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Calexico City Council member Raul Ureña has come under fire from council members and police officials with the cities of El Centro and Imperial, as well as members of his own city council and police force, over comments in which he claimed a systemic pattern of excessive use of force at those departments. He has since said misspoke on some specifics officials have taken offense to, but he also has said there are bigger forces that need to be addressed. | CALEXICO CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO GRAPHIC

Ureña’s Claims on Cops Spark Cities’ Anger

Claims of Police Brutality in El Centro, Imperial Have Caused Official Reactions

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CALEXICO — Since his landslide election to the two-year seat on the Calexico City Council in November 2020, Raul Ureña has been a controversial figure to say the least, as his progressive politics and passionate, seemingly measured remarks have both gained him fans and foes.

He has often blurred the boundaries between municipal politicking and community activism in a very much 21st century brand of social media-based outreach that many of his fellow council members and some of the older generation in Calexico — and the larger Imperial Valley, even — have been unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with in his Brave New World of messaging.

El Centro Mayor Cheryl Viegas Walker speaks during a dedication to First Responders Park in El Centro on May 15. Walker sent a letter to Calexico’s Raul Ureña on Monday, May 24, criticizing him over comments made about the city’s police force. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

So, it’s been curious to see how something Ureña said from the dais on May 5, during an eventually tabled discussion on state Senate Bill 2, legislation meant to allow for the certification and potential de-certification of police officers in the state, simmered silently and largely unseen beneath the surface of Ureña’s usual homecourt — social media — for almost two full weeks before it boiled over in a public spate of harsh words and heated letters from neighboring councils and police chiefs in Imperial and El Centro.

Ureña’s claims of systemic police brutality in those cities to the north have been met with calls for him to attend face-to-face meetings with council members, chiefs, and city managers, to offer an apology, to provide proof of his claims, and he’s had two public printed tongue-lashings from said cities’ respective mayors, the most recent sent out Monday afternoon, May 24, by El Centro’s Cheryl Viegas Walker.

While pointed and calling on Ureña to make an appearance at El Centro’s June 1 council meeting, Mayor Viegas Walker’s letter comes off like a warm bath by comparison to the more aggressive tone adopted by Imperial Mayor Karin Eugenio’s written response on May 19.

Calling his statements “grossly inaccurate” and “ignorant,” Eugenio’s letter takes Ureña to task for what she states are “dangerous” strategies of governance, and further tells him “your dais is not a place for you to simply speak hearsay or gossip.”

Imperial Mayor Karin Eugenio

During the meeting, the night Eugenio’s letter was passed, Imperial Mayor Pro Tem Geoff Dale’s condemnation was arguably harsher.

In his 20 years of public service, Dale said he could not recall any other elected official making such an “irresponsible” comment.

“It’s an embarrassment for Calexico and I feel sorry for them,” Dale said, adding that Ureña suffered from “diarrhea of the mouth.”

It was basically a verbal piling on over both the El Centro and Imperial city council meetings May 17 and May 18, respectively, as almost every council member, both city managers, and police chiefs had their turn either personally chastising Ureña or the content of his quotation. All their comments were recorded to video for the public to see and hear on their Facebook pages.

And what precisely prompted this resounding rebuke?

In reality, it was what appeared to be an uncharacteristically off-the-cuff statement from Ureña that unfolded over roughly 20 seconds at the latter half of a more than 20-minute discussion on SB 2 that spread like a wildfire among cops and council members — not exactly the crowd to air their social media laundry — within hours after it was uttered by the freshman policymaker.

Council member Raul Ureña’s comments can be heard around 2 hours, 18 minutes into the meeting. | CITY OF CALEXICO VIDEO

“When you look at where police brutality is happening in our region, I’ve been tracking instances of police brutality for about five years, and most of them have in fact been in El Centro and Imperial,” Ureña said during the May 5 meeting, on the tail of a lengthy comment from Calexico Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo over why SB 2 is a bad bill.

“Calexico Police Department, itself, hasn’t had that many incidents of that kind of force, especially out in the media. It’s been concentrated in El Centro, Imperial, and the California Highway Patrol,” Ureña added that night.

Oddly, Calexico city officials have kept largely silent in public since that May 5 meeting.

Calexico Mayor Rosie Arreola Fernandez’s comments during the most recent Calexico council meeting on Wednesday, May 19 — the same night Eugenio and company were approving and reading her letter into the record — seemed almost anti-climactic and did not really express the tumult that had been going on beneath the surface for the past two weeks. No one else spoke and Ureña initially dialed into the meeting via Zoom but logged off soon after it started. He said he was ill.

Still, Calexico officials were seething and spoke loudly amongst themselves and with their counterparts to the north, in phone calls, in emails, in meetings, and to the Calexico Chronicle. In fact, Chief Gerardo got the early brunt of the backlash after heated calls came to him from Imperial Police Chief Leonard Barra and El Centro Police Chief Brian Johnson on the Friday morning, May 7, following Ureña’s comments.

City Manager Miguel Figueroa reportedly spoke and traded messages with city administrators in Imperial and El Centro.

And, as part of what was apparently an already-planned trip to meet with various Imperial County city officials, Mayor Fernandez and Mayor Pro Tem Javier Moreno went on what could only be described as an apology tour to assure other cities that Ureña’s words that night did not represent the city.

Gerardo, in an interview on May 14, after the issue had been stewing for a week already, said Barra and Johnson wanted apologies from Ureña. Although neither chief in separate interviews would say that’s what they wanted, they did say proof of the content of Ureña’s claims would better serve the situation.

“I’ll leave that for the council member to decide if an apology is warranted, you know. … My biggest interest is, I want to see what information he has and give me an opportunity to review it and see if there’s, you know, any merit to the accusation,” Chief Johnson said on May 14, the weekend before his council would meet.

Imperial Police Chief Leonard Barra

Chief Barra said he didn’t so much want an apology, but an explanation.

“I want more clarification on why he said that. And it’s not just for me. It’s for my partners that work here in Imperial. Like I said, they work hard to change the character and the image of Imperial police (from) back in the days. And like I said, again, it’s not just for me, it’s for the men and women that work hard here in the bureau,” Barra said on May 14, again, before his council would meet.

For his part, Ureña has been a bit aloof in addressing the issue and has refused to apologize when asked. In fact, he was slow to respond to any of this issue as it was brewing, and on two occasions, when he spoke with the Chronicle, he was initially unaware of the attempts of his own city staff to get him in a room with Imperial officials.

He has since said he will only meet with any of the respective cities if that meeting is in the presence of representatives of the local offices of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Imperial Valley Social Justice Committee, and the local chapter of Black Lives Matter.

So far, no meeting has been set up with the city of Imperial, according to Social Justice Committee chairperson Marlene Thomas, but the plans are for all parties to attend the El Centro City Council meeting on June 1, in which Ureña has a standing date to speak first on the agenda, according to Mayor Viegas Walker’s letter.

What it all comes down to is the reference to that five-year period in Ureña’s comments that has lit a fire under so many people. And it’s not clear how much Ureña has tried to speak to that in public since the letters were released.

Thomas, Ureña, and others are drawing from a history of tragic high-profile police-custody deaths that have included Edmund “Bubba” Gutierrez, Charlie Sampson, and Tommy Yancy Jr., but the timeline is what has concerned the cities in question, as all have claimed reforms over the years.

“Bubba” Gutierrez died at the hands of Imperial police officers in July 2010, nearly 11 years ago.

Charlie Sampson died while in custody of El Centro police officers in 2013, some eight years ago.

Tommy Yancy died after a struggle in the city of Imperial with California Highway Patrol officers in 2014, some seven years ago.

In all cases, the families have been paid out huge settlements from the cities, and in the case of Imperial, council members and police officials say it’s a different culture.

“I can say since I became chief in 2017, myself and my partners have worked hard to change our department for the better,” Chief Barra said in an interview.

El Centro Police Chief Brian Johnson refutes claims of police brutality at his department in the last five years by Calexico City Council member Raul Ureña on May 5 by researching all complaints received over the past six years and presenting that information to the El Centro City Council on May 17. | VIDEO CAPTURE

Johnson said much of the same to the Chronicle, but during the El Centro council meeting on May 18, he put facts behind those statements.

Combing through files over the past six years, Johnson presented his findings to council that night.

“What I have found through our database is there have been three actual complaints by citizens of excessive use of force. One of those was exonerated, and I’m confident of that exoneration because it captured on body-worn camera, which would substantiate use of force by officers, or lack thereof,” Johnson said.

“One of those (the second case) was unfounded, or what we call not sustained. There was one case where there was an allegation of excessive force but again, through the review of body cam, we were able to determine that the officers’ actions were appropriate. The force that was used was reasonable, and so they were exonerated on that allegation,” he said.

And the last case is the tragic (officer-involved shooting) of December of 2019, and obviously we can’t get into details on that because there’s appending internal review of that as well as a claim for damages,” Johnson added.

In an early interview with Ureña, he doubled-down on much of what he said May 5, and there was the perception among some people that he was dodging the issue recently when he did not attend the May 19 Calexico meeting in person and logged off Zoom without warning.

In a follow-up conversation with council member Ureña, however, he admitted that he made a mistake in saying “five years.”

Imperial Mayor Karin Eugenio reads into the record a scathing letter against Calexico City Council member Raul Ureña toward the end of the Imperial City Council meeting on May 19 over comments Ureña made on May 5 regarding a pattern of police brutality in the city of Imperial. | VIDEO CAPTURE

“This is a mistake I made. And I will acknowledge my mistake. When I said five years, I was thinking as if we were still in 2015, when I left for college. No, that would be more like 10 to 12 years to include those cases,” he said on May 20.

Yet Ureña is standing by his steadfast refusal to meet the other city officials without the ACLU and other social justice organizations in tow.

Clearly this issue will continue to play out over the next few area council meetings, where Ureña and others will speak in El Centro, and Chief Gerardo has said he believes Chief Johnson and Chief Barra might attend the next Calexico council meeting to speak directly to Ureña and the balance of the council, although that could not yet be confirmed and the agenda for the June 2 meeting has not been released.

So far, Calexico city officials have had a lot of say in earlier interviews, but much of what has been said is to be expected and has been along the lines of what has become common criticisms of Ureña’s style of policymaking, in which they say he often speaks out on issues not germane to the role of a city council member. It’s clear that beyond council member Gloria Romo, Ureña has few friends on the council and possibly among city staff.

During one interview, Mayor Fernandez brought up a salient point in the ongoing uproar created between the cities, where collegial and working relationships between municipalities can be critical.

The El Centro City Council on May 17 discusses with Police Chief Brian Johnson statements Calexico City Council member Raul Ureña made about police brutality at their department during his own council meeting on May 5. El Centro Mayor Cheryl Viegas Walker would go on to pen a letter to Ureña on Monday, May 24. | VIDEO CAPTURE

“You know, it was very important that people be reminded that, with Mr. Ureña’s mistake, what he said about instances of brutality in El Centro. Well, El Centro and the county (Sheriff’s Office) is who bailed out this police department in Calexico when half of that department went down with COVID,” Fernandez said, referring to a period in late 2020 when the chief and a quarter of the sworn officers were infected and in quarantine.

El Centro police, sheriff’s deputies, and sworn District Attorney’s Office investigators assumed several shifts for more than a week.

Ureña’s response was that they were paid well for their services.

All of this speaks to a larger issue for Ureña, who said he believes he is more in tune with Calexico residents than his fellow council members care to believe.

At the root of this controversy is still Senate Bill 2, which Ureña said should come back before the council so it can get a fair airing and be voted on by the council to support or not.

Fernandez said on May 14, that in her role as mayor and the person who can set the agenda, SB2 will not be coming back to the council anytime soon.

Mayor Pro Tem Moreno, like he said when the issue came up on May 5, said it again on May 14 that the California League of Cities has already taken a position not to support the bill, and that it is not the role of the council to do so.

But Ureña feels that policymakers should not be kowtowing to the League of Cities and should represent their citizens’ concerns, and the zeitgeist tells us policing the police is very much a topic of concern.

“Since when does the League of Cities tell us what to do? You know, whether it’s the League of Cities or the Southern California Association of Governments, just because they endorse something one way or the other, does that mean we no longer have a conversation on it?” Ureña asked rhetorically.

“How does Calexico feel about police brutality? So, national trends, everybody’s seeing this on their smartphones, they know that this is something that has happened. But now you have a politician out here (referring to himself) that is able to translate to them a little bit more substantively what is happening and what we can do at a local level … because that conversation is accessible to them,” he said. “It’s not just about political winds, it’s also about getting them into the conversation. And that’s something that the (Calexico) City Council has resisted.”

Julio Morales contributed information to this story.