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

Friday, November 20, 2009

Living While Female: The Other Side of the Robert Forman Case

Sitting in the courtroom and watching the trial unfold in the case of former Riverside Police Department officer, Robert Forman has been an interesting but very unsettling experience as the witnesses for the prosecution testify one after the other and as often as not against each other meaning that their accounts contradict and conflict in several key places, leaving the jury in the unenviable position of having to try and figure out which pieces fit where, which don't fit at all and exactly what did happen on April 18, 2008. And to look at law enforcement officers as just ordinary witnesses.

The charges that are faced by Forman are serious and so far, the trial has provided more questions than answers in terms of exactly what Forman had been doing during the time that at least one of the alleged incidents involving three different accusers took place.

The first incident which has been the focus of trial testimony involved a home invasion call at the first victim's residence which was responded to by a group of officers and three sergeants. Forman and his trainee at the time, Megan Edwards Meyers arrived and took over the scene, meaning that he apparently got to make the decision on who to arrest and she had to write the primary police report, not a pleasant task given how much police officers seem to like many classifications of employees, dislike paper work.

There's still a lot of confusion about what Forman had been doing at the scene, even as other responding officers testified about what their own actions had been during that early morning call on April 18, 2008. It's the prosecution's job to create suspicion about Forman's actions the day in question but Defense Attorney Mark Johnson has been doing his fair share of that as well through his cross-examination of some of the witnesses. And that's the one thing that you don't want to do is create suspicion towards your own client when he's in the fight for his life. But that's the defense's entire case so far is to turn Forman into the invisible man.

In the middle of the testimony about an alleged crime committed by Forman came the lingerie incident, an unfortunate exhibit of sexist behavior by a handful of the department's officers while they were processing a crime scene in a residence in the downtown area of Riverside. It's very likely that the majority of the police officers in Riverside don't engage in these actions but some of them did during those early morning hours.

This incident took place while a group of police officers and three sergeants congregated in and outside of the apartment to investigate what originally was broadcast as a home invasion robbery. It became clear at some point that the complaint was either erroneous or false and the precautionary sweep of the house, turned into a "secondary search" to look for criminal activity. During that search, evidence of drug use, possession and perhaps check counterfeiting was uncovered.

One woman was taken into custody, on a violation of felony probation on new drug paraphernalia charges. The other woman, the alleged victim in the Forman case, wasn't arrested even though she had been on felony drug probation and syringes, both used and new, were discovered in a make up case inside a dresser drawer in her bedroom and in a bag inside her closet. Officer William Zackowski testified that he would have arrested her on the basis of the syringes, and had warned her while conducting his search of her bedroom that he would violate her probation if he found more syringes which he did. Meyers had questioned Forman about whether the woman would be arrested but had testified that she told the woman she wouldn't be arrested while at the apartment. Meyers is no longer employed by the police department having been separated in around August 2008 for failure to pass probation.

Forman however said the woman wasn't going to be arrested and she was not. What the victim said to investigators was that Forman came back and forced her to perform a sexual act, after telling her earlier he would be back. If that happened, it's a violation of a state penal code concerning the commission of sexual assault under the color of authority. But what's coming out is that you had officers who believed that based on the uncovered facts, the victim should have been arrested or at least questioned why she was not. So far, you have only one who didn't and that's the officer on trial for allegedly forcing her to perform a sexual act so she wouldn't get arrested.

But before all that came to light, the woman had sat in a chair by a table in her living room, less than eight feet from a dartboard that hung on the wall adjacent to an entrance to her kitchen. She had sat there because it's much safer for officers searching a person's residence to have that person in one location both for the officer's safety as well as to prevent them from destroying any potential evidence of criminal activity. So there the woman sat except for a brief discussion she had with Zackowski in her bathroom after he found several dangerous syringes in her dresser and wanted her to tell them if there were any more for safety reasons. It appears from officer testimony that she pretty much remained in that spot. And if you look at the photo exhibits of the living room, the spot where she sat was fairly close to the dart board and the passage way where the officers adorned with the underwear had walked by.

So even knowing that, was she sitting there when she saw several officers playing with and joking with a pair of her underwear while inside her apartment?

On that, the officers couldn't agree on the witness stand. One officer said he wasn't looking at her. Another said she wasn't sure. But in all likelihood if the woman was sitting where she had been sitting to help the officers keep themselves safe and the scene of potential criminal activity less likely to be contaminated or compromised, then she saw and heard the "inappropriate conduct". What was she thinking when she saw several officers any one of them with the authority, power and right to take her into custody through force if necessary reverting to juvenile and sexist behavior? Not that she could do anything about it in that situation if she had seen it going on except sit down and shut up while it happened until it was over. Just like other women have done with police officers who have behaved in that fashion in their presence.

The power in this situation always remains in the hands of those who conduct themselves in this unfortunate manner. As a woman who worked at a business where officers used to hang out told me several years ago when a male officer walked in, grabbed himself through his pants and asked her if "you would help me with this", there isn't much you can say about it when it's happening. The only options really available are to ignore it or play along with it even if you don't approve of it.

It was apparently supposed to be a good-natured joke at least as far as the officer was concered but can a joke like that exist between an officer and a member of the public while that officer is wearing a uniform and is on duty? How is a person supposed to respond to sexual or sexist humor like that if they are offended to a police officer?

But did this woman whose underwear became a plaything have to shut up about an act of sexual assault under the color of authority several hours later until it was also over? Her only real choice is to play along with it and do what is demanded because a woman in that position has no power just as she had no power earlier when they were playing with her underwear. The officer by virtue of his uniform and presence (and this is backed by the department's own use of force policy) has all the power.

And would she believe that a police department would be likely to take her report of a crime seriously after the sexist behavior she most likely witnessed earlier by a group of them? It might be fair to ask why these women didn't report these alleged crimes right away but it's less so if criminal conduct comes in the wake of this type of unprofessional behavior that's in a sense being exercised against this woman. If she's truly the victim of a horrible crime committed by an officer, it's probably more accurate to say in the light of that earlier experience, that it's significant that she came forward to report it at all. If she's truly the victim of a horrible crime committed by Forman then it's a good thing that she did find an officer in the department who handled her report in a professional manner as hopefully most of them would. Including the majority of officers who probably wouldn't have engaged in sexist conduct in the first place.

Did the police officers involved or witnessing this behavior shown in this woman's apartment police themselves? The answer to that seems to be unfortunately if so, not much.

The officer who initiated it testified that he regretted his actions and it appeared through his testimony that he regretted what was probably an impulsive act soon after he performed it. One other officer said he considered it inappropriate and that he had not appreciated it. His testimony was supported by the officer who initiated the behavior who said he didn't look as he were entertained by it. The female trainee, apparently the lone female officer who witnessed it said on the stand that she thought it was "retarded" and "immature" behavior. So far, no sergeants have been mentioned in testimony as having witnessed or participated in any of the behavior. It will be interesting to see what any of them will have to say about it if and when any of them are called to the witness stand. Or whether this incident itself was ever investigated by the Riverside Police Department.

The public has no way of knowing whether or not that takes place because police personnel confidentiality laws shroud the process. But these incidents have impact on the city's residents. After the arrest of police officer Vince Thomas on child molestation charges several years ago, some residents told me that they had Thomas come to their house in response to a call for police service and wondered if they were safe when he was there or their children were safe in his presence. So incidents like these do impact the public's feeling of safety with the officers involved and the department itself mostly depending on how the agency handles the situation.

In several seconds, the male officers had essentially taken the alleged victim in this case and turned her from a victim or suspect or "somewhere in between" and turned her into an object for their amusement by playing with her intimate clothing right in front of her. Her feelings on the situation certainly didn't appear to be taken into consideration by anyone there. Only hours after that happened, the woman allegedly was sexually assaulted by one officer whose whereabouts during the lingerie incident weren't revealed yet by any witnesses so far at trial. Did what one officer had alleged told investigators was a "relaxed" and "almost jovial" atmosphere at this woman's apartment contribute to that behavior?

And what was Forman thinking when this was going on? Was he participating in it himself?

That's the other bone of contention shown through the testimony on the witness stand is whether or not Forman himself witnessed or participated in this behavior. But you see, Forman's turned into the invisible man throughout the testimony so far involving police actions taken during the initial call. Where he was, when and what he was doing while other police officers were questioning individuals, searching rooms and standing watch inside or outside of the apartment, is at this point completely unknown, a blank slate that has yet to be written on. Hopefully that situation will be remedied soon in future testimony.

As stated above, it's not clear if there's anything going on behind the haze of confidentiality involving a meaningful response from the department regarding the lingerie incident. It's not clear what role if any the onscene sergeants, Ruddy, Russell or De Jong played in addressing it but so far, their names or even the word "sergeant" hasn't come up in testimony involving the incident. It will be interesting to see what any of these individuals will have to say about this incident if or when they are called to the stand. It's not clear whether or not the department was notified about this incident before the woman came forward with her allegations and if so, what action it took.

Was it a major example of misconduct? No, it was as Meyers said, immature certainly in the judgment exercised by those who participated and it was sexist, and at least borderline sexual harassment of the victim. But it doesn't have to be major to leave a bad impression on the police department and how it interfaces with the public.

It also created the impression to anyone outside the department who witnessed it that sexist and sexual behavior or forms of expression were tacitly approved by the police department essentially indicting nearly 400 other police officers as being involved when they weren't even there. Why, because when that uniform with its badges and identifying patches show up at the scene and are connected with inappropriate behavior, there's always going to be some assumption of guilt by association. Just like professional behavior in the uniform with the badge and the patches works to create association with that kind of conduct and the police department. The caveat being of course, that negative behavior appears in most contexts to be more powerful at creating or changing impressions than its positive counterpart.

So what did you have?

You had several officers engaging in it together, you had so far no known corrective action taken (although Battest's disapproval was clearly seen) and most likely, a wall of silence surrounding it until the sexual assault allegations of the victim were investigated. And you have no information about whether or not the onscene supervisors witnessed it or acted it. Reassuringly enough so far, there's no testimony that they participated in it themselves.

Two Internal Affairs Division sergeants, Pat McCarthy and John Capen dressed in business suits sat in the audience while several officers testified at the trial last week. The reason for them being there was alluded to by Johnson and came up during the testimony of Zackowski but it's not known for sure why they spent the day inside Dept. 4 in the old courthouse listening to testimony by some of the department's employees. They're probably not there on their lunch break.

The CPRC and Conflict of Interest

A conflict of interest complaint involving Community Police Review Commission chair Peter Hubbard goes to the Mayor's Nomination and Screening Committee which itself is the subject of an ethics complaint. Why? Because Hubbard is an employee of American Medical Response who has spent his last 15 years serving on two of the city's boards and commissions and currently chairs the CPRC, which is overseen by the same city department, the city manager's office, which oversees his company's contract for both ALS and BLS medical assistance. All four members of the Mayor's Nomination and Screening Committee have received campaign donations from the parent company of AMR based in Colorado.

The Mayor's Nomination and Screening Committee meeting takes place on Monday, Nov. 22, 2009 at 1 p.m.

This issue involving Hubbard is one of the frequent one raised by city residents involving the commission's composition and probably the third most prevalent area of concern over the commission in general. It's interesting how the city's residents see obvious concerns about conflict of interest where the city government of course does it. The city government doesn't because it lives by a separate code of ethics than the rest of the city's view of how government and its representatives should behave.

And by the way, that separate code clearly served the elected officials in neighboring San Jacinto quite well as we all can now see.

This is the meeting agenda which includes this report.

The resolution which created the ethics code is here not that it's exactly being followed but for posterity's sake, this is currently what's in writing.

The thing that's pretty funny about City Attorney Gregory Priamos' letter is that 1) he conveniently leaves out the language about perception of conflict of interest being as much an issue as the real thing and 2) he's so adamant about the Mayor's Nomination and Screening Committee being the only appropriate venue for ethics complaints when just two years ago, he actually blocked at least two complaints from proceeding to that venue, instead issuing letters of denial of acceptance of complaints to two complainants. In 2007, the Mayor's Nomination and Screening Committee didn't arbiter ethics complaint but now it does! It's reassuring to know that Priamos' mind is finally made up in the matter or at least the minds of those who pull his strings.

That's one of the reasons why as the Press Enterprise article states, no complaints have been filed in the past two years because while file through a process that clearly doesn't work even the way it's set up to work through its written ordinance minus all the concerns that have arisen about the city government's ability to hold themselves accountable. And the only prediction that can be confidently made is that whatever hearing is conducted on Monday by whoever will prove once again how toothless the ethics code and complaint is and how effective elected officials are at policing themselves. The suggestion to have a panel of retired judges handle complaints especially those against elected officials has actually received quite a bit of support. Even though in Riverside County, it seems there's really no such thing as a "retired judge" given that quite a few of them are back on the bench hearing criminal cases.

After all, a judge was papered in the Forman case and that was J. Thompson Hanks who actually did retire a while back, with an election of sorts being held for his seat. Its current holder, is former Riverside County District Attorney's office supervisor, Michael Rushton, who had a couple of his cases bounce back from the Court of Appeals in relation to his jury selection practices.

I'll try to make it but am currently covering a criminal trial involving a former Riverside Police Department officer on trial for sex crimes under the color of authority and am hearing testimony about onduty police officers playing with and joking about a woman's underwear at a crime scene. Still, the city council despite its hefty workload has taken the time to make decisions on the police commission's own policies and procedures during the past year.

There's too much going on in this city at one time even during a holiday week.

Press Enterprise Columnist Dan Bernstein writes about a Riverside Renaissance project not friendly to wheelchair riding pedestrians. It's been fixed but how did it get there?

A Riverside Police Department traffic bureau employee gets recognized by the state.

The votes of one indicted councilman in San Jacinto's corruption scandal benifitted his donors.

In Minneapolis, Minnesota, civilian review is under fire because its findings are being ignored by the police department which is supposed to be using them to decide on disciplinary measures of its officers.

(excerpt, Minn Post)

"We see things that should be an early warning to the police department that there are problems,'' said Dave Bicking, one of the Unappreciated Seven on the board. "That's where we could have the most effect. If the police took seriously the problems that come before us, maybe they could prevent some of the bigger problems. But there's little indication that they do that. Very few of the complaints we sustain result in discipline.''

There are numbers, from board members, to back up Bicking's claim. Of the last 21 complaints the board has forwarded to Minneapolis police chief Tim Dolan, board members say only two have resulted in discipline.

That's a .095 batting average, which is not exactly big league.

Another civilian review board, this one in Atlanta is at a crossroads three years after narcotics officers murdered Kathryn Johnson, 92 in her own home.

St. Louis' civilian review board just needs to start over.

No Riverside City Council meeting this week, as the city government begins its holiday week early.

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