By Raymond R. Beltrán
In an interview Tuesday, Antonio Flores Noyola reflected on what his family has endured since shopping at JC Penney at Plaza Bonita late last year, an incident that led to the deportation of two of his six-member family.
On November 14, 2003, National City Police Officer Steve Shepard answered to a shoplifting call made by a JC Penney store manager at Plaza Bonita. After discovering that the Noyola family was falsely accused of the crime, the officer proceeded to notify Border Patrol agents when, according to Antonio Flores Noyola, only his wife and cousin were able to furnish their México-issued matrícula consulares. The incident led to the deportation of Antonio’s cousin, Alejandro Galeano, and his Tía Narfelix Arzeta. His wife was not deported.
“My tía didn’t have her matricula card on her, but she did have it at home,” said Noyola. “It was reported to the police, but they didn’t care.”
Noyola also stated that the only outcome of the incident is that his family has been torn apart, and that the deportation has “traumatically affected” his two children who lost the relationship with their tía and nanny, Narfelix Arzeta, now living in México with Galeano.
Four months and numerous National City Council meetings later, the issues surrounding what has been coined The JC Penney Incident have still come to no resolve. Local police officers’ relationship with Border Patrol agents is questionable, and the 65% Mexicano residents living in National City don’t know how safe they are from police detainment and deportation.
To community activists’ surprise, the National City Police Department had taken control of the investigation in recent months. The report, which is being restricted from public access as an “internal personnel investigation,” absolves Officer Shepard of any foul play.
At a public meeting, Monday night, with the local organization South Bay Forum and community residents, Councilman Luis Natividad excused the city’s actions due to the lack of a city manager for approximately seven months, which has since been remedied with the appointment of Chris Zapata in January.
“I feel that we have every right to that report,” said South Bay Forum President Norma Cazares. “All indications and promises were made that [it was] going to be available to us.”
National City Council unanimously passed several motions on December 2, 2003, which included the empowerment of the Community and Police Relations Commission to direct this particular investigation with public access to the final report.
The fact that the police department took direction of the investigation, overwriting a city council decision, leaves National City residents to wonder who the police department is accountable to if not the community or the city council.
In a futile attempt to divert blame from the city council to the community, National City Mayor Nick Inzunza highlighted the fact that residents had not attended four previous public forums relating to the issue. Cazares stated that the argument was invalid because the city council had not publicly notified National City residents of any forums.
Mayor Inzunza attended the Monday night meeting, adding that until the investigation report is made public, he can’t speculate on the safety of National City residents from the threat of police detainment and deportation. He concluded by saying that he would demand the release of the report at Tuesday’s city council meeting, the following night.
“My law firm has alleviated this issue more than any other law firm in the state,” said the National City Police Officers Association’s attorney, Everett Bobbitt, to Mayor Inzunza’s demand at Tuesday’s city council meeting. “The case law and statutes make it publicly clear, your only remedy is legislative. You have no power to release these documents or allow the [Community and Police Relations Commission] to see them. Even the city council cannot see these documents.”
The investigation report is protected by the California Penal Code and can only be released based upon the waivers of Officer Steve Shepard and the police department, according to Bobbit. He discouraged city council to seek litigation in the matter, calling his case a “slam dunk.”
To the community’s disappointment, former police officer and chairman of the Community and Police Relations Commission, Allen Bailey, declared that they wanted nothing to do with this particular issue. He stated that, due to their inadequacy and certain bi-laws, the issue isn’t for them to investigate. Although, they are currently investigating a police involved shooting that occurred at Sweetwater High School last week.
“Any internal investigation [information] should never be looked at by an outsider other than the police department,” said Bailey at Tuesday night’s meeting.
Commission member, Judy de los Santos, disagreed with the decision to ignore community frustrations. “[W]e’re all part of a board that’s part of the city,” said de los Santos. “We know what our responsibilities are, … and we have to recognize that we serve the community as well. We’re not pro-police.”
She also noted that without subpoena powers, there is no way to do a thorough investigation. According to the commission’s declaration, they currently “fall under the overview of the Chief of Police.”
In conclusion to Tuesday night’s meeting, National City Council unanimously passed a decision requiring the police department to execute a “criminal investigation” pertaining to the JC Penney incident, making the matter a public issue as opposed to an internal one. The police department has thirty days from March 16 to return to the council with its new report.
“The [Noyola’s] may end up to be suspects in a criminal case, or even arrested as a result of what comes out,” said Acting Police Chief Penu Pauu. JC Penney never filed a criminal report for the incident, and has yet to apologize for their criminal accusations against the Noyola family.
South Bay Forum President Cazarez has given National City Council two weeks from Tuesday to provide a public accessible report of the investigation before the organization seeks assistance from the District Attorney’s office and requests for a grand jury investigation.
Mariajulia Urías contributed to this article.