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Mayor: 'We'll Listen' To Anaheim Residents


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we'll hear about some important provisions in the health care overhaul bill that go into effect today. Now, a number of these provisions remain controversial but we're going to step aside from the politics for a minute to try to find out what they mean for individuals. That's coming up later in the program.

But first, we have a Newsmaker interview with the mayor of Anaheim, California. It's a city of 340,000 residents just outside of Los Angeles. It might be best known to people outside the area as the home to Disneyland and two major professional sports teams, but the city's been in the news of late for a much more disturbing reason - on July 21st, a 25-year-old man named Manuel Diaz was shot and killed by police.

Officers had been pursuing him after allegedly observing suspicious activity but no weapon was found on his body. The next evening in an unrelated incident, Anaheim police shot and killed 21-year-old Joel Acevedo. Police say he was a known gang member who allegedly fired gunshots at officers before fleeing. But that was the sixth police involved-shooting in Anaheim this year.

That, on top of four police involved shootings last year. Now, many residents are complaining about the treatment of non-white residents of that town. About 54 percent of the residents are Latino, and their anger has made its way into demonstrations, some of them violent, with damage to buildings and police shooting non-lethal rounds to disperse crowds. Now, Anaheim's mayor Tom Tait is asking federal officials to look into all six police involved shootings this year and he is with us now by phone.

Mr. Mayor, welcome. Thank you for speaking with us.

MAYOR TOM TAIT: Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, we understand that you've asked federal officials to look into all six police-involved shootings this year. You've asked the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office to look at all of these. Five of those were fatal. And you recently told reporters that after the investigation by federal officials is complete, whatever the truth is we'll own it. Could you talk a little bit more about what you hope to find out? What you hope to find out, what you think these investigations will accomplish?

TAIT: Well, you know, obviously, I don't know what happened Saturday night, and that's really the main issue. Then there's other police shootings that we also asked the U.S. attorney to review. What I hope to find is the truth. The facts and the truth and then whatever that is, we will deal with it and own it.

MARTIN: Last week you almost met - do I understand this - with Theresa Smith. Her son, Cesar Cruz, was fatally shot by Anaheim police in 2009. And I understand that she's been holding weekly protests ever since in front of police headquarters, if I have that right, and she told one of the local papers that she believes that the police think that they are judge, jury and executioner. Have you heard this before?

TAIT: I did meet with Theresa and she has been protesting in front of our police headquarters. She wants to see positive change in the city and she's directed her sorrow towards positive change and I think we need to look at all that stuff, frankly.

MARTIN: Is that the first time you'd met with her?

TAIT: The first time I met with her was just the other day.

MARTIN: Right. I was asking - I'm wondering too...

TAIT: First personally - that's the first time I've personally met with her. She's been at our council meetings and spoken prior to this past weekend.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask why? Why is that the first time that you spoke with her?

TAIT: Well, you know, it's the first time I spoke to her personally. I guess no real good reason why. I probably should've met with her personally before that but I didn't.

MARTIN: I wanted to...

TAIT: But I...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

TAIT: I have heard her concerns, however, and so her, along with other folks have been to the city council meetings and addressed their concern about these prior police shootings. So several - actually, a couple months ago, I asked our city manager to look into these and to get an independent look. So he's been working on that for the last two months.

Actually, we had spoken to the state attorney general's office about doing a review and a private company in Los Angeles specializes in doing police reviews, so we've spoken to them. All of this was ongoing and about ready to be released when this past weekend happened.

MARTIN: A recent editorial by the Los Angeles Times said that Anaheim needs to do some, quote/unquote, "soul searching with regard to its relationship with Latino residents." I wanted to ask you whether you think that that's true. I want to mention here that you've been in the mayor seat for about a year and a half now.

Before that you were in, you know, the private sector but you were a city councilman before that and you served a lengthy term as city councilman. And I wonder did you have in your previous stint in public service or even in your private life a sense that there was this tension between some of the residents and the police?

TAIT: Several years ago the tension, I believe, was greater. You know, we're a city of - we're one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the nation. We've got this rich diversity. I'm very proud of it. We have one of the largest Arab-American communities west of the Mississippi. So there's this very rich diversity, very authentic city.

But I guess like most cities there are issues and I guess if the Latino community is telling me there's a problem, then there's a problem.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with the mayor of Anaheim, California Tom Tait. Anaheim has had six police-involved shootings by the police this year, five of them lethal. The mayor has requested that federal officials investigate this and we're talking to him about that.

What else do you think might be going on here? What other thoughts do you have about this?

TAIT: Well, it's, you know, Saturday night with Manuel Diaz happened on a neighborhood called Anna Drive and that's one of the tougher neighborhoods in our city. And it's just, gosh, sad and ironic I guess that we've been working on that neighborhood for the last probably six months. You know, I've been to probably three meetings there. I did a - myself and the chief have been meeting with the residents and with another councilmember Lorri Galloway.

We've done a flashlight walk down that street. We've done a peace march through there. So the community had come to us, saying we need your help in a community policing sort of way and our chief is very prominent, actually, in community policing. He believes in it strongly and I believe in it strongly, about preventative. So we've been working on that neighborhood and then Saturday night this incident happened.

And it's just tragic in so many different ways. Because we had been working on this and, you know, a lot of that good work probably - we have to start over again.

MARTIN: I understand that you're having a meeting or that you and the city council have invited the public to a special meeting on August 8th, where the public is invited to - well, to what? Tell me, what do you hope will happen at this meeting?

TAIT: Well, I'm titling it "Listening" because the first step is to listen to the community. I mean, we have all sorts of - there's all sorts of solutions floating around here but I think the first step is to actually listen to the people of Anaheim. They probably know best what to do. And we'll listen.

MARTIN: Mr. Mayor, you know, it occurs to me that this is not the first city where people have felt that the police are more of an oppressive force than a protective force. I mean, there have been a number of stories and conversations about the situation in New York, for example. Which New York City is experiencing some historically low crime rates, but now the question becomes is it at the expense of the dignity, you know, the freedom and the quality of life of a particular group.

You've seen a lot of - the ACLU, for example, and a number of civil rights groups have been very critical of New York's policing tactics, which includes, you know, stopping and searching people upon suspicion of weapons. And yet, you hear young black men say that, you know, some of them are so traumatized by this that they don't to leave their house.

So the question arises - can you have it both ways? Can you have a safe city and a city where everyone feels kind of welcome? I wonder if you draw any conclusion or inspiration or cautionary tale from what other cities have experienced along these lines.

TAIT: Yeah. Boy, that's a good question and, you know, Anaheim is one of the safest cities for our size in the nation. It's very safe. So our job, our main job as city government, is to make sure people are safe. But also, our main job is to protect people's rights. And there's a balance in doing that and, you know, maybe the community is telling we're a little bit out of balance. But it is, you know, we are a very safe city.

I worry a little bit about this recent publicity. I worry a lot about it, actually, because there's been - there have been demonstrations, but they've been relatively small and localized. And people might get the impression that, you know, Anaheim, a city of 340,000 people, is not safe. And that's not the case, generally.

There are areas that we need to work on. And we do need to work on them. But generally, we're safe, and we have to make sure that we keep people safe all while protecting their rights. It's a tough balance. You know, it's kind of interesting with police officers. If - in other professions, if it was a - someone was doing a heart transplant on you, the toughest thing, you'd have - it would be somebody with maybe 30, 40 years experience, a cardiologist. And then he gets to the point where he does the heart transplant.

In police work, the guy out there, or the man or woman out there is usually some of the younger people that have to make these decisions. So it's tough. It's a tough business.

MARTIN: If you and I were to get together a year from now, what kind of conversation do you think we'll be having about this?

TAIT: Well, I'm hoping that the conversation's going to be look how Anaheim handled this, and how the people in the community came together to solve the problems themselves - and not really just a government solution, but the business community, the education community, the non-profits, the faith-based, arts. So I - this week, I'm meeting with those communities.

I'm saying, okay, we've got a problem. I'm asking you to come together with a plan to fix it. I had a meeting with the president of Disney and the chairman of the Angels baseball team and the president of the hockey team, the Ducks. Those are kind of the three big, prominent businesses in town who've done a lot already. But I've asked them to come together to be the leaders of the business community, to figure out how to bring hope into these neighborhoods.

Because really, if you - someone with hope doesn't join a gang. That's just kind of the basic rule. And that's really a kind of holistic problem that we have. We need to bring hope into these neighborhoods.

MARTIN: Tom Tait is the mayor of Anaheim, California. He was kind enough to join us from City Hall. Thank you for joining us from there. I hope we'll speak again.

TAIT: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Thank you, Mr. Mayor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.