Ron Settles was 10 days shy of his 22nd birthday when a Signal Hill police officer pulled him over for speeding on Orange Avenue near East Hill Street. It was about 11:30 a.m., and the Cal State Long Beach student and star football player was on his way to a summer job, according to his family.

But he never made it. Just a couple of hours after his arrest, Settles was dead in his jail cell, his body beaten and hanging from a noose apparently fashioned from a mattress cover.

The day was June 2, 1981. Now, 41 years later, the city of Signal Hill has officially declared June 2, 2022, to be the first annual Ron Settles Day of Remembrance—a day to remember when a young Black man died in the custody of a small-town police department that, even before his death, was notorious for pervasive brutality.

Decades before George Floyd, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland or Freddie Gray became household names following their deaths while being arrested or in police custody, Ron Settles’ death made national news.

Publications like the New York Times, Washington Post and the United Press International wire service reported on the football star who’d died in a tiny jail cell in a tiny oil town, but Juanita Matthews, Settles’ aunt, credits Settles’ parents for generating so much publicity.

“My sister and her husband pushed everything to the limit to clear his name,” Matthews said of the late Helen and Donnell Settles, who she said had to deal with baseless Signal Hill Police claims that their son was found with drugs and became violent when arrested. “We never believed their claims because we knew Ronnie. We knew it would take a lot to clear his name.”

After their son died, Helen and Donnell brought together a dozen of their friends and family into the Ron Settles Justice Committee, according to Matthews. Their efforts helped galvanize a police reform effort in Signal Hill, leading to major changes at the city’s tiny police department, she said.

But in the initial years following Settles’ death, his name soon receded from memory. Family issues took precedence over commemorating the 20th and 30th anniversaries of his death, Matthews said. But Matthews said the 40th anniversary seemed different.

“When the 40th anniversary hit, it hit me like a ton of bricks,” said Matthews. “It just seemed like the right timing. I stopped everything and thought, if you don’t do something now, you won’t do anything.”

In 2021, Matthews asked the Signal Hill City Council for help commemorating her nephew. To City Manager Hannah Shin-Heydorn, Matthews’ request presented a huge opportunity to highlight the moves the city had made over the last four decades toward more tolerance and lower police violence.

“We thought that was amazing,” said Shin-Heydorn.

For her part, Matthews said she was surprised that city officials were so willing to work with her.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “It was almost like they were waiting for an opportunity to do something positive. They were so gracious to us, so unlike 40 years ago.”

Ron Settles in 1980 (center) with his grandfather, John E. Strong, Sr. (left), and uncle, Theodore Strong. Photo courtesy Juanita Matthews

In 1981, the Signal Hill PD was small, only about 36 officers, but it had an outsized reputation for being brutal, especially to people who weren’t White.

“If you were a Black male, it was largely known that you do not drive through Signal Hill,” Matthews said.

But Settles drove through Signal Hill. He was taking a shortcut to get to work, according to Matthews. Jerry Lee Brown, the officer who pulled Settles over for allegedly speeding, was already infamous in a department that seemed to reward excessive force.

When Brown arrested Settles, eight police brutality suits had already been brought against him in the decade he had so far served with the Signal Hill PD, according to an LA Times investigation of Signal Hill published four months after Settles’ death. Six of those eight cases involved people who weren’t white, according to the Times.

In total, the LA Times investigation found that Signal Hill police officers had been “formally accused” of beating 42 people without justification in the 13 years prior to Settles’ death. Of those, 29 people had sued the city, and 16 of those cases resulted in settlements in excess of $80,000 ($253,000 today). A third of those arrested said they were beaten in their jail cells or while handcuffed.

What’s more, Brown had been with the LAPD prior to his joining the Signal Hill PD, but that department had fired him after just 18 months for four infractions including using drugs and lying to an investigator. Though Brown denied targeting Settles or anyone else because they were Black, he did admit to a Times reporter that he had racked up “close to 15” complaints of excessive force against him when he was with the LAPD.

There’s evidence the city itself was happy with Brown’s repeated use of his boots and nightstick. After Settles died, a Times reporter talked with 30 Signal Hill residents about Brown, and couldn’t find one who would say something bad about the officer.

News accounts from the time state that Signal Hill PD initially said it arrested Settles for speeding, and that Settles had become belligerent and even pulled a knife on Brown. Officers later said they found cocaine and drug paraphernalia in Settles’ car, and that a few hours after being arrested, Settles hanged himself in his jail cell with a mattress cover.

None of it was true, as the Settles’ family later showed in court. While LA County Coroner Thomas Noguchi initially ruled the death a suicide, an inquest soon after ruled that Settles had died at the hands of someone else (though Noguchi never changed his initial finding).

The results of the inquest, as well as considerable organizing from the newly formed Ron Settles Justice Committee, led to a large-scale protest at the Signal Hill Civic Center on Sept. 11, 1981.

About 200 people showed up to march and call for justice for the Settles family. The city reacted as though a riot was imminent, and boarded up City Hall, then deployed police snipers to nearby rooftops and plainclothes officers to the crowd, according to news accounts from the time. But there was no violence, and no one was arrested, according to the Times.

Though police officers later admitted to the Times that they had beaten Settles on the head and legs, and LA County Deputy District Attorney Gil Garcetti (current Mayor Eric Garcetti’s father) spent six months investigating the matter, no charges against any Signal Hill police officer were filed at the time.

In response, the Settles family hired attorney Johnnie Cochran (who would years later gain global fame when he successfully defended OJ Simpson) and sued the city for $62 million. The family later settled for about $750,000, though the city didn’t admit any wrongdoing, according to the Times.

Two months after the LA County DA’s office announced that they wouldn’t indict any Signal Hill officers for Settles’ death, the consulting firm Management Assessment Centers, Inc. released a 70-page report on the Signal Hill PD, according to the Times. The report’s recommendation was staggering: If the city couldn’t drastically reorganize the entire department, then it should be abolished.

The City Council decided against disbanding the department but did fire the police chief. By 1984, a little over half the department had changed through resignations, retirements and dismissals, according to the Times.

Though Settles’ case eventually disappeared from news accounts, Matthews said his family never lost faith that the city would one day acknowledge the role it played in Settles’ death.

Matthews began in April of 2021 by asking the city to waive $789 in fees for her nonprofit to hold a memorial event that June to mark the 40th anniversary of Settles’ death.

Then-Signal Hill Mayor Edward Wilson, who has sat on the council since 1997 and was the first Black person elected in the city, agreed with Matthews’ request, which the council then unanimously approved.

“This is a great opportunity for a lot of healing and a lot of opportunity to focus on our future, and our future together,” Wilson said at the April 27, 2021 council meeting.

A few months later in November, Matthews then asked the city to officially commemorate her nephew’s death on an annual basis, which the city also unanimously agreed to.

“No one wants their loved one to be in custody and not come out alive,” Wilson said at the Nov. 9, 2021, Signal Hill City Council meeting.

The city also agreed to help construct a memorial marker to Settles, though a final design is still in the works. The city had initially suggested installing a commemorative plaque on the sidewalk near where Settles was first arrested, but Matthews rejected that.

“To me, that’s like a grave, and he has that already in Memphis,” said Matthews.

A celebration of Ron Settles’ life will take place at the Signal Hill Library (1800 E. Hill St., Signal Hill) at 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 2.

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Anthony Pignataro is an investigative reporter and editor for the Long Beach Post. He has close to three decades of experience in journalism leading numerous investigations and long-form journalism projects for the OC Weekly and other publications. He joined the Post in May 2021.