Column | Signal Hill Police: The Ron Settles Story

Column+%7C+Signal+Hill+Police%3A+The+Ron+Settles+Story

Joseph Holliday

In September 1981, more than 200 demonstrators protested in front of a boarded up Signal Hill civic center over what many called “the murder” of Cal State University football running back Ron Settles. Settles, an African-American man was found hanged with a mattress cover in his cell June 2, about two hours after he was stopped for speeding. Police said when they stopped the 21-year-old he refused to produce a driver’s license or give his name. When they tried to get him out of the car, he bent over and reached under the seat for a knife. In searching the vehicle, they located a vial of cocaine and said tests later revealed minute traces of PCP in Settles’ body.

Settles demonstrators briefly confront sheriff’s deputies blocking steps to Signal Hill civic buildings (including Police Department) before dispersing. Photograph dated December 6, 1981 (Chris Gulker | Harold Examiner)

Another Signal Hill jail death – that of Jack E. Browne, 48, a Long Beach welder arrested 10 days after Settles’ death on suspicion of intoxication, possession of tear gas without a permit and possession of drug paraphernalia – was also ruled a suicide. The District Attorney determined Browne hanged himself, apparently using socks tied to a cell bar.

At the time, Signal Hill police had a history of being sued for beating without justification or for false arrest.

From 1968 up to Settles’ death in 1981, 29 claims were filed against the department, with 16 of the lawsuits resulting in settlements that cost Signal Hill more than $80,000. Signal Hill was also known “as the place to go” if you wanted to legally carry a concealed weapon and remain anonymous, since the names of those granted a permit were kept confidential. Gaylord Wert, police chief in the city of 6025 issued 95 permits to carry concealed weapons in 1981 – more permits than were issued by any other police chief in LA County.

By comparison, the Los Angeles or Long Beach police departments issued no permits. Following publicity about the department, city council member George Papadakis introduced a motion in which holders of Signal Hill concealed weapons permits would have their license rescinded January 1, 1982, and that the names of new applicants would be made public.

Police use high power lenses on cameras to survey crowd in front of Signal Hill Police Department. Ron Settles’ father, Donell (at center with microphone) speaks to crowd of about 1,500-2,000 at Hinshaw Park. His wife, Helen, stands to his right. Photograph dated December 6, 1981. (James Ruebsamen | Herald Examiner)

Following Settles’ arrest, a former inmate testified he heard Settles being beaten at the Signal Hill jail and that he saw no mattress cover in Settles’ cell. However, police said given Settles’ strength and weight it would have taken at least two people to hoist him if he were dead or unconscious, and a half dozen or more if he were conscious.

In a 5-4 decision, a coroner’s jury ruled in September 1981 that Settles died at the hands of another, other than by accident, and not by suicide as police contended.

The Los Angeles Times asked psychiatrist Bruce Danto, who had studied suicides in police lockups since 1969 and authored two books on the subject, to make his own determination.

Danto concluded that Settles was an angry young man who represented a great deal in potential to his parents, who had sacrificed greatly for him. Settles perceived his own performance as being more than it was. In examining school records, Danto discovered Settles had failed or received incompletes in most of his courses, except for black history classes. Other university documents indicated Settles had recently received 51 parking tickets from campus police and his car had been impounded three times on campus. During an interview with Officer Jerry Lee Brown, Danto learned that after Brown had handcuffed Settles, he [Settles] “grabbed him by the testicles and began squeezing.” Brown had already lost one testicle in a motorcycle accident. Trying to get Settles to release his hold, Brown said he hit the prisoner. Settles then started kicking. To protect himself Brown hit him with his baton. Brown said once Settles was subdued he was turned over to another officer who booked him.

Danto’s final opinion on Settles was that all the ingredients of suicide were there. A grand jury investigation followed.

Protestors gather in front of Signal Hill Police Department in a rally held for Ron Settles. Settles’ father, Donell (not visible) spoke to a crowd of approximately 1,500-2,000 demonstrators, some of which can be seen here. Photograph dated December 6, 1981. (James Ruebsamen | Herald Examiner)

A seven month investigation by Los Angeles District Attorney John Van de Kamp determined that it would never be known for certain the proximate cause of Settles’ death. He added that Coroner Thomas T. Noguchi had done a very poor, unprofessional job in analyzing the case. He cited the loss of evidence and mistakes in drug tests. He added, however, that the coroner’s office had adopted new procedures that gave him the confidence future jail deaths would be treated in a more professional matter. ​

The grand jury recommended that no effort be made to prosecute any officers involved in the Settles case due to insufficient evidence. The Settles’ case was ultimately settled out of court, with both parties refusing to disclose the amount awarded to the family, though some sources claim $760,000 others $1 million.

Led by city council member David J. Bellis, a maverick long critical of the city administration and the Police Department, a consulting firm was hired by the city after the September 1981 protests regarding Settles’ death. The 70-page report, written after a 2 1/2 month study by a six-member team, was released in March 1982. It concluded that the 29-member department be disbanded or drastically reorganized. It also recommended the department abandon the practice of officers working a 12-hour shift, three days a week in favor of regular eight-hour, 5 day shift. This was recommended because long hours could result in fatigue and poor decision-making. Following a six-month impasse, police officers agreed to give up their 3-day week, which they preferred.

Bellis called the report “excellent” but said he was against abolishing the Police Department. He was, however, in favor of replacing the police chief and the lieutenant and getting new leadership.

Though the council disagreed with the recommendation to fire Wert, chief of the city’s beleaguered Police Department, a new council decided differently after it was discovered that Wert had issued 39 concealed weapons permits since January. In May 1982, Signal Hill Police Chief, Gaylord (Red) Wert was fired. In December 1984 veteran City Manager David Caretto, the last of the city’s long-term administrators resigned.

In September 1982, Michael McCrary, a former Palm Springs police lieutenant with a bachelor’s degree in public administration, was hired as chief. In July 1983, he fired two Signal Hill police officers after a teenage Explorer Scout reported having sex with the officers. The girl said she did not come forward at the time because she thought the officers would not be punished under the administration offormer chief Wert, who headed the department from 1979 until May 1982. The girl said the sexual activity occurred between 1980 and 1982. Other actions to clean up the department followed.

Half of the city’s 28-officer department was replaced through termination, retirement and attrition by 1986.

Signal Hill was transitioning to a new age; the city had begun to replace their oil derricks with condominiums. In the 1982 and 1984 City Council elections, Signal Hill residents – many newcomers who had moved into the city’s newly built condominiums – voted out and old timers who had controlled the city since the 1960s. A new city was born. Some residents believed it was Settles’ death and the attendant publicity that changed their city so radically.

“It was like a little country town up until the episode of Ron Settles,” Doris Miller, president of the Signal Hill Historical Society, told the Los Angeles Times in June 1985. “Before 1981 everybody knew the other person,” Miller said. “You knew what your neighbors had for breakfast. Now the old-timers have almost all moved away or died. Progress in the long run is good,” she said. “But I miss the friendliness.” (LA Times 6/30/1985).

Claudine Burnett has written 10 books about Southern California history. For more about her, and to access her blogs, visit her website at claudineburnettbooks.com and her Facebook page here.