By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
In late 1994, a county probation officer summarized the Glendale PD's view of Eli as "a longtime troublemaker in the community."
By his own account, Eli started drinking at 12, then turned to sniffing paint fumes during a yearlong period around his 14th birthday. That was about the time he got "jumped into" the BCL gang.
Stints at Ironwood and Centennial high schools and at an alternative school ended in failure. He dropped out and worked menial jobs on and off.
Somehow, Eli Balkcom had slipped from his parents' grasp.
"It wasn't like we were blind to it," Frank Balkcom says. "We tried everything--being super-strict, signing 'I promise' contracts with each other, taking his gang clothes from him, taking his bedroom door off the hinges. I'd tell him, 'I'm hearing the same lies from you as I hear from the punks out there. Come on, man.' But the street got him."
By 1990, the Glendale PD was coming to grips with a burgeoning gang population. It formed a special unit, which donned black tee shirts and patrolled malls and neighborhoods and spoke at schools and other events.
Like the police department, the gang squad was mostly white; its targets mostly Hispanic. Several locals with and without apparent gang ties filed complaints about being verbally and physically hassled by the high-profile squad.
The squad also faced internal criticism from other Glendale officers.
"I was asked if I had ever heard members of the gang squad make racial statements," wrote Glendale officer Janis Whitson, in a memo obtained by New Times. "I advised Lieutenant [Denver] Wells I had heard them make racial slurs and gave him examples. . . . I told Wells I had worked the gang squad on two occasions and did not desire working with that unit after my observations on those occasions."
That's not the only documentation of racism inside the department. On November 6, assistant police chief Paul Felice sent a message to several patrol command officers after getting wind of a drawing someone had stuck up in the squad room.
"Please be aware of the caricatures and symbols that are drawn on the Mylar boards throughout the department," Felice wrote. "One was placed on a board that could be depicted as having racial overtones. . . . I don't want to stop it all together [sic], but it is your responsibility to make these things stay as innocuous as possible."
At first glance, the drawing does appear to be innocuous--it looks like a sliced-up pie chart. But its verbal punch line was vile.
"I asked someone about that drawing 'cause I couldn't figure it out," Balkcom says. "I was told, 'This is what a nigger sees when he's looking up from the bottom of a well.' Like he's seeing the hoods of Ku Klux Klanners."
Balkcom says he was stunned by Felice's cavalier attitude.
"It was like he was condoning it," Balkcom says. "To me, there's no gray area in something like this or something like sexual harassment. If you're in charge, you put a stop to it hard."
Frank Balkcom says he first felt the sting of his own department's bias after a November 1991 brawl involving then-15-year-old Eli Balkcom and several juveniles at a Glendale park.
Police reports and other records indicate that a 19-year-old punched Eli during the melee, breaking his jaw. But the department's gang squad, specifically members Keith Otts and Rusty Peterson, quickly focused on Eli as the prime suspect.
They recommended prosecutors charge Eli with assault, and with threatening or intimidating his alleged victim under Arizona's antigang laws--a felony.
Ruth and Frank Balkcom were outraged. Eli's "victim" had outweighed him by 60 pounds and Eli wound up with a metal plate in his jaw. They knew their son was no sweetheart, but he didn't deserve this.
The police reports reflect what the Balkcoms came to believe was a slanted investigation: The squad conducted lengthy interviews with the alleged victim and his friends, who were white. Eli's allies--all Hispanics--barely were questioned, if at all.
Eli was sentenced in juvenile court to community-service work; the guy who broke his jaw never was charged.
The gang squad continued to bump into Eli and Frank Jr., and the meetings were never cordial. After the boys had another unpleasant encounter with Keith Otts at a Glendale mall in mid-1992, the Balkcoms hired an attorney.
The lawyer wrote a letter of complaint in October 1992 to Glendale City Attorney Peter Van Haren. It pointed out that the juvenile probation officer assigned to the park-brawl case had advised Frank Balkcom to "contact the ACLU because the reports were rampant with racial connotations."
He continued: "Several officers within the Glendale PD were aware that these detectives [Otts and Peterson] asked to have Eli's case assigned to them because they wanted to 'do him.'"
The Balkcoms met with Van Haren and the police chief in October 1992. But apparently nothing was resolved.
"It was what they call a whitewash," Frank Balkcom says. "It was, 'We'll keep an eye on the guys and you keep an eye on your kid.' That wasn't good enough, but we had to live with it."