A year after police arrests, King City still in turmoil

Apr 3, 2015

Veronica Villa owns El Sinaloense Restaurant in King City.
Credit Julie Reynolds

In King City, El Sinaloense is more than just another restaurant at the end of Broadway Street.   It’s a kind of civic center for the town’s residents, a place to exchange news and opinions.

Ranchera music blares on the jukebox at lunch time, when customers ranging from field workers to high school kids to city officials stop in for shrimp tacos or a chicken tostada.

Conversations here invariably get around to city politics, and the opinions always flow.

No one here is more opinionated than the owner, Veronica Villa. She speaks her mind at City Council meetings. She’s even thought of running for office.  Villa says the town has changed a lot since she moved here 25 years ago.

“I used to be able to walk home from the dances at one in the morning,” she says. “But now we feel so unsafe that we don’t even leave the house at night. It feels to us like the police here can’t control crime, even for such a small town.”

Here in King City, the whole concept of safety got turned on its head early last year when two former police chiefs and four officers — more than a third of the force — were arrested. Their crimes ranged from threatening a resident’s life to embezzling a cop car and tricking it out as a low-rider.

But the most serious charge involved a vast and long-running towing kickback scheme that prosecutors say targeted the town’s low-income Latinos.

Today, more than a year later, relations between police and residents are still, well, complicated.

King City is literally a one-stoplight town, permeated by the aura of agriculture.  Almost 90 percent of the city’s 13,000 residents are Latino — many of them farmworkers.

Interim Chief Tony Sollecito, who will likely soon be replaced by a permanent chief, wants residents to know there’s been a culture shift in the police department.

“We’re putting behind Feb. 25, 2014… I know it takes a while for stigmas to fade away. But the King City Police Department doesn’t always want to be identified with arrests made a year ago,” he says.

Residents say they’re relieved the confiscation of towed cars has stopped since the arrests and prosecutions.

But nearly all the Latino residents I interviewed spoke of a new problem. They say police are pulling over cars and ticketing drivers excessively.

One woman said she was cited because her license plate light wasn’t working — during the daytime. Parents say officers are waiting for them when they drop off their kids at school in the morning.

Sollecito said he’s heard about the school complaint and is looking into it.  Maybe a few have said that, and it has gotten back to me,” he says. “I have talked to the officers about making sure that when they’re pulling people over that they obviously have a reason, but to explain fully to the person why they’re being pulled over.”

One man, who asked not to be named because he feared police retribution, says a few weeks ago he stopped at an intersection and turned right. A police car followed him for more than a mile, he says, and eventually pulled him over. He says the officer wouldn’t tell him why, and after seeing that his license, registration and insurance were in order, the officer told him, “You ran a stop sign back there.” The man insists he did not, but he was cited anyway.

Still, not everyone is sure that over-ticketing residents is a problem, or that it’s even happening.  

City Councilman Mike LeBarre says, “there’s always two sides to the story when it comes to law enforcement. We want to make sure that the children going to our schools

are absolutely safe. And so, if there were some ticketing issues, it could relate to that.”

He says he and his fellow council members “do trust our law enforcement because… they’ve been under such scrutiny, I would be hard-pressed to see them making mistakes, quite honestly.”

In fact, the number of tickets issued in King City has more than doubled in a year.

According to police data, in 2013, there were 176 traffic citations, and in 2014, the number jumped to 378.  This year isn’t far behind, with 80 citations issued as of April 30.

Sollecito notes that’s around a ticket a day, which he says is reasonable. He says the increase might be because the city has hired new, younger officers who are “motivated” and eager to show they can do the job.  “No one has come and complained about tickets,” he says.

While residents have long complained about a lack of representation in City Hall —  there’s never been a Latino mayor and city meetings only recently began to provide Spanish interpreters — many say they have only themselves to blame.

“It happens because we Latinos have let it happen,” Villa says. “We let it happen, because we haven’t decided to say ‘Enough!’ Or we say ‘enough’ but we don’t take action.”

There is, however, a movement underway to try to get more Latinos involved in local politics. Villa joined Assemblyman Luis Alejo and other Latino leaders who recently announced they want the town to change from at-large to district elections.

It’s a tactic that’s helped get more Latino representation in other Latino-majority cities like Salinas and Watsonville.

You can read more of Julie’s reporting on this story in today’s edition of the Monterey Herald.