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

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Digital accountability, is it for real?

Riverside Mayoral candidate, Art Gage speaks out through the Press Enterprise about economic development and redevelopment. Like his predecessor in writing, former Councilman (and possibly future mayoral candidate) Dom Betro, he's no doubt found the opinion pages a good place for campaigning.


We cannot base our entire future on blue-collar opportunities, but need to recognize that we have become a major economic force in California. We should make a concerted effort to bring to the area a wide range of industry that will produce the type of professional employment we need to recover as well as maintain a stable economy.

We may not have an educated work force, but people will commute here, and eventually, just like in Orange County and many other communities, we will fill the high-paying jobs that will allow the recovery we need.

We must have a clear vision for the future for the Inland Empire, and relying on lower-paying blue-collar jobs is not the answer. This vision must be that of a vibrant region with an opportunity for everyone to earn a livable income.

Yacht Racing (and Gambling) come to Riverside!

It's not an election but the Riverside City Council members might go against each other anyway in of all things, a boat race at Fairmount Park next month.

(excerpt, Press Enterprise)

Councilmen Mike Gardner and William "Rusty" Bailey will duel in a boat race at the park's Lake Evans, where the sailboats are back after being dry-docked for about 20 years.

On Tuesday Gardner invited the rest of the council to join the fray, suggesting each member pick a charity, get people to bet on them and then donate the proceeds. He even offered some dubious assistance to his main opponent.

"I know that Rusty's boat has got a small leak in it, and as a favor I've drilled another hole in the bottom so the water can run back out," he joked at Tuesday's meeting.

Actually,they're not sail boats, they're paddle boats. But at any rate, the boat race of sorts will be held on Oct. 3 at 3 p.m. at Lake Evans in Fairmount Park. Be there or be square. Money bet (if it's legal) will go to participating council members' favorite charities, not the city's number one charity, its general fund. But will there be betting opportunities about who will push who in the drink?

Is this about being bitten by the boating bug or is it about not being upstaged by the oh so exciting mayoral election?

We shall all see...

Laid to Rest

Hundreds of people turned out at former Riverside city councilman, Johnny Sotelo's funeral. He was Riverside's first Latino councilman (with the current Ward Two Councilman Andrew Melendrez being the second) in Riverside's history.

(excerpt, Press Enterprise)

"John would always be open to speaking to any person that ever wanted to speak to him," friend Nick Tavaglione remembered during the service. "John was a straight guy. John Sotelo will never be forgotten in this town for what he did for his ward and for the people of his nationality."

Sotelo was respected for breaking down barriers for Latinos in Riverside and encouraging all minorities to get involved in civic affairs. But what family and friends recalled as they said goodbye to him Friday was more personal.

"He cared for people," longtime friend Zeke Hernandez, 85, of Grand Terrace, said outside the church.

Prison or a slap on the wrist?

A former Riverside County Sheriff's Department deputy convicted of two felonies involving sexual assault and kidnapping a woman is off to jail to be evaluated for a probation report before his sentencing in several months.

(excerpt, Press Enterprise)

Kushner, who was with the Moreno Valley police, left the Riverside County Sheriff's Department following his arrest in 2004. He remained free on bond until Tuesday, when Judge Charles Morgan ordered Kushner to undergo a Department of Corrections evaluation. Morgan also denied a motion for a new trial.

Kushner hugged about a dozen family members who filled the courtroom and wept. He was then led away in handcuffs and shackles.

Corrections officers will submit a recommendation prior to Kushner's sentencing where he could receive probation or be sentenced up to 16 years in prison. A report filed by Riverside County probation recommended Kushner serve prison time.

Prosecutors seek the maximum prison sentence.

"The defendant is clearly a sexual predator," Deputy District Attorney Michelle Paradise said.

Kushner's attorney, Danuta Tuszynska, objected to the incarcerated evaluation saying Kushner should be released on probation.

"You couldn't ask for any better candidature for probation," Tuszynska said.

Accountability through Digital Technology

Speaking of law enforcement officers charged with sexual assault crimes, former Riverside Police Department Officer Robert Forman who faces multiple felony charges in relation with the alleged sexual assaults of three women while on duty in early 2008 has a trial date coming up on Sept. 17 at 8:30 a.m. in Riverside's courts.

Forman, who was fired by Chief Russ Leach last year has plead not guilty to the charges. In recent court hearings, the judge has ordered witnesses who are expected to testify at his trial in court.

According to arrest warrants filed against him, Forman came under scrutiny when two separate investigations of sexual assault allegations were initiated against him by May 2008.

Not too long ago, Forman's attorney tried to get the cases severed meaning they would all be tried separately instead of through a single trial but the judge turned him down. If he's acquitted, he'll probably appeal through arbitration to get his job back and no doubt, he'll win. No doubt, the city council will vote to take him back or pay him off like they did former Det. Al Kennedy who was fired by Leach in 2001 for having sex with a rape victim whose case he investigated. The city council told everyone they were going to challenge a lower court's ruling at the state court of appeals on the Kennedy case yet instead on the eve of the appellate hearing, they settled behind closed doors with him offering him a retirement package to go away.

Even if he didn't succeed through arbitration, Forman could still find another job with a law enforcement agency, most likely one of the smaller ones which don't have good pools of applicants to hire from including those who have hired registered sex offenders including agencies in Alabama and South Carolina so they certainly won't begrudge an officer with a history of sustained allegations of sexual misconduct. Or agencies that provided themselves on being "second chance" agencies like Maywood Police Department, soon to be the second law enforcement agency after Riverside's to be under a state consent decree in part due to its highly questionable hiring practices.

After all, it's rumored that even though former police officer, Eric Hanby was fired from the Riverside Police Department, that he was employed by another smaller agency in Southern California after being acquitted of sexual assault charges at his criminal trial in the early 1990s. So there indeed might be a salvageable career after facing sexual assault charges and even after being fired after an administrative review of sexual misconduct deems an officer guilty.

Not to mention that a Maywood Police Department officer caught having sex on duty in of all places, a donut shop on surveillance video was appointed by that city's council to serve as an interim police chief even though he'd been fired from his police department, another job on an ethics violation and convicted of petty theft crimes. It was only through threats made by Deputy State Attorney General Lou Verdugo to sue the city which caused the city council to oust him.

One of the strangest and most disturbing stories I ever heard involved Forman and was told by a homeless guy who had spoken earlier several years ago about Forman allegedly sexually harassing homeless women in Fairmount Park and then later being removed from that assignment for some reason. He said that Forman had stopped him while he was walking near an overpass in the 91 freeway on 14th Street in downtown Riverside. When Forman asked him where he worked, he said he had watered plants for businesses downtown including the Black Voice News. Then he alleged Forman used a racial slur in connection with the people who worked there. The man told a group of people this one day when visiting the office and no really believed him. He seemed a little bit out there and besides, surely if Forman had initiated a traffic stop involving this guy then he would have turned on his digital audio recorder as required under departmental policy and what officer would be making racial slurs even if so inclined while being audio taped? So he was pretty much written off.

But while reading the arrest warrants I noticed two things about what investigators in the Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Division or patrol officers had said or written about Forman's performance in the workplace. One wrote of one of the victims speaking with Forman about how neither of them liked Black people and this woman wanted to "jack up" a Black man.

But that's one woman's word about what he said just like the account given by the homeless man is how he related his experience. What ultimately happened in that traffic stop won't ever be decided unless a recording was taken of it and either the allegation is proven by it or not. The problem is, that recordings connected with Forman at least in the months before he was under investigation had a way of not existing and it's not clear how extensive that problem was or how long it lasted. If the recordings from Forman's belt recorder were never made or were compromised for a brief window of his career under scrutiny, what about the rest of the time?

What investigators discovered when they searched Forman's locker at work was something very suspicious. They recovered his belt recorder and discovered 30 recordings "missing" for February 2008, no recordings for May 2008 and that the device itself was lacking a memory card. So much for the accountability of belt recorders policing officers during self-initiated professional contacts with the public at least in Forman's case during a at least a three months period of time. For whatever reason, Forman's recorder showed suspicious actions for several months before it was found that there might be a reason to be suspicious of his onduty conduct. Some red flags were already being raised courtesy of a piece of technology that's become vogue in law enforcement especially with the imposition of consent decrees and court-ordered reform mandates by federal agencies, state agencies and federal courts (through conservatorships). But since there's none or little oversight over the audio recording process, these red flags were ignored or just not noticed until a criminal investigation against Forman was being launched.

But who's paying attention to all these recordings that are being stashed in a database? Or are they gathering cyber dust?

The investigators likely focused on the recordings (or rather lack of them) for February and April because those were the two months that the crimes alleged by three women took place. And any recording that's "missing" is likely one that's been erased because while the recordings taken by officers can be erased (through pressing the handy "erase" button), there's a number assigned to the recording that can't be erased and it's equivalent to designating a folder for documents and then removing the documents, just leaving the empty folder with the identification labels on it.

There were allegedly 30 of these missing recordings from February, the month of the first alleged sexual assault that Forman was charged with, a number that's quite large to be construed that they were accidentally deleted. Yet, it's not likely that any recordings of legally and professionally done contacts with the public are going to be anything but downloaded to the department's recording database at the end of an officer's work shift. Why erase a recording that details you performing your duties as an officer in a professional manner? Is there a reason for doing so?

And what was really on those 30 missing recordings? Is the department investigating that?

The recordings taken by these devices are downloaded by the officers through their own computers to a database where they are stored for a period of time (which used to be two years but may be as short now as six months by vote of the city council a while back) but often times, files get cut off such as when the "record" button is inadvertently activated (which pauses the recording) thus creating dozens of what are called "orphan" files which need to be paired up with the rest of the recording. At one time, there were up to 60 "orphan" files daily needing to be matched up with the rest of the recording like pieces of a puzzle which needed to be put together. So it's not as easy a process for documenting and storing the professional contacts initiated by the department's field division officers as many people might think.

In Forman's case as stated in the warrants, entire recordings were missing after being made and then later on, apparently not being made at all which appears on its face a bit odd. After all, Forman worked in the Problem Oriented Policing (POPs) division which is a unit of police officers who don't spend time responding to 911 calls and other calls for service (unless there's a shortage of officers who do) but focus on what are called "quality of life" issues. Consequently, these officers particularly if focusing on "issues" like homeless people for example, might be initiating more professional contacts with members of these populations or the public than patrol officers especially during periods when staffing dictates that patrol officers spend the majority of their shift time responding to calls for service. This means that Forman should have had numerous contacts that he initiated with the public so unless he was off for the entire month of April, he should have had some recordings to download to the department's recording database. In fact, some years ago a neighborhood organization named him "Officer of the Year" for his work done in their neighborhood near Fairmount Park.

Did he make any professional contacts for the month of April 2008 or did he just record them? And what about March 2008, the month in between the two selected? Were recordings accessed for that month and were any abnormalities noted? Did investigators just skip that month or did they find nothing suspicious and just not note that in the arrest warrant?

And what of the allegedly missing memory card? Did he just not leave it in his device? Or did he know that police investigators might come looking for it and he removed it? The mystery of the missing card and erased or missing recordings elicits a strong sense that something's not right and there's reason to investigate it. But it doesn't by itself explain what happened during that period of time especially since there was apparently no similar probe of belt recordings from Forman's recording done for any other time.

The lack of belt recordings over the three months surveyed by investigators does paint a rather suspicious portrait of Forman's conduct even though the cases against him are similar in nature to those made against Kushner, meaning that there's one case that is the strongest surrounded by two other weaker cases, in part because the victims knew each other. At the time the warrants were signed, DNA and other forensic evidence tests hadn't been completed and the forensic samples actually taken for the DNA and other forms of identification testing had been small in number. But even with the lack of substantial forensic evidence, the issue surrounding the missing memory card and audio recordings would still play a substantial role, and perhaps an even more pivotal one.

During Kushner's preliminary hearing several years ago, presiding judge Christian F. Thierbach pointed out the differences in strength between the cases filed against the former deputy. And the one that Thierbach singled out as being the strongest was the case that resulted in the felony convictions against Kushner. The relative strength and weaknesses(evidential speaking) of the three cases against Forman might be behind his lawyer's attempts to sever them apart from one another.

One of the questions I'm asked quite often pertaining to the belt recorders used by officers is whether or not the police department audits or monitors their use or lack of use in any way. The answer is unless a complaint or internal investigation is initiated against an officer, no. As you can see by reading Forman's arrest warrants, the department did take the initiative to do a partial auditing of his belt recorder after initiating an investigation against him for allegedly sexually assaulting women on duty.

Of course auditing hundreds even thousands of belt recordings (and each recorder can store about 10 hours worth) can be a logistic nightmare including the issue of storing them for extended periods of time. It's not really possible to listen to each and every recording taken and thus, recordings are only listened to if they might play a role of independent witness in a he-said, officer-said complaint or investigation. But surely there must be a way to conduct random audits of officers' belt recordings and the department seems to be doing at least a numbers count for patrol and traffic officers equipped with belt recordings meaning that they know who's turning them on and who's not. And getting officers to turn their recorders on was difficult when they were first instituted under the stipulated judgement with the state in 2002 and even when the amnesty period for failure to comply expired in August 2003. But after a period of time, more and more officers began complying and some officers even turn them on when not required to do so by policy.

Recorders can protect police officers from false allegations and often do. And many officers in different agencies carry recorders to protect themselves whether or not the agency they work for requires it. Of course that can backfire too, as former Riverside Police Department Officer Michael Collins discovered in 2000 when he assaulted Breata Simpson, a woman working at a group home after she refused to accept a juvenile he dropped off there when policy required him to be booked at the juvenile hall facility first. Collins' reaction was to slam his arm against her neck and her body against a wall, but for some reason he had his recording device on and turned it over to the department when she filed a complaint. He was ultimately fired and convicted of misdemeanor assault under the color of authority.

But the department doesn't do much to audit the recordings even in cases when it might make sense to do so including cases involving police officers being tracked by the Early Warning System, also instituted through the stipulated judgment. I was reminded of that a while back when I received some notice that alleged that a married police officer had sex on duty and recorded his encounters on his department-issued digital recording device. When I first saw that, I thought certainly doing something like that must be career suicide and there's no way someone would do something like that.

But then again, who's checking the recordings in the police department and is it entirely impossible that misconduct could be recorded and hiding in plain sight in the police department's own database system (unless it was erased, after all clearly no one's keeping track regarding that practice as shown in Forman's case), waiting its purge date? Then I thought if this allegation is true, then doing something like this would be the ultimate way to thumb your nose or give the birdie to both accountability itself but also the police department which has traveled down the long road towards accountability through the efforts of people inside it and out. It would be the equivalent to flipping off a lot of city residents and a lot of police officers working hard to push the police department in a better direction.

Perhaps it's time being close to the sunset of the five-year Strategic Plan to get the audit and compliance panel (assuming it still exists after losing its lieutenant and tripling the duty of one of its sergeants) to do a study on exactly how effective the recording policy has been on both pointing out issues with officer contacts, serving as independent witnesses on complaints and protecting officers from false allegations or complaints. Compiling statistics on compliance with the policy but also on officers recording outside of the policy (i.e. all professional contacts which some do) as well as determining how well the database system has been performing.

The State Attorney General's office has taken over the prosecution of Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco's former campaign treasurer. Why? Because Pacheco might have to testify on the witness stand at trial.

It's also kind of funny to read about a judge actually reducing bail for a defendant because it creates a financial hardship. This clearly isn't going to be an ordinary judiciary proceeding.

(excerpt, Press Enterprise)

The attorney general's decision to take on the case represents an abrupt about-face. In a Sept. 4 filing, the attorney general's office said Barnett had not made a compelling case that any conflict existed.

But on Sept. 9, the district attorney's office issued its own opinion -- which it terms "extraordinary" -- saying that it believed a recusal was appropriate because Pacheco was "inextricably involved" in the case.

Sue F. Steding, Riverside County's chief assistant district attorney, said the Sept. 9 opinion simply restated the position the office has had all along.

"We sent a formal letter to the attorney general in August 2008 asking them to take the case," Steding said Friday. "It's in the best interest of both the defendant and the people of the state of California."

Because character witnesses will almost certainly be called to testify to Gunnette's truthfulness and expertise, there is a "very real, reasonable possibility" that Pacheco will be called to rebut those witnesses by testifying about his experience with Gunnette, the opinion states.

That scenario would put both the prosecution and defense in the awkward position of arguing the credibility of Pacheco.

Also, the jury may be swayed by the prestige of Pacheco's elected office, thereby denying Gunnette a fair trial, the district attorney office's opinion states.

Scott Gerber, a spokesman for the attorney general's office in Oakland, said Friday that when his office initially reviewed the case, "we were not convinced this amounted to a formal conflict." But after a second look, "we thought it was perfectly reasonable to take over the case," he said.

Controversy rocks a Temecula high school over the teaching of a book. It might help if those who make the decision actually read the book in question first but in these cases, they hardly ever do and that's usually the case of those who complain about the books too.

Retirements among employees working for local governments are growing.

(excerpt, Press Enterprise)

Retirements through the California Public Employees Retirement System -- Riverside County is one of its largest members -- have trended upward in the first seven months of this year.

Local government retirements rose 17 percent compared with the same time in 2008, while state employee retirements so far have jumped 13 percent, according to CalPers data.

Riverside County offered eligible employees two years service credit in CalPers, meaning those thinking about retiring would have an incentive to do so earlier. Butler had 17 years in the system, but his retirement is based on 19 years.

"It is a sweeter deal," he said. "For me, I would say on a scale of one to 10, it would be 10. It was a major factor."

More than 670 people like Butler decided to take Riverside County up on its early retirement offer, spokesman Ray Smith said. Employees had to be at least 50 years old and have at least five years service with the county to qualify. Retirees get a percentage of their salary based on their age and how many years they have worked.

Bonnie Reed Kawasaki, 55, of Riverside, also decided to take up the county on its offer. She was considering retiring anyway. She had 13 years in the retirement system.

Kawasaki worked in administrative services in the county Fire Department's Office of Emergency Services. She got married to a retired firefighter March 4 and retired later in the month.

"I absolutely loved my job," Kawasaki said.

The involvement of Norco's fire fighter union in local elections has stirred some controversy.

(excerpt, Press Enterprise)

At a recent Norco City Council meeting, Richard Hallam, chair of the Parks, Recreation and Community Services Commission, told the council he was concerned that the Norco Firefighters Association wields too strong of an influence in city elections and poses a conflict of interest partly because most of its members do not live in the city.

"They have so much money to give to candidates and they put up big signs saying Norco Firefighters Association endorses such and such candidates," said Hallam, mentioning this year is another election year. "It's an unfair advantage for the people they endorse... Why don't they let the citizens of Norco elect who they want to elect?"

The issue is especially important this year with two City Council seats being contested in this November's election.

Hallam pointed to difficulties this year between the association and the city when the city tried to reduce the fire department's budget. Meetings carried on for weeks, and Councilman Malcolm Miller said he was pressured heavily to the point that he felt intimidated.

"When the firefighters provide you with support to become elected, there appears to be an unwritten quid pro quo so that when you don't make a decision in the direction that they would like it to be, they see it as a betrayal. It almost gets to the point of political intimidation," said Miller, who enjoyed the support by the association when elected.

Firefighter endorsements can have significant sway with voters because of their status in the community, Miller said.

"But I think some of the associations have abused that power," he continued. "I think that trying to influence elections is a perfectly legitimate activity, but like most activities, there is a balance. When taken to an extreme, it is unacceptable."

What's happening to pension funds for governmental employees in California?

(excerpt, Press Enterprise)

Retirement investment funds for Riverside and San Bernardino counties each lost about $1.5 billion -- roughly a quarter of their value -- in the fiscal year that ended June 30, finance staff estimate. Many cities also lost big as markets plummeted.

Local governments will have to make up the unprecedented losses, or at least a portion of them, through years of payments, leaving less money to fund services. Some officials and advocates say the costs are unsustainable.

They are calling for Inland governments to scale back employee pensions, which can amount to as much as 90 percent of a retiree's working salary.

A pension reform advocacy group found that about 130 former Riverside County employees collect pensions of more than $100,000 a year, a sign the group says that an overhaul of retirement offerings is needed. San Bernardino County's fund declined to supply information on its pensioners.

Unions and county staff point out that most pensions are far more modest.

The current pension system helps attract the best people for government jobs, and Riverside County workers sacrificed pay raises over the years for a pension boost, said Maria Ochoa-Flynn, a union steward with the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 6,000 Riverside County workers.

"Most people who come to work for the county come for benefits and retirements not for salaries," said Ochoa-Flynn, who has worked for the county for 19 years. "Public employees have long been notoriously underpaid."

But Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster said the county must cut back on new employees' pensions or services will suffer.

"We've created an ongoing gilt-edged system that is far beyond our wage-earners in this county to support," he said.

Remember the Ethics Code and Complaint process is coming to Riverside City Council on Tuesday, Sept. 15 at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.

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