Failure to follow lawful order at root of La Mesa police investigation
It began with a police officer trying to deal with a willful student who refused to leave the campus of Helix Charter High School. It quickly escalated into a physical altercation where the officer body-slammed the handcuffed teenage girl to the ground as she tried to get away.
And it was caught on video.
The Jan. 19 incident sparked student walkouts, a march on police headquarters, heated exchanges at town halls and three separate investigations.
It also has prompted a lot of soul-searching in this East County community of nearly 58,000, hometown to basketball icon Bill Walton, astronaut Ellen Ochoa and the late movie star Dennis Hopper.
La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis, among others, has been visibly shaken by the incident and its aftermath. He has offered apologies on behalf of the city, has been in talks with school officials and stayed long afterward at town halls to talk with students and residents.
“Nothing is off the table as far as what we can do to train staff better and have better communication with law enforcement,” said Arapostathis, an educator at La Mesa Arts Academy. “Proactive training, de-escalation training, restraint training, non-harmful ways… there are lots of things that can be discussed. These discussions will continue and you will see a noticeable change.”
On that Friday afternoon in January, a school resource officer from the La Mesa Police Department was called to the campus in response to a report of a 17-year-old girl who had been suspended who was refusing to leave school grounds. The officer twice asked the student to leave, but she refused.
He then handcuffed her and started escorting her away. Police said when she “became noncompliant… and made an attempt to free herself,” the officer forced her to the ground until she agreed to quit resisting. A video showed him body-slamming the female student and pinning her to the ground.
The girl, whose full name is being withheld, is known as “Bri” to her friends. Bri, who is a resident of the city of San Diego but takes public transportation to attend Helix, has been back on campus since late January.
“She comes from a Christian background and her parents are heavily involved in the church,” said family friend and community activist Aeiramique Blake. “Her dad is a pastor and her mom is a social worker. She has a very good, solid foundation and is very much involved in her community.”
The image of School Resource Officer Scott Wulfing pushing Bri down was captured on video and shared through social media. Wulfing is on paid administrative leave while the police department conducts an investigation.
Police Chief Walt Vasquez, himself a Helix graduate, offered a public apology for locking the doors of the police station when students marched from the campus to headquarters on Jan. 24 to protest the officer’s actions.
Vasquez has tried to address residents’ concerns at public meetings, but has been restricted in what he can say until the department’s investigation is concluded.
La Mesa City Manager Yvonne Garrett said the city would be hiring a third-party investigator by Monday.
“The La Mesa Police Department has heard the community’s concerns and we intend to fully cooperate with the third-party investigator that will look into this incident,” Vasquez said.
Helix has begun its own investigation.
Helix students and alumni attended two La Mesa Town Hall meetings to express their anger, fear and frustration with what they saw in the video.
Helix student Mahamed Abdulahi spoke at both meetings and asked the city to suspend the officer. He was told by La Mesa City Attorney Glenn Sabine that there is a legal process that the city must take before a suspension would occur.
Abdulahi suggested the City Council start an ad hoc oversight committee on the matter. The City Council has discussed bring back its defunct Human Relations Commission in light of the matter.
He asked that another meeting be scheduled in the near future “so everybody will know what is going on.”
“The community needs action,” Abdulahi said. “There needs to be an increase in de-escalation training, especially for school resource officers.”
Helix pulls in a diverse mix of students from La Mesa, around the Grossmont Union High School District area and from the San Diego City School District jurisdiction.
The makeup of its 2,511-student body, according to a 2016-17 California Department of Education report, was 1,197 Hispanic or Latino, 493 white, 399 African American, 222 of two or more races, 49 Filipino, 24 Pacific Islander and 4 American Indian or Alaska Native.
Helix Executive Director Kevin Osborn told nearly 100 people at an on-campus community meeting run by students to help diffuse the situation that “as a father of four children, what happened was absolutely heartbreaking.”
About the violent scene caught on video, he said later, “You would never want an incident to get resolved in that way.”
“In my almost 30 years as a teacher and administrator on this campus, law enforcement has worked with Helix to de-escalate numerous behavior concerns that I can speak to without incident,” Osborn said.
The school director said he is comfortable with the social and academic support and services Helix provides to students and their families.
Osborn said he couldn’t speak directly to the incident because of the ongoing investigation, but he said the school intends to review all its practices and policies “to continue to do better.”
As a charter school, he noted, “We are always reviewing policies and practices to make sure we can serve the community and students better. Our top priority is keeping our students safe, without question.
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