Five before Midnight

This site is dedicated to the continuous oversight of the Riverside(CA)Police Department, which was formerly overseen by the state attorney general. This blog will hopefully play that role being free of City Hall's micromanagement.
"The horror of that moment," the King went on, "I shall never, never forget." "You will though," the Queen said, "if you don't make a memorandum of it." --Lewis Carroll


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Location: RiverCity, Inland Empire

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Steroid Abuse and the RPD: Did 'roid rage kill Hector Islas?

Last week, I had a run in in the parking lot at the Orange St. Station with a bald, bearded plain-clothed officer who got out of his vehicle, walked around the back of it glared at me, then walked away. After walking several yards, he turned his head at me and glared at me again, before walking into the station.

When I first saw him, I had no idea who he was. I just assumed it was a skinhead who was on an anger trip, even before I realized it was an RPD cop. After he turned around and glared at me the second time, it dawned on me who he was. I also realized that despite the fact that this particular officer had been a source of harassment for several years, I had not recognized his appearance because in the several months since I had last seen him, he had put on an enormous amount of bulk, mostly on his upper frame. He also had swelling in his face, and unlike most cops who get pissed off at a drop of the hat, he was unable to hide his anger.

For some reason, warranted or not, I thought of steroids. If you've been to a gym, you've seen them. Men and sometimes women who bulk up seemingly overnight. Men who shave their heads to compensate for acceleration of male-pattern baldness. Bad facial and back acne where there was none. Swelling in the cheeks and lower face because of edema, from kidneys working overtime. And of course, 'roid rage which manifests as explosive anger, aggression, paranoia and depression.

And most of these folks are probably lay people, who do not carry a gun and have the enforcement powers of a police officer.

Steroids are a serious, if under discussed problem in law enforcement agencies. And how do you know if the officer who pulls you over for a traffic stop, or responds to a call for service, is a steroid junkie?

You have the new short, skinny officers who develop wrists the size of tree trunks in a matter of weeks. There is the former sergeant of Special Operations who had triceps the size of most people's thighs, again developing in a short period of time. His body dutifully shrunk down to human size when he left that division, and eyebrows raised at that among more than a few civilians.

When people think about steroids and the RPD, they talk about the Hector Islas case. Perhaps if both the RPOA and the department had been honest about the issue of drugs and drug testing of officers in this case, Islas and steroid abuse or more specifically 'roid rage would not be used in the same sentence. We will never know for sure now if they should be.

In January 1997, six RPD officers chased and beat to death a Hispanic man with a small frame, and who, while alive, had stood 5'6 and weighed about 135 pounds. Officers Larry Gonzalez, Bob Williams, Jim Simons, Marco Quesada, Vernon Bryant(ret) and probational officer Mark Hake pursued Islas back and forth across the 91 freeway, to Sherman Indian High School, the spot where Islas died. The offical cause of death was Asphyxiation caused by exertion and metamphetamine use, which is a common explanation for cause of death in chokehold cases. However, Islas' family did an independent autopsy and found injuries including broken and dislocated cervical vertebrae, broken facial bones, broken upper and lower jaws and teeth.

Islas' wife had to go to the morgue to identify the face of a man she no longer recognized.

The pictures of Islas after his killing were the subject of a motion filed by the city of Riverside to suppress them, and hide them from any civil jury listening to the case, because they were deemed inflammatory and misleading in nature. Some of the injuries appeared worse than they really were, the motion stated. The case settled on the eve of trial for $790,000 including payouts of $150,000 a piece to each one of Islas's children.

The photographs remained unseen by a jury, so the city got its wish. However, Islas' widow showed people what her husband had looked like when he died, and what lay on the morgue table was no longer human.

The focus of this case became former officer Vernon Bryant who in the initial hours after Islas's death decided to go out and get drunk, presumably to flush his system out by taking advantage of the diuretic effects of alcohol. Quesada had initially balked at submitting a blood sample for 30 minutes, according to court documents, because he didn't like needles. He gave a urine sample instead. Bryant however evaded drug testing for a longer period, after telling people that he was afraid what his test would reveal. Finally, according to a sworn affidavit by Williams submitted in the city's opposition to a preliminary injunction filed by the RPOA in civil court, Williams had gone to persuade Bryant to provide a sample. Williams was chosen for this job because he had been involved in a fatal shooting in 1991 so he knew the drill. Bryant asked Williams if the drugs tested for included steroids and ephedrine. Williams answered, yes.

Well, to most people, it does not take common sense to understand that if someone being tested for drug use without prior warning asks if certain drugs will be detected than you have better than even odds that this person has or is currently taking these illegal substances. If you have one dead man, with crushed cervical vertabrae and injuries in bones that require over 300 pounds of force to fracture, and one officer who is asking about steroid detection, then you have a serious problem with determining if steroid abuse played any role in that homicide.

This is not to say that steroids played a role in Islas's death, but questions were raised, and then covered up, because too often in controversial situations, the truth is trumped by damage control.

Eventually Bryant gave a sample, the results of which would never be revealed because the RPOA rushed off to get a TRO in Riverside County Superior Court, because after all, the privacy of police officers when it comes to drug testing is only paramount when there might actually be a positive drug test involved. Did Bryant have either steroids or ephedrine in his urine? Did he have either or both in his urine when he was involved in the killing of Islas? It would be ironic indeed if a man who allegedly was under the influence of drugs had his life ended in part by an officer under the influence of drugs.

Ever heard of 'roid rage? Did it play a role in Islas's death, and the decision of the city to eventually settle the case?

Thanks to the RPOA, we, the public will never know what drugs our officers are taking, and what substances they inject into their bodies. Bryant retired eventually, having already survived a firing and reinstatement in the RPD before Islas's death and with him, went the truth.

Islas case law:

Islas v the city of Riverside(RIC305968)

The Riverside Police Officers Assn v the City of Riverside(RIC292595)

RPOA successfully covers up urine tests

Anyway, I heard my first rumor about the RPD and steroid use from someone who posted at some site that the trainer at his gym in Riverside had customers in the RPD who bought steroids from him. That was it. No names, no further information. He did not know if the trainer was being truthful or trying to draw him into steroid use by saying that if the cops do it, it must be good stuff. If it's just idle boasting, then there is no steroid problem. But if it's the truth, then what?

Larry Gaines, PhD of Cal State San Bernadino who writes those superficially analyzed reports on RPD traffic stops each year, co-wrote a rather interesting article on steroid abuse in law enforcement, and he urged law enforcement administrators to give a damn about what their officers were injecting into themselves to become "bad ass" street cops.


Unknown, or less well-known, to anabolic steroid abusers
are certain detrimental emotional and psychological symptoms.
Indeed, it is maintained that "aggressive behavior is almost
universal among anabolic steroid users." (9) There are
documented case histories of severe depression, visual and
auditory hallucinations, sleep disorders, thoughts of suicide,
outbursts of anger, anorexia, psychomotor retardation, and
irritability. (10)

Behaviors that go along great with being a police officer, naturally.


Though departments may find steroid abuse issues difficult
to deal with now, they must become aware that developments in
the legal environment (17) signal strong social apprehension
about the use of anabolic steroids. Administrators should share
this concern, given the consequences that may result from police
anabolic steroid abuse. Increased citizen complaints against
officers, unprovoked off-and on-duty violence, a negative impact
on abusers bodies, increased damage to police-community
relations, officer involvement in illegal activity, civil
litigation, and adverse media coverage are problems that may
likely arise from officer abuse of steroids.

The first step toward confronting steroid abuse must be a
desire on the police department's part to know more about police
anabolic steroid use. The reasons why officers become involved
in taking steroids and to what extent they use them is unclear.
Is it a matter of ignorance or lack of information that officers
simply don't know the risks they are taking? Is it because they
believe that not only are they "out-gunned," but also
"out-muscled" by criminals? Does it have little to do with work
and more to do with a narcissistic involvement with one's own
body? These questions and many others must be addressed as
departments cope with steroid issues.

Food for thought for administrators, but unlike Gaines' "there aint no racial profiling by the RPD, no siree!" annual reports, this research paper of his will likely be ignored, which would be a tragic error on the part of any law enforcement agency, especially one which pays thousands of dollars annually for those racial profiling reports. After all, this paper is available online for free.

Steroid Abuse by Cops


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