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, March 13, 2010

Riverside Police Department Detective Sues City; Alleges Cover Up of Leach's Crash by Current Acting Chief

A few blog postings ago, there were references to civil actions that would be initiated against the city and the Riverside Police Department and one of them hit the news today.

News came out that Riverside Police Department Det. Chris Lanzillo, a former president of the Riverside Police Officers’ Association has filed a claim for the damages against the city for harassment and retaliation due to his actions taken while he served as union president. The claim was denied by the city on March 9, mere days after it had been filed by Lanzillo as a precursor for a lawsuit to be filed in U.S. District Court. In the past month, I’ve received emails from people including outside the state asking about this situation since it all begun and it's too early to know what it all means. Their impression of Riverside, as a city and one that employs law enforcement has dropped considerably since they've been following this ongoing situation.

What next, they ask about the situation going on with the police department that has taken quite a few serious hits in recent weeks that may have been the inevitable result of more than just an errant traffic stop. They might have been the result of at least several years of questionable conduct from inside the department's management and from City Hall that has severely compromised the integrity of a police department just four years out of a stipulated judgment with the State Attorney General's office when it was run by Bill Lockyer.

It's ironic to write about it and Lanzillo given some unpleasant history I've had with him and the merits and motives of Lanzillo's claims have and will be hotly debated as this saga which some say only was interrupted by Leach's car accident (rather than started by it) continues to twist and turn in the weeks and months ahead.

But Lanzillo's claim does raise some of the same questions about what's been going on in the past several months that have been raised earlier and it serves as another reminder that the City Hall and police department's management have been left very wanting with providing answers to questions being asked over and over and over again by city residents in varying venues. When will this attitude change from these venues? How about never, until there's enough pressure, both external and internal, to loosen those lips? After all, there's a well known adage, pressure on, cover off. Pity, that City Hall has never heard of that as it keeps finding itself in some very embarrassing and troubling situations again and again.

Questions that have awaited answers from city residents during this time and which the city hasn't come close to answering. The claim doesn't answer them either, but it adds to the chorus that some seriously wrong actions have been taken by the city and police department in the wake of the Leach incident. In case City Hall doesn't know this, we the city residents have had these questions and have asked them in one forum or another for weeks without any response except...we'd have to await the outcome of a probe our tax dollars pay for and oh wait, no you can't get the whole truth of what happened, only part of it. Then soon after that, comes the announcement from Hudson that he's cleared City Hall and everyone inside it, which goes to show not only that this investigation is entrenched in conflict of interest concerns but this probe into the Leach incident really isn't all that "sweeping".

The irony of the claim filed by Lanzillo is that through his leadership in the Riverside Police Officers' Association, he and others advocated strongly for more strict enforcement of the Police Officers' Bill of Rights, which was originally passed decades ago to stem mistreatment by management personnel in law enforcement agencies against officers including when corruption reared its ugly head. In fact, one of its biggest proponents believe it or not, was the American Civil Liberties Union, which is at loggerheads against it today as it metamorphosed from countering administrative abuses to shielding officer misconduct investigations and outcomes from the public.

In cases like the Leach incident, this legislation designed to provide such protection has also proven to be quite capable of smothering those it intended to protect under a blanket of corruption when they attempt to address abuses by administration during more recent times. It's proven to be the ultimate double edged sword and has worked against both officers and members of the public who wish to bring such administrative misconduct to light. In cases like this, it works more to protect municipalities such as Riverside from civil liability risk than it has to protect officers' rights to work in an environment free of administrative corruption and/or misconduct. Something which might be coming full circle in the city of Riverside as the department struggles with its worst allegations of corruption in quite a while. Because face it, the only people who benefit from the shielding of the internal probe are the guilty parties (whether they are acknowledged in the probe or not) who are knee-deep in the mess involving the Leach incident. Not the majority of the officers in the police department who weren't involved, not the city's residents who are left with a police department few of them trust to enforce the law equally and fairly. If the city truly cared about reshaping either of these realities, it would have asked outside agencies to come and take a look inside at the department and city and it would have provided a more honest accounting to the city's residents.

While it’s true that the city denies the vast majority of claims for damages that it receives, in this case to do so quickly (and without appropriate public notice) was premature and casts a huge shadow of doubt on the integrity of the “sweeping” probe being done by the police department which will report its findings to City Manager Brad Hudson. The veracity of the claim is one issue to be decided as part of a process but acting on it rather than staying it is a questionable action in that the city has claimed to be doing its, try not to laugh, "sweeping" probe including into allegations that members of the upper management of the police department had played a role in the attempted cover up of Leach's accident and resultant traffic stop. That's not exactly news but it's something that most of the city's residents have pretty much guessed since news first broke out that Leach's traffic stop didn't result in a DUI investigation but a "traffic collision" report to be "filed".

Yes, it's not as if an intense sense of distrust doesn't already exist against this probe and in a sense, City Hall since this scandal first broke over a month ago. How much distrust remains might make things interesting during the next election cycle, but that is then and this is now, and the city has not much time to rehabilitate itself before its first truly public accountability test begins in June 2011.

In his claim, Lanzillo alleged that he was penalized by the department’s management for what he did while RPOA president, a job he held from 2008-2009 before being voted out in November 2009 and replaced by Det. Cliff Mason. Within 30 days of stepping down, he was transferred out of the department’s Vice/Intelligence Unit, a position he had held for over four years and was assigned to another division. The department’s management had also allegedly made the situation difficult for him in other ways since the Feb. 8 incident involving Leach, his crashed Chrysler 300 and a very controversial traffic stop. As well as when Asst. Chief John DeLaRosa took over the helm of the department on an interim basis until a new chief is hired.

Lanzillo also alleged in his claim that DeLaRosa knew almost immediately about the traffic stop involving Leach and had arranged for the cover up including the part where Leach gets a ride back home in the front seat of a police car rather than while being handcuffed in the back seat and taken to jail. He stated that the CHP should have been called in earlier and that the department's management was displeased with him when he brought it up.

Allegations have already been raised that cell phone calls had been made by Leach and others at the scene of the traffic stop to upper management officers in the department who then ordered the watch commander, Lt. Leon Phillips to not order the conduction of a field sobriety test or DUI evaluation. So far, the city has not released a list of phone calls made by city-issued (meaning tax payer provided) cell phones nor has it released the recordings of 911 phone calls coming into the dispatch office involving Leach's accident and subsequent drive through Riverside. What the city released was a handwritten report submitted at some point by Sgt. Frank Orta who supervised the patrol officers who initially stopped Leach's car. A handwritten report which wasn't signed by a single higher ranking officer (at least not on the copy the city released to the public) and that only included a partial CAD incident report completely omitting any portion pertaining to the traffic stop reported at Arlington and Rutland, again without explaining why it did so.

Nor has the city released any information on whether Hudson ordered Leach to be tested for drugs and/or alcohol intoxication pursuant to a city policy dictating testing in Leach's circumstance. The city hasn't released information on whether the direct employees of the city council were honest about the role of alcohol in Leach's crash and whether or not there were attempts to downplay its role inside City Hall. It also hasn't answered any questions about City Hall or the police department's knowledge of prior incidents involving Leach before the accident that was heard or read about around the country. Hudson himself demurred on that question when it was raised in a public forum in Orangecrest when asked by a city resident as to how much he knew about past problems with Leach who after all was one of his department heads since June 2005.

The city hasn't really disclosed much at all about what has happened. Its promises to do so (at least the ones not redacted later by Hudson) have been all words, little action.

So much for public disclosure and rebuilding public accountability, trust, transparency and all those concepts. But it's been that case since the attempts of City Hall and the police department to suppress the events surrounding Leach's actions on Feb. 8 first began. And it will be that way until the demand for a truly independent probe of this mess trumps the current white washing investigation that is currently taking place. But while there's been a lot of complaints about the independence of this so-called probe by city residents, community leaders have been very quiet on this issue, not surprising since over 50 of them are already soliciting places for themselves on any interview or search panel being put together involving the hiring of the new police chief. Which is a shame because if an investigation needed to be shopped around outside City Hall, it's this one. But it seems that no one in leadership wants to risk alienating City Hall when it comes time to pick the latest panel set up to hire a puppet, since the one that picked the latest executive manager of the Community Police Review Commission.

Maybe that should be the next logical step for an outside probe to be launched. It should have been done on the first day, just as the criminal investigation should have been handed off immediately to the CHP.

Lanzillo’s allegations are serious ones indeed to add to the pile of ongoing serious allegations, including those implicating the current acting chief in the cover up of “potential criminal behavior” of Leach but more concern should be generated regarding the city's actions surrounding the handling of this claim. There's a lot of debate about the veracity of them going on but what's interesting is the city's response, in the face of the fact that it's making a big show out of its ahem, "sweeping probe" into this disturbing situation with Leach that put Riverside back on the national news radar in a way that alas, it didn't want. It's hard to keep inventing slogans and logos to reinvent yourself as something positive or economically viable during a recession but these scandals that crop up in Riverside every so often make it next to impossible for visions of Riverside as the city of arts, culture and innovation to stick for long. But Riverside will be revisited by sordid incidents like that involving Leach and any assorted cast of characters which facilitated in the attempted cover up of what happened on Feb. 8 because of a pattern and practice of serious problems within the police department and City Hall as well. Until that's addressed and remedied, nothing will ever change and the only certainty is that another embarrassing scandal will always be come from some corner of the city.

But merit of the claim aside, here are some questions which come to mind.

Why Was the Claim Dismissed so Quickly?

First of all, City Attorney Gregory Priamos said through his office that the city council rejected Lanzillo’s claim which had been filed March 4 in a closed session on March 9. If that’s the case, then call Guinness, because the city council just set a record for the fastest turnaround on a claim for damages which usually take a lot longer to even reach the city council for a discussion and certainly, an action vote. Another problem, is if you remember what was written on that last agenda, you’ll notice that there was no listing under the closed session stating that Chris Lanzillo vs the City of Riverside was coming up on the agenda which would have given the city residents enough notice to be able to know that it had been filed and to elicit public comment on it at the relevant meeting. Priamos said that the city rejected it on Tuesday, the day of the last city council meeting. Did his office reject it or was the city council involved in that decision? Have any members of the city government even read the claim before this decision was made?

It would certainly be hoped that the claim, merited or not, would have been read by city officials before the decision was made to accept or in this case reject it. Especially any of those city officials who are awaiting until the outcome of the Hudson probe to start exhibiting some leadership skills.

Why was the Claim Not Stayed Until the Hudson Probe was Completed?

The claim was denied around the time that Hudson was telling city residents at a public forum used to solicit input from city residents on the next police chief, that City Hall had been cleared from any involvement in the cover up but if this claim was denied in even greater secrecy than it had to be then City Hall has just made a liar out of Hudson through this action.

Does this mean that what’s in the claim is true? All of it? Any of it? It may or may not be and maybe it might take a jury trial to decide whether that’s the case. But at this stage what should take priority is not the veracity of the claim but the fact that it was filed by a city employee in the middle of a so-called “sweeping” probe of the cover up that took place after Leach’s accident purportedly to determine exactly what did happen including behind the scenes. To deny a claim so quickly is to deny its veracity in the interest of civil liability more than in terms of whether it's true or not because the veracity of a claim requires a vetting process where evidence is presented both for and against the allegations raised by the involved parties, which takes a period of time. Because isn't the probe created to address and investigate allegations of a cover up surrounding Leach's crash and traffic stop, including those similar to what Lanzillo alleged in his claim? Is this the city's way of saying that it's already determined that allegations of misconduct by members of the police department's management are unfounded? That's the message the city appears to be sending through its recent actions.

But most claims filed against the city take much longer to adjudicate than the five days between the time this claim was filed by Lanzillo and when it was rejected by the city. So denying a claim that quickly is again more about trying to protect the city's liability than in anything else, because it's too soon to make a determination of its veracity and by doing so, it seems like City Hall has made up its mind about what really happened before its investigation has been completed let alone reviewed by its "independent oversight".

Any reasonable person would understand that it’s premature to accept or deny a claim of cover up while that investigation is still ongoing and that doing so casts doubt on any independent "sweeping" probe that is taking place to ahem, determine exactly what the truth is and who knew about it. That by doing so it sends the wrong message to the increasingly doubtful public that any allegations of mismanagement by management are being taken seriously.

The ethical and sensible action to take would have been to stay the claim and not act on it until the completion of the administrative investigation just as any other claim making allegations involving the situation involving Leach should be stayed until at least completion of the administrative investigation. Being that the claim was only filed several days before it was denied (and was filed well within the statutory limit of 180 days), it’s not pressing to honor any statutory deadlines while rushing through it. In fact, a common strategy utilized by many city legal department is to stall on denying a claim for damages in hopes that the statutory period (most often 365 days) will be exhausted or close to being exhausted so that there’s no time to sue in federal or state court. Yet the city chose to rush the decision on this claim for damages right before sweeping it under the carpet to join all the other dust bunnies that have been piling up there for some time.

And it's not just the reality of what this action taken by the city means, there's the perception sent out to city residents that just days after City Hall through Hudson has cleared itself of any involvement in the cover up but that it's moved on to clearing at least one member of the department's upper management by rejecting a claim which includes allegations made against him.

If the city is denying a claim including allegations of covering up what happened on Feb. 8 while this so-called internal probe (call it white wash) is still ongoing, then that kind of tells you how serious this much touted investigation along with its “independent oversight” really was intended to be. It kind of tells you the whole thing is a white wash to placate the public’s demand for the truth while stringing it along hoping that with time, memories and emotions will fade.

But the decision to reject the claim might instead send it into a more public forum called a courtroom inside the U.S. District Court where it will be litigated much more openly than it would be behind the doors of City Hall. It's the responsibilities of any plaintiffs to prove the allegations that they raise in their civil litigation in a court of law through the process of discovery, deliberations on motions and in some cases, a trial by jury and perhaps that's what will be required in this case. That's the direction in which the city has pushed it towards, having denied the claim. And federal and state court systems tend to be more public forums for issues to be discussed and debated under the rules of law and procedure. That's probably the best place for this claim and any future ones to be sent so that they can be processed more out in the open than they would be if contained inside the boundaries of City Hall and its police department.

Given that this city's residents have just been given a text book example of where all this secrecy can lead.

Will the City and Department Ever Tell the City Residents The Truth?

The answer to this question has already been provided by Hudson and that is, no of course not. Now that this has been settled in that the city residents whose monies pay for the operations of the city will never be told the truth about what happened on Feb. 8, 2010, it's a memory that the city residents should take with them into the next election cycle coming up in 2011. Because if the city residents aren't told the truth about this cover up that took place involving department employees and/or city employees, then they are left to wonder what really happened and the extend of covering up bad conduct in this city by the police department and City Hall.

But City Hall through Hudson has made it clear that city residents will know next to nothing about what happened even as some of the management personnel who have been under the spotlight in terms of community concerns and questions apply for the top spot including DeLaRosa. Why, because the need for secrecy has become more important than the integrity of the police department or City Hall. When that happened, that's when the accountability and transparency of public agencies like the police department and City Hall eroded further, taking along the trust of city residents with it when critical incidents like this one take place. When the truth is that both the police department and City Hall have been in trouble for some time, with disturbing incidents taking place in both, enough so to show that they're far from isolated, but part of a pattern and practice of serious problems within both spheres.

That's what the city and department's combined leadership is showing through actions if not through either their sparse words or their sealed lips.

Speaking of the police department, it just released this latest chart depicting its current organizational structure which includes the current captain (including assistant and deputy chief positions) and lieutenant vacancies.

The Press Enterprise Editorial Board gives a thumbs up to the recent city council vote to partially reverse its 2009 vote which pretty much eliminated the ability of the Community Police Review Commission to investigate officer-involved deaths.

The history of the alleged clashes between Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco and Riverside County Superior Court Judge Gary Tranbarger.

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