Complaint says officer used excessive physical force
By George McCory
A National City police officer used excessive physical force during an evacuation near Pacific Steel earlier this month, according to a complaint filed with the city.
The complaint, also requests an evaluation of the city's evacuation plans be conducted.
In a letter to city Manager Ton McCabe, David Avalos of the Committee on Chicano Rights, said Officer Coley Davis "grabbed my throat with his left hand and my left arm with his right arm," on Aug. 16, in relation to the evacuation of West Side residents during afire at Pacific Steel Co.
Police evacuated about 60 people that evening, mainly in the area of 17th and McKinley to Las Palmas park because of the potential danger from toxic smoke. Several streets in area were also closed.
McCabe asked Chief of Police Terry Hart to conduct an internal investigation of the incident and report back to him, which is standard procedure for complaints against the department. Avalos said he was watching a local TV newscast at 11 p.m., when the heard residents near the PSI scrap yard were being evacuated.
"Because my telephone was out of order, I decided to drive immediately to the home of my parents who live on 22nd street, west of Interstate 5 to see if I could be of any assistance to them," he wrote. He drove to 24th Street, only to find the street blockaded by Davis and an Officer McLaughlin of the California Highway Patrol.
Avalos asked if he could enter the area, but said Davis denied that request. He said Davis threatened him with jail, after he asked some questions.
"I asked if the area in which my family lives had been evacuated and if indeed my family had left. He told me I was 'interfering with an investigation.'" Avalos said.
He said Davis wrote down the address of his parents on a pad, and asked if he would check on them.
"He told me to leave and call them on the phone and again threatened me with jail. I asked for the name of his supervisor," Avalos explained. "At that point, he grabbed my throat with his left hand and my left arm with his right hand, and began pushing me backward."
Avalos wrote he did not respond in self-defense, but left the area to telephone his family.
Acting Operations Captain Tom Deese said the procedure for an officer at a blocked off street would be to tell the individual where the evacuation center was or to call the police station. Deese did not comment further on the case, not knowing the full details of the incident.
Avalos said Sgt. Mike Iglesias questioned him regarding the incident, but offered no addition information that what was in the letter.
Davis could not be reached Friday, but Deese said he would probably not be allowed to discuss the case. He is scheduled for duty Friday night, but is recovering from a wrist injury suffered during an arrest earlier in the month.
Davis was commended in April for saving the life of a woman who ran into traffic on Interstate 805.
Avalos said his main concern was regarding the evacuation procedure, saying his parents were not notified of the evacuation until after his encounter with Davis at about 11:20 p.m. He said others in the area were not notified or evacuated at all.
He requested an investigation of the department's "inability to carry out an evacuation and the subsequent making of a false report to cover up their incompetence."
McCabe said the evacuation was called for by police, with the incident commander acting as he sees fit. The police commander during the fire was Lt. Merrill Davis. Avalos said Davis reported everyone in the area had been evacuated at 11:20 p.m.
Fire Chief Randy Kimble said he understood the evacuation stated at about 10 p.m., from Civic Center Drive south to 24th Street, west of Interstate 5. He said police may have scaled down the evaluation area, and a misunderstanding may have taken place.
He said Lt. Davis could have given him the boundary of the traffic perimeter instead of the actual evacuation area.
"The plans are working perfectly well. The procedures are in place and are working as designed," Kimble said.
Avalos also asked for the city to close the PSI yard because of regular fires and accused police of not being able to protect west side residents exposed to PSI's environmental dangers.
McCabe said the criminal charges against PSI are still awaiting court action, pressed by District Attorney Jo Kiernan. The company is charged with illegally storing hazardous material at its Cleveland Avenue yards.
Herman Baca, president of the National City-based Committee on Chicano Rights, said Avalos came to him and asked for support on the police and PSI issues.
"This has been an on-going issue for decades and is a manifest of the city's rape and plunder of the west side of National City," he said. "It's the age old problem. Instead of the police assisting the citizens there, they are viewing them as the enemy."
Baca said city officials have been "dragging their feet," regarding businesses he sees as dangerous to the west side residents.
He noted zoning changes during the 1970's, which encouraged industrial activity on the west side, which he saw as an attempt to push residents out.