NOTE: As stated here previously, I’m obsessed with picking at scars and probing the underbelly for dirty secrets often ignored or glossed over by local media. This fixation is reflected in my historical fiction. In an initial draft of Falling Down, I toyed with having one of the main characters carry the Penn moniker. I was working for a City-owned redevelopment company focusing on improving the economic vitality of San Diego’s primarily African-American community at the time this incident occurred.
Despite appearances to the contrary, San Diego has not been immune from charges of racial profiling, unnecessary force, and aggressive police tactics similar to those making headlines today. In his book, Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See, and in a February 16, 2015, San Diego Free Press article, Jim Miller details a record of racist behavior conducted against Hispanics, Chinese, and African-Americans throughout the city’s history.
Thirty years ago last month, in a case similar to recent national incidents, twenty-four-year-old Sagon Penn became a stellar example of real and perceived bigotry. But, this time, the gun was in the other hand.
Like several of the victims in recent cases, Penn had a criminal record. Unlike other alleged victims, he also possessed expertise in martial arts. On March 31, 1985, Penn shot and killed SDPD officer Thomas Riggs, shot and ran over Riggs’ colleague, Donovan Jacobs, and wounded a civilian observer after he was pulled over in his pick-up truck—loaded with seven of his friends.
Police suspected Penn and his companions to be gang members. At trial, however, Penn’s attorney argued that Jacobs stopped Penn for no legitimate reason and, without provocation, initiated a brutal, racist tirade.
“I think the weight of the evidence is going to be that Riggs is approaching in a low-key, polite, unaggressive way . . . ,” the attorney told the jury. “Jacobs is a Doberman pinscher.”
The court record provides the following testimony in support of Penn’s position:
Jacobs (in a harsh, gruff voice): “What’s up, blood?” (a nickname referring to a member of a black youth gang).
Penn (very courteous): “What’s the problem, officer?”
Jacobs: “You claim cuz or blood?”
Penn: “What are you talking about, sir? If I claim anything, I claim myself.”
At this point, Penn’s attorney explained that Penn realized he was being mistaken for a gang member, which he was not. The record picks up when Penn removes his wallet to show his ID.
Jacobs: “I don’t want your wallet! I want your license!”
Penn: “Go ahead, sir. Look at the whole thing. I’ve got nothing to hide.”
Jacobs: “Look, boy! I’m going to tell you one more time or you’re going to get hurt.”
At some point, Penn was either asked to or stepped from his pickup and, according to the court record, underwent a beating with baton and fists. Officer Jacobs is quoted as telling Penn, “you think you’re bad, nigger? I’m going to beat your black ass.”
Perhaps because San Diegans at that time were conscious of a police force history involving racism and aggressive tactics, the jury found Penn not guilty, believing he acted in self-defense when he allegedly grabbed the officer’s revolver, fired six shots, and then ran over Jacobs in an attempted escape in a commandeered police cruiser. Allegedly depressed by what his family perceived as continued police harassment, Penn committed suicide on July 4, 2002.
For more detail, see March 12, 1986, LA Times article by Glenn F. Bunting at http://articles.latimes.com/1986-03-12/local/me-18426_1_police-officer, and Feb. 16, 2015, San Diego Free Press article by Jim Miller at http://sandiegofreepress.org/2015/02/san-diegos-racial-unconscious-history-is-the-narrative-that-hurts/.