On April 17, 2006, Judge Thomas Warriner dismissed the misdemeanor hit-and-run charged against 16-year-old Halema Buzayan. The family had complained about the conduct of Officer Pheng Ly during the course of his arrest and questioning of the minor. This case had become a focal point in the struggle for police oversight.
The father, Jamal Buzayan declared, “Case Dismissed, Justice is Done.”
Halema Buzayan said, “It’s a really good day. I think it’s a great feeling to know that justice has prevailed.”
Just two weeks later however, the entire scene shifted. The Yolo County District Attorney’s Office, in opposition to a ruling from Judge Warriner, released audio recordings of the hit-and-run investigation to the Davis Enterprise. The Davis Enterprise would run a front page story on April 28, 2006 and post those recordings on their website.
More damaging however was the April 30, 2006 Editorial from Davis Enterprise Editor Debbie Davis.
Listen for yourself, and then decide whether you believe Davis police Officer Pheng Ly was hostile, discriminatory or abusive when he arrested a Davis teenager last summer for suspected hit-and-run.
After hearing the audiotapes released Friday by the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office, our answers are no, no and no.
Jamal Buzayan filed a citizen’s complaint against the Police Department two days after his daughter Halema’s arrest on June 13, 2005, saying the incident “went beyond the reasonable standards of acceptable, civilized behavior.” He’s wrong.
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF. The audiotapes are available on The Davis Enterprise’s Web site, www.davisenterprise.com. Click on the story “Audio of hit-run arrest revealing,” and follow the links to the recordings.
You’ll hear a Davis police officer discharging his duty to this community in a decidedly professional manner. He’s doing his job, and he’s doing it well. In every contact with the hit-and-run victim, the witness and every member of the Buzayan family, he is polite, respectful and professional.
(I will remind people once again, Debbie Davis is not a lawyer).
Bob Dunning on May 2, 2006, would follow up this editorial with his own remarks.
Frankly, I expected the tapes might provide a little something for everyone to hang their hats on. Maybe a harsh voice on one side or the other, or a moment of misunderstanding that would be interpreted one way by one group and another way by the opposite side, leading to one of those inevitable impasses where everyone digs in their heels and nobody wins.
I was wrong. There were no harsh voices, misunderstandings or unclear meanings on the tapes. They are straightforward and easy to understand. It would be hard for 100 impartial observers who know nothing of this case to not reach exactly the same conclusion about their contents.
And, while there are aspects of this case that people may wish to continue to argue about, one thing is clear from a close analysis of the tapes: Davis police Officer Pheng Ly is owed an apology by all those who have suggested he is a rogue cop motivated by both racial and religious discrimination.
That apology would come that evening at the Davis City Council.
Officer Ly addressed the council, “I am not bitter about what has happened to me. I have already forgiven and moved on. It is time for me to get back to working for the good citizens of this community.”
Mayor Ruth Asmundson would utter that apology on behalf of the city. A few months later, some of the supporters of the Buzayans pointed out to the Mayor that Halema Buzayan had been arrested and had her case dismissed, was she not owed an apology as well. Asmundson’s response was that “I think Halema has learned her lesson.”
Despite Ly’s words that night that he was not bitter and that he had forgiven and moved on. His words on his website which was only taken down in the last few weeks say something very different:
“I hereby challenge the family (particularly the arrested minor) to take a polygraph test with me, regarding the facts surrounding this case, with an independent and certified company or polygrapher and that the results of those tests be immediately made public in their entirety. I have nothing to hide and want the truth to come out.
From the very beginning, it was crystal clear to me that the highly paid defense and wealthy family did not want this case to be tried in a court of law, where all the facts would have been legally brought out, but rather in the more ambiguous and inflammable court of public opinion through the careful use and manipulation of the media. Yes, the family has spent a lot of money over this “minor fender bender”. In fact, they paid the other car owner almost $900 even though they denied ever hitting her car! Now if someone accused me of hitting their car or damaging their property and I know I didn’t do it, I would never pay them off; particularly so quickly and especially with no questions asked! I believe this type of behavior is commonly referred to as “consciousness of guilt” in the legal system. This is clearly a wealthy family that believes they can buy their way out of any and everything.”
Yes, Officer Ly was not bitter, not bitter at all.
Like everyone else involved, Ly shifts the emphasis to demeanor and away from process.
“Was I so upset at the family that they truly thought I was going to physically strike them as they have accused me of? Was I rude, demeaning and yelling to the family when I questioned them as they have accused me of? Did I illegally question the minor without advising her of her Miranda rights and deny her an attorney or parent as they have accused me of?”
As the lawsuit alleges:
“Ly also challenged the Buzayans to take a polygraph, but conspicuously did not offer to answer questions regarding whether:
• He determined that members of the Buzayan family were making false statements, based upon his assumptions about their cultural characteristics;
• He lied to Andrienne Wonhof-Gustafson regarding the Buzayan families’ willingness to pay for the damage to her vehicle regardless of fault;
• He instructed the Buzayan family to compensate Mrs. Wonhof-Gustafson, and then claimed that their willingness to do so was evidence of guilt;
• He lied to Dr. Buzayan when he claimed to want only to “speak to Halema;”
• After arresting Halema, he deliberately did not take her to a probation officer, as the law expressly requires;
• He entered the Buzayan home on the 13th of June, 2005, without a warrant, while concealing his intent to arrest Halema;
• He knew that Halema had asked for an attorney, and ignored her request;”
These matters will fortunately be sorted out in a court of law rather than in the Davis Enterprise or City Council Chambers. However, it seems irresponsible for an officer of the law to be making those types of accusations on a website. It is striking that the day the story on the Buzayans filing a lawsuit against the police came out in the Davis Enterprise, Officer Pheng Ly’s webpage came down. Moreover, it was completely irresponsible of Mayor Ruth Asmundson to apologize to Officer Ly on behalf of the city. When the lawsuit is finally adjudicated, Mayor Asmundson will have to answer for those words. She will either be vindicated by those words or she will be condemned for them. I think a responsible government official should have withheld comment until the civil case was resolved.
—Doug Paul Davis reporting