Police followed protocol when detaining head custodian at Pasadena school, review finds

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Officers from the Pasadena Police Department followed protocol when they handcuffed and detained the head custodian at a Pasadena elementary school following reports of a possible burglar, according to city and police officials.

A review of body camera video from the incident at San Rafael Elementary School on Sunday by the interim city manager and the Pasadena Police Department revealed no wrongdoing, both agencies concluded.

“Our review has concluded that everyone conducted themselves in a professional way and consistent with City of Pasadena and Police Department policies,” interim City Manager Cynthia Kurtz said in a statement Tuesday night.

Interim Police Chief Jason Clawson said in a statement that the officers conducted themselves in a “professional and polite manner.”

A spokesperson for the Pasadena Unified School District declined to comment on the findings of the investigation Thursday afternoon.

The city released body camera footage on Tuesday from the responding police officers as well as footage from officers with California Metro Patrol, a private security company contracted by the district, who were at the scene. A recording of the 911 call from a neighbor reporting a possible burglar at the school and a report by the security company were also made public.

Documents from the review that have been made public show that the school’s principal, Rudy Ramirez, alleged race was a contributing factor to the incident, which led to the custodian being temporarily detained in handcuffs on the school steps.

The district declined to identify the custodian, but a spokesperson confirmed he is Latino and in his mid-40s, and has been a district employee for 14 years.

Body camera video from a Pasadena police officer shows officers arriving to the back gate of the school to find it locked but the school’s back door open. The 911 caller had described seeing a person scale the gate into the school.

“The caller is concerned, but not inflammatory, and there are no racial overtones to the call,” Kurtz said in a statement.

After spotting someone inside the school, one officer suggested it might be the janitor.

Officers — who clipped the school’s chain-link fence and were equipped with guns that the city said were nonlethal and use a projectile made of foam — can be heard yelling as they enter the school yard. They then instructed a man to drop down and put his hands behind his head. The man, who was dressed in his custodial uniform, complied as officers handcuffed and detained him. The man identified himself as the head custodian and had keys to the school.

“Climb the gate?” the custodian responded, sounding confused, when asked why he would climb the gate. “I don’t need to climb the gate. I got keys.” He also told officers that he was approved for weekend shifts to catch up on work.

The custodian was detained for about 6½ minutes as officers called and confirmed his identity with the school’s principal, who informed officers that the employee was working overtime to prepare for the new school year. Police then released the custodian.

“The PUSD employee was not ‘proned out,’ and the handcuffing was carried out by a female Police Officer quietly and respectfully,” Kurtz said. “The PUSD employee was likewise polite and cooperative.”

The custodian returned to work after the incident.

The investigation followed outcry from school officials and some parents who were concerned about how the head custodian ended up handcuffed and detained on campus for doing his job.

Brian McDonald, superintendent of the Pasadena Unified School District, had asked that the city and police officials investigate the matter because he was “deeply concerned” with how the employee was treated and had “questions about misstatements possibly made by the individual who called the police.”

In a report released as part of the review, Ramirez, who arrived at the school visibly upset after police left, said of his employee, “I bet if he was white he wouldn’t have been treated like that,” and used an expletive to criticize the “nosy … white neighbors.” According to the report, Ramirez said that when “white kids” trespassed onto and vandalized school property, “no one calls.”

In a statement Monday, McDonald called the comments a “distraction from the central issue.”

Ramirez can be heard making similar statements about the neighbors in audio from footage recorded by a security officer’s body camera released on Tuesday. In one case, Ramirez described how a neighbor put her hands on him, imitating her pounding his chest with her fingers, lodging complaints about a parent at the school.

“I might be the only Mexican in your life that doesn’t work for you, so watch how you talk to me,” Ramirez recounted telling the woman.

San Rafael Elementary School is in a predominantly white and affluent area, according to Census Reporter, an independent organization that collects and simplifies data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

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