernandez said that it is inappropriate for a police officer to tell anyone who speaks another language that they are in America and should be speaking English.

“It’s also stupid,” he said.

Valencia said Mendo and the other boys who the police questioned all live in one of Chino’s more modest neighborhoods.

“They probably feel that because these kids are Mexicans and they’re not wealthy, they probably feel that nothing’s going to happen — that they can do all these things and get away with them,” the grandmother said. “That’s true. All these families, we’re not well off. We don’t have extra money for lawyers or anything like that. All we can do is speak up.”

Valencia and some of the other parents filed complaints about the incident at Ramona Junior High with the Chino Valley Unified School District, which conducted an investigation.

In a letter dated Jan. 27, the district’s complaint compliance officer, Roberto Casas, states that the boys were questioned because of information from district security suggesting that they were involved in bullying and gang recruitment on campus.

Casas goes on to acknowledge that neither police nor the district informed the parents of the interviews and states that in the future school administration will immediately attempt to contact a parent, guardian or responsible relative by telephone when police come on campus to question or arrest a student.

The letter also recommends that the principal or other school official ask a student being questioned if he or she would like them to be present during the interview. No one from the school was present when the boys were questioned.

Promised change

Mayor Eunice Ulloa said from now on, city police will attempt to contact parents when children are questioned, except in a few special circumstances such as in cases of alleged child abuse by family members.

“We’re going to call, that’s all there is to it,” she said. “We need to have the courage to call the parents and tell them what’s going on. I think parents need to know.”

Ulloa said she will attend a 7 p.m. meeting Thursday at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, 5048 D St., to report her findings regarding police interaction with the community.

A month ago, the mayor and City Manager Glen Rojas attended a meeting at the same church during which parishioners and other Latino residents aired their concerns.

“What the police are doing now is legal. But some mistakes were made and there’s no excuse for being rude,” Ulloa said. “But the community has to understand, we are not going to back off gangs. We are not going to soft pedal crime and if you harbor a criminal in your home, you’re probably going to have contact with the police.”

Causing resentment

Father Ray Rosales is the pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe, which has provided a forum for resident complaints about the city’s treatment of Latinos.

He said the way police are handling local Latino youth is pushing them toward gangs.

“I don’t know if the authorities feel if they can scare these boys when they’re young that might deter them. But it doesn’t work and the damage that they do causes resentment,” Rosales said. “These kids are looking for strength, stability and security and when they don’t find it in the people who are supposedly their servants, they’re going to turn to someplace where they can find it.”

Leo Valencia said his experience with the police, which he claims included an officer pushing him up against the wall to be photographed, has left him angry and frustrated.

“They think because my Dad’s generation was in the gang, my generation is going to be in the gang too,” he said. “I hang around with some gang members but I was never in a gang and I’ve never bullied anybody. Now I know what it feels like to be discriminated against. I don’t know if I can trust the police or not.”

Building trust

Hernandez acknowledged that there is a problem.

“There clearly is a disconnect with a small segment of the community,” he said. “It’s my job to make that connection again.”

Hernandez said one way to accomplish that is by doing a better job of communicating with parents and working with their children.

“Our job is not to try to catch the kids doing something wrong. Our job is to try to keep them from doing wrong in the first place,” he said. “Why not make the parents our allies?”

Hernandez said that can be hard when the teens come from dysfunctional families as many of the kids that police interact with do.

“There are generational gang families,” he said. “Not that it’s in their DNA, but multiple generations have been involved in the gang lifestyle and they’re proud of that.”

But Hernandez acknowledged that it is inappropriate to write kids off just because their relatives, or even their parents, are involved in gangs.

“We need to be working as a resource and not as a nemesis, and I believe we are doing that,” he said. “But I know we’ve got to gain some credibility back and some trust back.”

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