Column | Signal Hill Police: The Ron Settles Story

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.

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George Papadakis introduced a motion in which holders of Signal Hill concealed weapons permits would have their license rescinded January 1, 1982, and that the names of new applicants would be made public.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 Settles’ death as a homicide, and not by suicide as police contended.

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 and her Facebook page here.

  1. Dear Editor,

    Fot years, the City of Signal Hill has tried to erase its ugly history of racism and police brutality by burying Ron Settles’ murder at the hands of the Signal Hill Police Department in the early 80’s. Ron Settles was just as much a victim as George Floyd, when he was beaten and hung while in Signal Hill Police

    As a former employee, I can confirm that the Ron Settles subject is taboo in City Hall. 99% of the current employees don’t even know about him. Yet Signal Hill, other than a non-disclosed settlement with the Settles’ Family, has never never made reparations. How do I know? How many black police officers, despite the community’s ethnic makeup, serve on the Signal Hill Police Force? 0 – Zero- None!
    How many black police officers have EVER served on the Signal Hill Police Force? In all my years of employment, there were 0 – Zero -None. How many black non-public safety employees has Signal Hill ever hired? Only 1 to my knowledge. There is something seriously wrong with the composition of this picture and someone needs to ask the question “Why?”.

  2. I am working on a future story about Signal Hill’s first black police officer. I can tell you that Signal Hill hired it’s first black police officer, Lucky K. Lucky, in 1982. Lucky was fired later that year after he had an off duty scuffle with white officer Charles Abney.  Abney had allegedly made racist remarks about blacks which upset Lucky. Abney was not fired. Lucky sued the city in 1985, but an unprecedented “gag” order was imposed, which prevented lawyers from speaking with the press.  The settlement was as much a mystery as the case itself. 

  3. I am an African American man who lives in Long Beach and remembers the Ron Settles’ incident very well. Ron’s parents lived not far from my parents in the City of Carson some many years ago. I never met Ron but knew of him from his staring in football at Long Beach State (now CSULB). I drive through Signal Hill almost daily and it still has the “stench” of racism and murder as a result of those murdering cops; they hanged Ron Settles in his cell. Most African Americans knew that Ron Settles was murdered by a group of racist, white cops and even to this day (December 2020) Signal Hill has that taint of that murdered young man. Signal Hill will never live that down. Finally, I still get the “creeps” driving through that town.

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