A car powers up at a bank of electric vehicle charging stations located at Virginia Avenue Park. (Daniel Archuleta daniela@www.smdp.com)

A Santa Monica man was arrested on April 21 while attempting to charge his electric vehicle, and the incident is sparking discussions of racial profiling and the use of force that mirror the current national debate.

All sides agree on a basic set of facts. Justin Leland Palmer, 36, an African-American, NYU grad and father of four with no criminal history, was at the Virginia Avenue Park electric car charging station on the evening of April 21. He was asked to leave the charging station by police, he refused, he was asked for his identification, he refused, he was then tackled to the ground, pepper-sprayed and arrested. However, details, including why some of those actions were taken, are heavily disputed.

According to Sgt. Rudy Camarena, officers were making a routine check of the park as part of their patrol. The park closes at 11 p.m., but the electric vehicle charging stations close at 8 p.m. Public records show officers registering as at the park at about 10:54 p.m.

He said prior to talking to Palmer, the officers contacted several individuals at the park, including others charging their vehicles, and informed them of the park’s impending closure and the operating hours of the charging stations.

Camarena said when contacted, Palmer refused to leave the charging station and after making multiple requests for him to leave, officers decided to issue Palmer a citation. Palmer refused to provide his identification as part of the citation process, at which point officers decided to make an arrest for obstructing an officer and violating the posted hours of the park.

“During the arrest, the subject actively resisted,” said a statement issued by SMPD. “Officers deployed pepper spray and physically restrained him. The subject was taken to Santa Monica Public Safety Facility where he was fingerprinted and booked. At the Santa Monica Jail the subject complained of pain. He was transported to the Santa Monica Hospital for treatment and was medically cleared. The subject was subsequently issued a citation and released.”

The Palmers declined to comment and referred questions to their attorney, Justin H. Sanders, a Partner with Sanders, Roberts & Jewett.

According to Sanders, Palmer routinely uses the charging stations at the park. On April 21, he said, Palmer entered the park at about 9:30 p.m. and found all the charging bays in use. He waited in his car until about 10:30 p.m. when a charger became available. Palmer drove from one side of the parking lot to the now-open charging station, where officers contacted him.

Sanders described the officers’ behavior as “aggressive” from the start and said his client was singled out for police contact despite the presence of other people using the park and charging vehicles. He said when Palmer asked officers to explain why he was being prohibited from using the stations, the officers demanded to see identification. Palmer questioned why his identification was needed, as he felt he had done nothing wrong, and it was at that point he was arrested. According to Sanders, the arresting officer cuffed Palmer’s hands behind his back, swept his legs from under him and took him to the ground. While on the ground, Sanders said, a second officer used pepper spray on Palmer.

Several residents saw parts of the interaction and at least one partial account, a video by Wendy Zaw, was posted to Facebook. Zaw said she saw the end of the arrest while walking her dogs at about 11:10 p.m.

“This is not something I would like to see happening in our neighborhood. I’m truly disturbed and I’m still shaking today,” she said.

Camarena said officers tried to resolve the situation peacefully but were left with without options due to what they characterize as Palmer’s refusal to cooperate.

“Officers tried to de-escalate the situation,” he said. “They explained the park hours, explained the charging hours.”

It’s a dispute both sides hope to solve through the use of additional witnesses.

Camarena said the department conducts administrative reviews associated with the use of force and that the department has reached out to explain its process. Police issued a press release last week asking anyone with additional information about the incident to contact Capt. Wendell Shirley from the Operations Division at (310) 458-8952.

“The preservation of public trust is paramount to us, so we want to make sure we are transparent,” he said.

Sanders said he believed the witnesses and record of the events will exonerate his client of any wrongdoing.

Palmer has a court hearing set for May 22. No official complaint has been filed with SMPD over the incident at this time.


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