On the night of April 21, Justin Leland Palmer was attempting to charge his electric vehicle at a Virginia Avenue Park charging station when Santa Monica police approached him.
Palmer, who is black, was asked to leave the charging station by officers who said the charging stations were closed for the evening. He didn’t. When he was asked for his identification, he refused.
Then, in an incident that was caught on camera, Palmer was tackled to the ground, pepper-sprayed and arrested.
Palmer and police have offered differing visions of the dispute, which sparked concerns in the community about police protocol as tempers flared across the country over numerous high-profile shootings and altercations involving authorities and minorities.
The local arrest was enough to rattle Michele Wittig, a longtime member of the Santa Monica-Venice branch of the NAACP.
“Now there’s a videotape of an instance of questionable policing, and I think that has animated the community to examine further how we can develop a better relationship with the police,” said Wittig, a professor emerita of psychology at Cal State Northridge. “The advent of new technology has made it possible for us … to understand how some of these events may be affecting certain segments of the community and not other segments.”
Wittig and other local activists are trying to channel the momentum generated by the incident into a productive workshop on community policing at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 4 at Virginia Avenue Park, the site of Palmer’s arrest. The forum is free and open to the public.
The event follows two months of study by Wittig and other community members who are interested in opening a dialogue about ways to improve the police department’s interactions with the public.
The study group is hoping that the meeting will lead to the formation of a coalition for policing reform that includes representatives from the Committee for Racial Justice, which is sponsoring the workshop, the NAACP, the local Unitarian Universalist Community Church’s Faith in Action commission and the SMPD.
Santa Monica police officials were invited to the meeting, but spokesman Rudy Camarena said the department will not be represented there. It remains unclear whether police will participate in the coalition.
“We really want to hold off [on the coalition] until we can get SMPD representation,” Wittig said. “We want this to be collaborative with police.”
The group is intent on doing more than merely airing frustrations. Wittig, for one, participated in the SMPD community police academy last year to learn more about the department’s practices and procedures.
She and other activists have reviewed Assembly Bill 953, which would require law enforcement agencies to submit detailed information to the state about police stops. Proponents say the bill, which is up for Governor Jerry Brown’s approval, would quantify, and possibly curb, racial profiling.
Study group members have also read Portland’s community policing plan, Wittig said.
The upcoming meeting will include community stories and a presentation on equity in the line of duty. Workshop attendees will also learn about department statistics, the peace officers’ bill of rights and legislation regarding racial profiling and use of force.
Ideally, Wittig said, the meeting would lead to further conversations between the public and police.
“We need to tell our stories,” she said, “and they need to tell us how they practice policing.”