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Ron Settles' Jail Hanging Grieves Me Still


Ron Settles, a star football player at California State University in Long Beach (By Joseph Holliday)

I feel crowded out by the dead. In the cramped closet of grief, I am elbowed by people I love and by those whose lives were snuffed out.

I am awakened by memories of police victims and, during the day, notified about friends and family who have died of the new coronavirus.

After four months of the global COVID-19 pandemic and five weeks of international protests for social justice, I ask myself how many more will haunt me.

One morning, I remembered Reginald Ronnell Settles, a star football player at California State University in Long Beach. The 21-year-old college student was on his way to a summer job on June 2, 1981. At about 11:30 in the morning, Signal Hill police stopped Settles for speeding in the oil pump-dotted city surrounded by Long Beach, said The Washington Post on September 7, 1981. They arrested him and took him to jail. Two hours later, police said they found him severely beaten and hanged by a noose fashioned from a mattress cover. They said it was suicide.

Signal Hill police elected not to take photographic evidence of the hanging and, instead, only took photographs of Settles on the floor, according to UPI on September 2, 1981.

Ron Settles was black.

His parents were middle-class professionals. Police could not say that Ron Settles came from a broken home, that there was no father, or basically, that he was not worth the life that had been given him. In the United States, unlike others, a black person is guilty until proven innocent.

“I will never believe he took his own life,” his mother, Helen Settles, said in a UPI story on September 2, 1982. “Ronnie had too much to live for.”

Her son had been named in several college football polls as one of the most promising running backs on the West Coast, she noted in the October 1, 1981 issue of Jet, which the comedian Red Foxx called the “Negro bible”. Jet became nationally known in 1955 with its coverage of the lynching of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who was accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store.

Neither did his friends, teachers and members in the community believe that Settles had killed himself. In September 1981, three months after his death, more than 200 demonstrators protested his “murder” outside of the Signal Hill civic center.

At that time, newsrooms were mostly white, mostly men. You could count on one, maybe two hands, the people who did not fit into that demographic. Several months after Ron Settles’ death, I signed on as a cub reporter at the Long Beach Press-Telegram, impressed by its coverage of the story and, especially, the dogged dedication of veteran reporter: Mary Neiswender.

“Neiswender sleuthed the story for her newspaper and got others in the jail at the time to reveal that beatings were routine and that no one had a sheet that could be used to end a life,” according to Deadline on September 25, 2017.

At the time, the Signal Hill Police Department had a history of lawsuits against it for unjustified beatings and false arrests. From 1968 up to Ron Settles death in 1981, 29 claims were filed, with 16 lawsuits resulting in settlements amounting to more than $80,000, according to the Signal Tribune on June 11, 2020.

Ron Settles’ parents, Helen and Donnell Settles, engaged the attorney, John Cochran, who had handled many cases of police brutality. Years later, Cochran gained renown for the defense and acquittal of ex-football player, O.J. Simpson, in the murder of his ex-wife and friend. Cochran persuaded the Settles to exhume their son’s body. For the coroner’s inquest jury, Cochran demonstrated a chokehold, which he argued had killed Settles. The jury decided that Ron had died “at the hands of another” other than by accident, according to The New York Times on January 15, 1982.

“This restores my faith in humanity, said Helen Settles, in The Washington Post on September 7, 1981. “The Bible says, if you take one step, God will take two.”

Donnell Settles said: “We just hope that what happened, in this case, will stop these things happening again.”

However, after an eight-month investigation, no criminal charges were brought against the six police officers, said The New York Times. District Attorney John K. Van de Kamp of Los Angeles County said the evidence was insufficient to bring charges against anyone in the police department or the City of Signal Hill.

At a press conference, Van de Kamp commented on the “difficulties” of investigating the case while all six officers had refused to cooperate, taking the Fifth Amendment, said The Times. Pleading the Fifth means that you have the right not to answer questions while in court or in custody.

The prosecutor’s investigative report noted that (arresting) Officer (Jerry Lee) Brown “has continually refused our invitation to be interviewed”. Van de Kamp said that when interviews like Brown’s had been granted to the press, there were areas in which the press had more complete information than the prosecutor’s office.

Brown had admitted in a newspaper interview that he had beaten Ron Settles on the head and legs, but that he had done so because Settles became belligerent while he was being booked, said The Times.

The police had said that Settles was jailed after he refused to show a driver’s license or give his name, according to the Signal Tribune. When they tried to get him out of his car, they said that he reached under the seat for a knife. In searching the vehicle, they said they found a cocaine-user’s kit.

The Los Angeles coroner’s office, headed by Dr. Thomas Noguchi, conducted three tests and reported that no drugs were found in the athlete's system. The coroner’s office was, later, criticized for losing Settles’ clothes.

Because of the lack of eyewitnesses’ accounts or other concrete evidence, Van de Kamp said that the question of whether Ron Settles’ death had been a homicide or a suicide would probably remain unanswered.

The inquiry, in Van de Kamp’s words, turned up an “abnormal number” of complaints of brutality complaints against the police of the small city, said The Times.

John Cochran, the Settles’ attorney, said they would proceed with a civil case against the city of Signal Hill, contending that Ron Settles’ civil rights had been violated.

Cochran did pursue the civil suit, which was settled out of court. Both parties refused to disclose the amount. Some sources claim it was $760,000 and others $1 million, said the Signal Tribune.

After the September 1981 protests, the city of Signal Hill, led by David J. Bellis, a council member long critical of the administration and the police department, hired a consulting firm. A six-member team issued a 70-page report, which was released in March 1982. The report concluded that the 29-member police department should be disbanded or drastically reorganized, according to the Signal Tribune.

Bellis called the report “excellent”, but he was against abolishing the police department. However, he was in favor of replacing the police chief and the lieutenant. The city council disagreed with the firings. Later, however, a new council decided differently after it was discovered that Police Chief (Red) Wert had issued 39 concealed weapons permits since January 1982. In May 1982, Wert was fired. Six months after the report, police officers agreed with the recommendation to end three-day weeks (12-hour shifts), which the report said could result in fatigue and poor decision-making.

The police department underwent other reforms. Four years later in 1986, half of the city’s department had been replaced through termination, retirement and attrition.

These changes were for the better. However, without a moral foundation, piecemeal changes in police or other bureaucracies will not stand unobstructed. There must be a sea change among the officials and the community that dispenses with us-versus-them culture and recognizes the humanity of everyone.

Minneapolis Hubert H. Humphrey made police reform his top priority after he took office in 1945, according to Gary W. Reichard in Hubert H. Humphrey. As he explained in his inaugural address, enforcement of the law was “not merely a matter of police administration” but a vital ingredient of community health. Humphrey fired the police chief and replaced him with one who rooted out corrupt officers “on the take”. He also addressed employment, housing and other community issues.

Again, Minneapolis is taking steps to reform the police department after an officer kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in May. Seventy-five years after Humphrey’s changes is a long time. Periodic re-examination of a police force seems sensible in Minneapolis, Signal Hill, and elsewhere.

When I moved to Long Beach, I thought of Ron Settles as being much younger than me. After a respite, I had finished graduate school and had been a full-time newspaper reporter for one year. He was only about to enter his senior year in college. Now, I see that he was only four years younger than me. Had he lived, he would have been 61.

It seems I cannot cry enough tears for all the dead taken from us before their time.

“We just hope that what happened, in this case, will stop these things happening again,” said his father, Donnell Settles.

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