Message in a Baton

Photo by Jack GouldIt seems like only yesterday that predawn, anti-gang police sweeps made for front-page news in Orange County. But lately, perhaps because of falling crime rates in Orange County and around the nation, police sweeps seem to have faded into the background, at least as far as the print media is concerned. But the raids haven't stopped. A case in point is a little-noticed event that happened four months ago, when the largest and potentially most controversial gang sweep in Orange County history unfolded in the Atwood neighborhood of Placentia.

The sweep had its roots in a shooting that occurred on Dec. 31, 1998, when 17-year-old Placentia resident Judith Seelke perished in a hail of bullets as she and a group of friends arrived at a party. Police investigators quickly announced that Seelke's car had likely been mistaken by local gang members as belonging to a rival gang.

A week after Seelke's murder, at approximately 7 a.m. on Jan. 6, nearly 200 local, state and federal law-enforcement officers-including agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms-raided 21 homes. Police ultimately arrested seven suspects in Seelke's murder. Significantly, not one of them was present at homes searched by police, leaving terrified relatives to tell police how to find their actual targets. One of those, Ronnie Cruz, was arrested later in the day and charged with the Seelke murder; another suspect-a juvenile whose name wasn't revealed-was released for lack of evidence.

Nonetheless, police got the coverage they had bargained for by bringing along a camera crew from OCN, the only media outlet in Orange County invited to participate in the sweep. That day, the network gratefully broadcast footage of the sweep, which featured armor-clad SWAT officers pointing automatic rifles at handcuffed teenagers being led out of houses. The videotape also included the sound of an angry series of blasts from explosives used by police to disorient any would-be defenders as officers burst through the front door of one house in Placentia.

“In the final count, 187 law-enforcement officers participated in the gang sweep. This diverse group finds it appropriate that the number 187 is also the penal-enforcement code for murder,” OCN reported dramatically. The network also interviewed Placentia Police Department detective Daron L. Wyatt, who had briefed officers before the raid. “We try to send a message to this community that we're not going to tolerate this type of violence, and I think we've done that here,” a victorious Wyatt said.

OCN's broadcast offered no comment from any residents whose homes were raided. “The sweep was labeled a major success,” the network report simply concluded.

So ended the official media commentary on the largest police sweep in recent memory, until more than a month later, on Feb. 19. “Thomas Cruz, 25, says he was asleep on the couch early Jan. 6 when police burst into his Atwood home with weapons drawn,” began a gripping, four-paragraph-long news story about the sweep that was buried deep within the Metro section of the Times Orange County. The tiny brief in the Times also noted a fact that made the Placentia raid different than previous ones carried out in Orange County: in the wake of the sweep, a Santa Ana attorney named Richard Keller filed a claim against the city of Placentia on behalf of 15 families whose homes were raided. The $202 million claim, which the city denied, charges that Placentia police officers violated the families' civil rights, including their freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.

According to the claim, officers broke the law by failing to knock before entering, and they terrorized residents. One woman was allegedly ordered out of the shower by police, who hit her as she tried to step over the prone body of her husband, who had been ordered to lay on the floor by police.

Keller has already represented one Atwood resident-Seelke murder suspect Cruz-in an unrelated federal lawsuit against the city and its police department that stemmed from a 1997 incident. Although he's dropping the old Cruz lawsuit, other members of the Cruz family are still included in the $202 million claim, including Ronnie's younger brother Thomas Cruz, who is described in the Feb. 19 Times story as having been woken by police with a gun at his temple.

“There is zero merit to anything [in Keller's new] claim, which is why the city chose to reject the claim,” said Bruce Praet, an attorney hired by Placentia to fend off litigation stemming from the raid. He stressed that police showed restraint during the raid and operated in full view of OCN reporters. “When you've got the media along, you are sure to follow the procedures,” Praet explained. “I guarantee you that there was nothing improper done by anyone in that case.”

Yet while Praet argued that having OCN in tow to witness the raid helped ensure that officers didn't break the law or overstep their bounds, he acknowledged that reporters had no way of seeing what went on inside the homes that were hit by police. “My understanding is that OCN wasn't given access to people's bedrooms,” he said, noting that such footage might violate the privacy of residents whose homes were raided.

Keller confirmed that the lawsuit won't target OCN. However, he said the city of Placentia is just the first of a dozen bodies to be served notice of the families' claim-the Orange County district attorney's office, along with the Sheriff's Department and several other police agencies, will also be named. “Some of these children were traumatized because they had a gun pointed at their head,” said Keller. “That's not how you treat a 5-year-old kid and teach him respect for the cops.”

The only police department involved in the raid that won't be named in any lawsuits is the Garden Grove Police Department. “Garden Grove has changed its tactics,” said Keller, explaining that unlike other police departments involved in the raid, Garden Grove officers treated residents politely and used no more force than was necessary to perform their duties.

“The majority of people who live in these neighborhoods do not want gang warfare in that neighborhood any more than the cops or anyone else,” Keller concluded. “I think what police want to do with these raids is what Detective Wyatt said on OCN: 'Send a message to the community.' But I don't think he realizes what kind of message he's sending.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *