“Healing and restoration”: Signal Hill City Council waives fee for Ron Settles memorial

Settles demonstrators briefly confront sheriff’s deputies blocking steps to Signal Hill civic buildings (including Police Department) before dispersing. Photograph dated December 6, 1981.

Decades before George Floyd died last year under the knee of the Minneapolis police officer recently found guilty of his murder, there was Ron Settles. 

Settles died in a Signal Hill Police Department (SHPD) jail cell on June 2, 1981. Though evidence pointed to Settles being beaten and murdered at the hands of SHPD officers, and a coroner’s jury ruled his death a homicide, a grand jury found there was insufficient evidence to charge any of the officers involved.

“I will never believe he took his own life,” Settles’s mother, Helen, is reported to have said following the coroner’s jury verdict. “Ronnie had too much to live for.”

During its April 27 meeting, the Signal Hill City Council agreed to waive park fees associated with a private memorial for Settles on the 40th anniversary of his death. 

Signal Hill Community Services Director Aly Mancini made the request on behalf of Springs of Hope Grief-Care Center, a local nonprofit that offers counseling and funeral arrangements. The center’s executive director is Juanita Matthews, Ron Settles’s aunt, Mancini said.

City policy allows fee waivers if four criteria are met that connect the event to Signal Hill. Though the memorial event doesn’t meet all those criteria, Mancini said she can request a waiver as community-services director.

“Given the historical significance of this event, and in an effort to promote healing and restoration, I am respectfully requesting that the council waive all fees for the event, in the amount of $789,” Mancini said.

The council agreed to honor the request in a unanimous 5-0 vote.

“We are so pumped about the possibility of bringing some closure and healing and restoration through a long-overdue dedication ceremony,” Matthews said. “We are looking forward to celebrating Ron’s life, and celebrating change, and celebrating hope.”

Springs of Hope invited Signal Hill officials to attend the memorial, Mancini said. As of Tuesday, three had confirmed their attendance—Mayor Edward Wilson, City Manager Hannah Shin-Heydorn and Police Chief Christopher Nunley. 

Wilson encouraged the entire council to attend, especially given the past year’s Black Lives Matter protesting sparked by Floyd’s death and the April 20 court decision finding that former police officer Derek Chauvin had murdered him.

“Especially in light of the discourse that’s going on in our community and in the world at large, […] it’s a great opportunity for a lot of healing,” Wilson said. “To focus on our future, and our future together.” 

A protester at a June 5, 2021 protest at Harvey Milk Park holds a sign with the name of Ron Settles, a Black football player from Long Beach who was found dead at the Signal Hill Police Department after being arrested in 1981. Police officers claimed that they found Settles hanging in his jail cell from a noose created from a mattress cover, from which they cut him down; however, Police elected not to take photographic evidence of the hanging, and instead only took photographs of Settles on the floor, and officers refused to testify—pleading the fifth. The woman was on of hundreds of community members at an anti-police brutality protest organized by the local chapter of Black Lives Matter. (Kristen Farrah Naeem | Signal Tribune)

In 1981, Settles was a 21-year-old football running-back at Cal State Long Beach. He was also African American. 

SHPD officers, who were white, said they found Settles dead in his jail cell—hanging by a mattress-cover around his neck—two hours after they’d stopped him for speeding. They’d arrested him when he refused to state his name or show his driver’s license, they said.  

Claudine Burnett, author of several books on local history—most recently, African Americans in Long Beach and Southern California: A History—describes in a June 2020 Signal Tribune column testimony by a fellow inmate that he heard Settles being beaten. He also said he had not seen a mattress cover in Settles’s cell. 

A coroner’s jury ruled Settles’ death a homicide in September 1981, Burnett recounts. A crowd of 1,500 to 2,000 gathered in front of the station to protest the SHPD in December that year. 

However, a subsequent hearing by a grand jury recommended no officers be prosecuted 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,” Burnett found. 

Former Signal Hill Accounting Manager Joy Getz responded to Burnett’s column, stating that besides the undisclosed settlement, the City never made reparations for Settles’s death. 

“For years, the City of Signal Hill has tried to erase its ugly history of racism and police brutality,” Getz wrote. “Ron Settles was just as much a victim as George Floyd when he was beaten and hung.”

Update: Monday, May 3, 4:09 p.m. The address and time of the memorial has been removed from this story at the request of the host as it is a private event.

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