Chief Harris Talks Transparency After Six Months in Pasadena

[Images: Pasadena Police Dept., Paul Takizawa/Pasadena Now, Eddie Rivera/Pasadena Now]

At one point in his career, Pasadena Police Chief Gene Harris would have never come to Pasadena.

“Before I took this job, I told people, I said, there’s no way,” Harris said. “You couldn’t pay me enough to work in Pasadena. I will never go to Pasadena. I was listening to people outside of Pasadena talking about the politics and talking about all the things that happened in this town, and I was listening to that initially.”

All of that changed when Harris started listening to people in Pasadena. 

“I knew the previous chief, I knew other people that I was interacting with, and I started to get a different feel talking to the people who knew what they were talking about. And so I felt this drastic change. It was a 180 that said, ‘If not me, then who?’ And so I came in, I did some talking, did a lot of research, and I found out that I think I’m perfectly suited to be in this community that has challenges. I called it an attractive challenge.”

When Harris arrived in Pasadena from the San Gabriel Police Department he inherited a hornet’s nest. The City was still dealing with the fatal shooting of Anthony McClain and the brutal arrest of Christopher Ballew. 

Neither of the incidents happened on Harris’s watch, but it immediately became his responsibility to lead the department through the fallout of the incidents, including distrust felt by some community members and policy recommendations by the Office of Independent Review (OIR). 

But Harris was ready.

The Southern California native and former U.S. Marine, has spent more than 30 years in law enforcement including a stint as the chief in San Gabriel. He started his career with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department before moving to police departments in Monterey Park where he was a Captain for seven years.

“It wasn’t the first time that I was exposed to either controversy or circumstances where everybody was looking at it through a different lens,” Harris said. “Chiefs, especially in LA County, have to do that quite a bit with a myriad of circumstances unique to the jurisdiction. So when I got here, I knew there were things waiting and I just think that I tweaked my attitude to make sure I understood what my role was in all of that.”

Harris began applying what he thought to be best practices to the department and assuring his officers that communication would be paramount going forward.

But he went a step further.

Harris took a deep dive into other officer-involved shootings including the 2012 shooting of Kendrick McDade.

“I read all of the reports, every line of every report to the DA letters, to the IA [Internal Affairs] investigations, and I made sure that I was in the know so that I could speak intelligently, otherwise I’d just be checking boxes. So that was very effective for me. In the OIR and everything that came after that, I felt confident that I knew what was going on. Going at the facts and then determining what the professional response would be was the way I decided to attack it.”

The OIR report, which only examines police policy,  recommended the department adopt 27 policy changes in the wake of the McClain shooting. 

Harris publicly accepted 25 of the 27 recommendations. In the case of the other two, one conflicted with another recommendation, he deferred the other to the City’s Oversight Commission.

He attended meetings of the City Council and the police oversight commission to discuss the changes. 

In some ways, Harris will face more oversight than any Pasadena police chief in the past.

He is the first chief that will work with the Community Oversight Commission his entire time in Pasadena, coupled with the Public Safety Committee and also the City Council and his boss, City Manager Miguel Márquez.

Harris cut his teeth in community policing as a facilitator at the Pat Brown Institute on Community Policing and worked for the Museum of Tolerance and the Tools for Tolerance program.

Even then it was obvious more oversight was on the horizon. 

“We knew 15 years ago that it was going to come when we first started putting videos in the cars. I think we should be transparent,” Harris said. 

“It keeps us doing the right thing for the community, which is what we’re here to do. Serve the community as best we can. And we have to have that oversight and transparency. If we act in a way that’s legal, moral, ethical, safe, and within policy, then none of that matters as to who’s watching and we shouldn’t be worried about that. Everybody’s watching anyway. So that’s the upside for me, the fact that we have three oversight bodies here where we have the CPOC and we have the public safety committee, and then we have the independent police auditor. We also have the city council, and we also have the people with all their cameras. So we have auditors all over the place. I have no issue with that because we should conduct ourselves professionally.”

But even with that he does have concerns about people who look at the videos through an emotional lens while ignoring facts. 

One local resident commended Harris on always having the facts, but stated “But we are entitled to our narrative.”

Alternative narratives came into play several weeks ago, when a lawsuit filed by the family of a man shot and killed in Pasadena surfaced claiming the department had violated the family’s civil rights and used excessive force.

As conspiracy theories began running rampant, Harris and Márquez worked quickly to make sure footage of the incident was released. Forty-eight hours after the lawsuit was released publicly, video footage of the incident was on the City’s website.

“We reviewed the tape and said, well, everything we’re reading in this public document and in articles that are going out is nothing compared to what actually happened. We had to move quickly for a lot of reasons. But the biggest reason for me was to dispel misinformation in the community, in the organization. It was going to create bad juju in the organization to the point where we were going to have morale issues. It was going to create a disconnect between the police and people in the community.”

“That is not tenable for me because the whole role is to communicate with the community, so I made the decision that I need to get this tape done fast and get it out there so we can dispel that.”

Harris said he knows people are entitled to feel whatever they want to feel, but he wanted put out the facts. 

“And so I was very comfortable with having that out there. I haven’t heard anything from anybody. The lawsuit may continue to move forward. I don’t know what’s going to end up happening with that. But the bottom line is, had I not put that out there, the only information that would’ve been there would’ve been the misinformation.”

But even putting out that information puts the department behind the proverbial eight ball. Still, he said he won’t shy away from transparency.

“I can’t pick and choose which part of it I’m going to put out and won’t. When I put it out there, we’re going to do the whole thing and I’ll give direct answers to what it is or isn’t going on.”

And Harris is unflinching in his vow to be transparent, despite personal attacks aimed at him. 

Harris, who is Black, has dealt with the slings and arrows from other African Americans who feel the police target Black people.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, (PPIC) the officer-involved killing of George Floyd in 2020 and other deaths of Black men in custody have renewed the decades-old concerns about racial inequities in the criminal justice system. 

In a recent PPIC survey, 61% of California adults said they believe that the criminal justice system is biased against Black people. According to the survey, 84 percent of Black residents in the state hold that view. 

Although 54 percent of California adults say police treat all racial and ethnic minorities fairly “almost always” or “most of the time,” just 18 percent of African Americans share his view in California.

“It’s exceedingly difficult when people come in with preconceived notions that because this is my hue, they’re going to get certain things out of me. What the expectations should be is that I earned my right to be here. I didn’t get here because I’m Black. I earned my right to be here.”

Harris said he is going to do things the right way for everybody and if anyone Black, white or Latino benefits it’s because it’s the right thing to do.

“I can think for myself,” Harris said. “And I’ve always been that way. Mama taught me to be a thinker. But there’s people in this community that had had expectations who are now calling me names. And I’ve only been here six months. I had people call me names, I mean, call me some foul names, because I made a decision they didn’t agree with and they thought I was their brother.’

“So last week they were calling me brother. But this week when I made the decision, I’m a sellout house N-word, which is what I’ve been called on a couple of occasions by some of the activists in town. And I let it flow. I get it. There’s an emotional content, but I don’t take it personally.”

“I think some of those people think because I’m Black, I’m supposed to act a particular way in support of the Black cause. And to that, I just simply tell people, I’m proud to be Black, but I’m going to do things the right way for everybody that I have to serve in this community.”

Tomorrow, Harris talks about dealing with mistakes, pretext stops and officers leaving the department.

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