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A Former Sundown Town’s Plea for Help: California Attorney General Should Investigate South Pasadena’s Police Department for Racial Bias

Despite bold promises from the state to address hate crimes and hold police accountable, cities like ours are still waiting for help.

Rob Bonta speaking at podium
California Attorney General Rob Bonta announces new hate crime data in June 2021. (Source: OAG)

We are the victims of a string of hate crimes that took place in South Pasadena in the summer of 2020 while demonstrating for police accountability and racial justice. We reported these crimes to the South Pasadena Police Department, which botched the investigations so none of the incidents could be prosecuted as hate crimes. In its monthly report to the state, South Pasadena listed zero hate crimes in the summer of 2020. 

Our city has tried to brush those disturbing crimes under the rug, even after confirming the department violated their own policies and procedures on how to handle hate crimes. In the face of such brazen disregard for our city’s responsibility to combat hate crimes, we desperately need the attorney general to step in. So we are asking the California attorney general to investigate and hold the police accountable. 

In his annual report on hate crimes, the attorney general found that last year there was a 107% increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans, and an 87% increase in hate crimes against African Americans. The report also acknowledged that these numbers are likely an undercount, given that hate crimes are notoriously underreported.  

During the protests last year, a man armed with a sharpened stick and spewing racist comments spat on us. Two days later he struck one of us with a rock. Later, a different man — a supporter of the Proud Boys — jumped a sidewalk in his truck and nearly ran one of us over. 

When we tried to report these incidents to our police department, they ignored clear video evidence of the crimes, refused to arrest our attackers, and, ironically, blamed us for bringing “hate” to the city for opposing police violence against Black people. At that time, the department was headed by a police chief who extended invitations on behalf of a far-right group to hold a prayer event in town, and who was later put on administrative leave and retired early without discipline.

These examples of biased policing are part of a well-documented culture of bias and white supremacy within the ranks of the South Pasadena Police Department. The city’s own investigation of these and similar incidents found that nearly a quarter of the police force failed to address assaults as potential hate crimes, failed to take detailed and accurate reports of the incidents, were hostile and dismissive of individuals seeking to lodge complaints, and turned off their body cameras during critical interactions with witnesses and perpetrators. Despite these disturbing findings, the city failed to hold the police department accountable. In fact, it allowed the police department to quietly amend its policy manual to downgrade its hate crimes procedures to make it easier for the police to do nothing.  

While the attorney general’s report is helpful to understand the scope, depth and dimensions of hate crimes and hate crime reporting, it does not address how bias in police departments contributes to problems in both these areas. What do we do when biased police forces are sympathetic to the perpetrators, and fail to even report crimes as hate crimes, as in our case? How do we expect people to come forward to report hate crimes when they cannot trust the police to do anything to keep them safe?   

These questions led us, together with local community groups, to file a complaint with the attorney general’s office, asking that he investigate the South Pasadena Police Department. The issues our complaint raises are not unique to our city. Many cities are grappling with the issue of extremism and racism within the ranks of their police forces. The next step — one that the attorney general’s office is uniquely poised to take on — is to ensure that such biases do not hinder the police’s ability to properly respond to hate crimes. 

A lifelong resident of the San Gabriel Valley, Fahren James is an activist and the founder of Black Lives Matter South Pasadena. She works with the unhoused community, providing clothing, food, and support. She volunteers for and supports many intersectional causes.

Victoria Patterson is the author of three novels and two story collections. She is an affiliate faculty member at Antioch University Los Angeles. She and her family have lived in South Pasadena, California, for close to thirty years.