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

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

CHP: RPD Officers Onscene Knew Police Chief Was Intoxicated

***UPDATE****Former Riverside Police Chief Russ Leach is a no show at the arraignment on his DUI case but through his attorney James Teixeira pleads guilty to one count of DUI and is sentenced to three years summary probation, first offender DUI class and 30 days in a electronic monitoring program, plus about $2,000 in fines. Texiera said Leach "very remorseful" but no discussion of cover up or preferential treatment,

Riverside County Supervising District Attorney Stephanie Weissman addresses questions from the media after former Riverside Police Chief Russ Leach's guilty plea and sentencing en absentia for DUI accident.]

"I would hope that people in my department would make different choices. For somebody in our position, I think, there's probably a higher expectation."

---Jeff Talbott, Inland Chief, California Highway Patrol, the agency which investigated Leach about the department that didn't.

More information coming out on the investigation conducted by the California Highway Patrol's investigation into the Feb. 8 traffic accident involving former Riverside Police Chief Russ Leach. That information includes documents submitted by the CHP who conducted the investigation that the Riverside Police Department had not and recommended that DUI charges be filed against Leach. And on March 22, Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco filed two misdemeanor counts of DUI, nearly two months after Leach's accident. Leach is set to be arraigned in Riverside County Superior Court on March 25.

The Declaration in Support of Arrest Warrant was taken out by CHP Sgt. Lance C. Berns and it related details behind the investigation conducted of Leach and his accident not to mention his subsequent traffic stop in the early morning hours after Super Bowl Sunday.

Evidence examined by the investigators included the following items including several which were made possible by the implementation of several reforms included in the stipulated judgment imposed on Riverside by the State Attorney General's office between 2001-06.

Surveillance video taken from Club 215 in Colton

COBAN video (squad car dash cameras required under stipulated judgment)

Video footage from city's red light camera

Digital audio recordings (equipment required by stipulated judgment) from police officers onscene

Witness Statements

Leach's Potentially Lethal Cocktail

As it turned out, according to the CHP, Leach had apparently consumed a hefty combination of alcoholic beverages and prescription medication before driving to Club 215 as well as while he had been there. These substances rendered him very intoxicated which meant that by the time he left the club just before it closed, he had become potentially a lethal threat to himself and others as soon as he got behind the wheel of his car.

Substances consumed by Leach before his accident (based on his statements and those of others) included the following. Most of the names will sound familiar because these drugs frequently show up in the toxicological screenings performed on celebrities who die of drug overdoses.

At his home between 3:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 7 :

3-4 Miller Light beers

2 Vicodin (like other medications, including warnings not to combine with alcohol)

2 Xanax

1 Flexeril

1 Atarax

Possibly 2 Ambien

According to Leach's fiancee, these substances made Leach "groggy" and unable to safely operate a motor vehicle. But he got behind the wheel of his black Chrysler 300 and drove to Club 215 in Colton. A drive which took at least 30 minutes. About a minute after arriving at the club, Leach ordered his first alcoholic beverage purchased there. More drinks would follow in succession, at least seven more which is at least three more drinks than claimed by both the owner of Club 215 and his attorney not long after the story broke.

Between 9:28 p.m. on Feb. 7 and 1:41 a.m. on Feb. 8 at the Club 21, substances consumed included the following.

7 or more Chivas Regalis (on the rocks)

In total, Leach had consumed at least 11 alcoholic beverages and a variety of medications which prohibit the use of them with alcohol. To violate the warnings endangers the person's life (especially if it decreases the respiration rate) as well as impairs their driving ability. But the evidence of him consuming nearly a dozen beverages makes statements issued by him that he didn't drink and former Councilman Frank Schiavone that he couldn't drink even one beer a bit seem somewhat questionable at best. Schiavone quickly disappeared from where he came after making his brief foray into the press. But given that he's allegedly planning to run for Riverside County supervisor in 2012, it's not likely that the region's seen the last of him in political circles.

Evidence that Leach was impaired that was uncovered by the CHP shows that his driving ability was probably compromised before he even reached Club 215 and indeed surveillance video footage of that club showed Leach as being unsteady on his feet and disoriented according to the CHP. Again this contradicts information provided by the Club 215 owner and his attorney who said there were no visible signs of Leach being impaired on that same surveillance video. One club employee was apparently concerned enough about Leach's impairment to offer to call a cab to take him home, an offer which he declined. Leach then drove out of Club 215 in his own vehicle while intoxicated from alcohol and medications and headed back to Riverside.

Leach then crashed into what the CHP called an "unknown low profile fixed object" and kept on driving clearly impaired to the point where he had no idea what had just happened. He kept driving and ran at least one red light at Arlington and Van Buren, an action which was caught on a red light camera stationed there. He was eventually stopped by two patrol officers from his own department and the dash cams from inside their squad cars showed Leach unsteady on his feet and seemingly unsure of what happened to his car.

RPD Officers Knew Leach was Intoxicated

And then the warrant ends with perhaps the most critical piece of information, which is the observation of the officers who were onscene during the traffic stop.

(excerpt, warrant)

During the enforcement stop, RPD officers detected objective symptoms of alcohol/drug intoxication that included red/watery eyes , unsteady gait, the "strong" odor of an alcoholic beverage emitting from his breath, slurred speech, and uncharacteristic repetitive speech. Both officers formed the opinion that Mr. Leach was driving under the influence in violation of Vehicle Code section 23152(a).

From this information which is a terse summary of statements given by Officers Jason Miller and Grant Linhart to CHP investigators, it is clear that officers who responded to 911 calls about the Black Chrysler 300 emitting sparks had done some form of DUI evaluation on Leach while performing the traffic stop. All the signs listed on the warrant as having been noticed by the officers are all those that officers look for while conducting DUI evaluations on motorists they stop. There's even a portion of a police report where there are lists of signs and symptoms of possible alcohol and drug intoxication that can be checked off if noted in a person under evaluation.

So it seems as if the officers suspected that the police chief was under the influence of alcohol and that their checking off the list of objective signs increased that suspicion. So let's see, the two officers suspected Leach was intoxicated and after performing their DUI evaluation, they became even more certain that he was in violation of the DUI laws. So what happened after that? How did the opinions of two patrol officers that Leach was legally intoxicated get watered down to the point where the final disposition for the traffic stop was that no report would even be filed as stated on the CAD incident sheet included in their sergeant's report?

Now there were never any written reports submitted by the primary officers on the scene which were Miller and Linhart. Even though when officers suspect a criminal violation has taken place, they usually write reports about their observations and the actions they take because they know these reports need to be an accurate reflection of what happened in case they're needed to be handed off to prosecutory agencies for evaluation and to refresh the memories of the officers if they ever need to testify on the witness stand in relation to the incident. But everyone in Riverside knows by now that things didn't happen this way. The incident deviated from being treated as a "potential DUI" (as reported to 911) to a "suspected DUI" as noted by two patrol officers and it deviated at some point during that traffic stop into being a "traffic collision" to be "filed" away or perhaps even less than that. Precisely because the two patrol officers didn't submit written reports to be signed by supervisors, but another higher ranking officer who arrived after them did.

The two officers called for a supervisor after they realized that they had the police chief in their custody so to speak and he was in their opinion legally drunk. So their supervisor, Sgt. Frank Orta comes in response with Watch Commander Lt. Leon Phillips on his heels. Orta's a veteran officer who's set to retire by summer and who's been with the department at least 30 years. Actually he was originally going to retire last December but stayed on longer because the department was critically short on front line supervision and he apparently agreed to stay a bit longer. If he had stuck to those original plans, Orta wouldn't have been working that night as the shift supervisor for the Central Neighborhood Policing Center where the traffic stop purportedly took place. But he still was employed by the department and he and Phillips responded to the call for their assistance by the two officers. The officers were caught in a situation where perhaps they were thinking that busting the police chief would be akin to career suicide and they wanted supervisors to decide how to proceed with the delicate situation.

Orta had many years working in the traffic division as a motor officer before his promotion. He was a court recognized DUI expert which means that if the two relatively inexperienced patrol officers recognized signs that Leach was legally drunk, that means Orta almost certainly did as well. Yet if you read his report, there's no references to the signs noted by the two patrol officers or any DUI evaluation being performed by him. There's no sign that Orta ordered or performed a field sobriety test including the use of a Breathalyzer or compelling the production of a blood sample for testing. He certainly didn't write in his report that he conducted any of these tests even though it's more than likely his observations didn't differ much from those provided by the two officers.

It seems more than likely that something transpired that changed Orta's mind, in how his future report would be written. The report that likely he had been ordered to write by Phillips but interestingly enough wasn't signed by Phillips. Someone claimed it had been signed at some point by a member of the police department's management but the copy provided by City Hall didn't include a "reviewer" signature. But at any rate, Philips didn't sign it and even though he was a lieutenant since only about July 2008 (when he was allegedly promoted from the #11 spot on the lieutenant's list), maybe he thought it wasn't wise to put his name on a report that mentioned a motorist having been drinking and suffering memory gaps but who was never given a field sobriety test. And it just doesn't seem likely that he would have made the decision to cover up this incident involving Leach being potentially intoxicated on his own either. But besides Leach, Phillips could be the most likely fall guy in Hudson's probe if it's indeed looking for one.

[One page excerpted from a report written by RPD Sgt. Frank Orta involving Leach's traffic stop. The sergeant might have been directed to write the report by Watch Commander Lt. Leon Phillips but why didn't Phillips sign off on it? As you can see from the bottom of this page, no higher ranking officer did at least not on the copy produced by the city.]

Neither the police department nor City Hall has provided any insight into what's the issue pertaining to Phillips' failure as Orta's supervisor to sign off on his written work product. And if someone else did sign it, somewhat higher on the pecking order than the watch commander, why isn't the city providing that information to the public while it was engaging in the practice of disclosure? But then the city's busy putting its marbles behind City Manager Brad Hudson's "sweeping" probe which is currently killing lots of trees and apparently has gone a bit off-track from focusing on the actual cover up but then what can you expect from an investigation set up by a city employee that perhaps should be scrutinized himself? What's always interesting about self-initiated internal investigations is how often the person who has the most questions to answer is often at their helm. That's just one of the many reasons why few city residents trust this Hudson probe, because if City Hall is investigating the police department then who is investigating City Hall?

It's all well and good for Hudson, the arbiter of the probe, to clear City Hall including himself in such a breathtakingly timely fashion but many people just shook their heads at that revelation which was dropped at several community forums soliciting opinions for hiring Leach's replacement. Fox guarding hen house, that just never works unless you're of course, the fox. But then a serious problem which was created in part due to a lack of accountability isn't going to be fixed by a process that also stems from the same problem. Which the city residents somehow understand even if City Hall is more than one step behind.

City Manager Brad Hudson: He had "grave concerns"

Apparently City Manager Brad Hudson issued some sort of public statement explaining the thought process involving this controversial incident involving one of his department heads. But doesn't Hudson know that many people have "grave concerns" including about his handling of the police department?

So anyway, Hudson explains himself further about how he was concerned that Leach was treated differently than the average person during the traffic stop conducted by his department's officers. That's a very important observation that Hudson has made, given that if he felt passionate enough on the issue of equal treatment for all by law enforcement, he could call up the Riverside County Sheriff's Department and ask why it apparently conducted a rather shallow investigation of a troubling 2007 incident allegedly involving his assistant city manager, Tom DeSantis, a woman and a firearm. Apparently, the Riverside County District Attorney's office never received a report on that case.

But anyway, Hudson's statements did need to be said, though of course it would have been nice to have heard them said before charges were filed when it became clear to most the rest of the city that Leach hadn't been treated the same as mere city residents would have been dealt with in his circumstances. It would also be useful if Hudson was more forthcoming about some of his own actions in connection with Leach and the police department since he arrived in 2005.

(excerpt, Press Enterprise)

"Primary among my concerns in this matter is that the former Chief was provided treatment beyond what other motorists would be afforded in similar circumstances," Hudson said in a statement.

"I expect all city employees to use common sense, and to provide equitable treatment to all."

Well yeah, Hudson that makes some sort of sense. But most city residents knew that before this announcement was made and probably before Hudson and DeSantis created the policy that required their office to be contacted whenever a "high profile" person had a negative contact with the city's police officers. A policy that both Hudson and DeSantis in tandem insisted was violated by the police department's management on Feb. 8. And it might be true that this happened as so far there's no evidence that they knew about it when it was happening.

Hudson claimed he didn't find out about the incident until the early afternoon hours which is a bit different than earlier comments made by him that implied he learned about it not long after the @9:30 a.m. phone call that an anonymous woman made to Mayor Ron Loveridge's office, reaching his secretaries. Loveridge then said he was notified soon after and he solicited answers from Hudson who after all, was Leach's boss. But morning, afternoon whatever, Hudson's point apparently was that he didn't hear about it earlier in the morning when officers had stopped Leach.

Because Orta wrote the report by hand, it's not clear when it was written which might have been the point of eschewing modern day technology and channeling the olden days when reports were handwritten, before even typewriters were invented. If Orta avoided a department issued computer (which requires login information to gain access according to testimony in a recent criminal trial involving former Officer Robert Forman) or was ordered to do so, he would have done so most likely to muck up the ability to add the report in the appropriate spot of the Leach incident time line. Which makes no sense if the report had been written in a timely fashion after the incident if only to be filed away as a nonissue in some dusty file cabinet in some city owned building.

But it might make more sense if the report hadn't been written in such a timely fashion. Some of us are cynical enough at this point to wonder if there was even a report in existence when Loveridge dispatched Hudson to inquire about what had happened when Leach had crashed his car. Did a report even exist at that time or did Orta have to produce one? I mean what would it look like if Hudson had to push some higher ranking command staff members to search the department high and low for a simple "no crime committed" incident report? It appears that the majority of the command staff didn't engage in this cover up and perhaps were feeling more along the lines of it being "but for the grace of God, go I..." meaning they didn't have to deal with it. But it's also clear that adage probably didn't apply to all of them.

Det. Chris Lanzillo who was president of the Riverside Police Officers' Association until voted out and replaced by former sergeant, now Det. Cliff Mason filed a claim for damages asserting that current Acting Chief John DeLaRosa knew about the incident almost as it was unfolding and was "complicit" in an attempt to cover it up. The claim was rejected by the city in record setting fashion within five days of being filed, which unfortunately sent the message to city residents which many heard very well that the Hudson probe was a bad joke. After all, why not stay any claim alleging a cover up within the department and/or City Hall until after the Hudson probe was completed? To at least show that City Attorney Gregory Priamos and his employers, the city council and mayor are serious about uncovering the corruption which led to this incident in this so-called "sweeping" probe complete with its "independent oversight" in the form of Best, Best and Krieger attorney, Grover Trask.

But poor (and not meaning monetary wise) Trask has to sit and watch along with everyone else while Hudson's cleared City Hall before his probe's even done and involves investigators with no authority to perform an administrative investigation and review of employee conduct outside of the police department. Maybe he's just a rubber stamp to the Hudson probe after all, paid for by the city residents' dime.

Public Reactions

In the Press Enterprise article, there were some comments made by individuals interviewed about how they view this whole mess.

"The credibility of the department and city government is null and void. Their failure to do what they should have done obviously has lost the confidence of the community."

---Retired RPD Lt. Alex Tortes to the Press Enterprise

The incident and its handling led to the cancellation of a planned DUI checkpoint by the department on Feb. 17 and many city residents have raised serious questions about how the department treats regular people in contrast to the kid glove treatment it clearly gave its police chief. But while the department experiences issues of credibility, those in the department and possibly elsewhere who were responsible for the cover up which didn't succeed in insuring that Leach dodge a criminal investigation and possible prosecution remain hidden behind their own version of the code of silence. They could do something to repair the damage they have caused but they remain quiet.

"It wasn't handled properly, I don't think, but this is nothing new in government."

---Community leader Dell Roberts

Now if other community or civic leaders can break their silence and comment on this ongoing episode of corruption in Riverside, it might prove to be very helpful. The city's counting on the carrots it's been dangling in front of the leadership including exclusive spots on the interview panel to help in the hiring process involving the next police chief. Now, Hudson hasn't actually said he plans to include either community leaders or other residents even though he said his phone has been ringing off the hook with people soliciting him for this opportunity. But enough community leaders who are often vocal have been so quiet on this issue, you could hear a pin drop even as city residents have been fairly loud in different forums.

Why anyone would want to be picked to represent "community leadership" on a panel to pick the next police department chief who's more likely than not to be a puppet anyway is interesting. After all, you think they would have learned from the hiring of the executive manager of the Community Police Review Commission. The commission hasn't exactly thrived under his watch and it was interesting to notice that while Manager Kevin Rogan was front and center at different meetings to delay the commission's investigations of officer-involved shootings, he's been a complete no show at two separate public meetings to partially restore that charter power. That's micromanagement in a shell.

Incidentally, Roberts along with Damian Castillo served on a top secret ad hoc committee which recommended delaying investigations when it reported back to the city council and Governmental Affairs Committee in early 2009. That's after community members were not only banned from those meetings, they weren't even allowed to know when and where they took place. Apparently, neither had problems with how government operated then. Like Rogan, neither attended recent meetings involving the CPRC's partial return to being able to do timely investigations.

Still, it's good that Roberts has spoken out now after years of serving on the chief's advisory board, another committee of sorts that meets in total secrecy. That's a place to start.

Hopefully more community and civic leaders will do so as well including addressing the issue of whether or not Riverside needs an independent investigation of the Feb. 8 incident involving Leach and its aftermath.

Press Enterprise
columnist Cassie MacDuff writes about her reaction to the filing of DUI charges against Leach.

The Press Enterprise Editorial Board doesn't much like the lawsuits the city of Riverside has filed against the ports in Southern California.

City Employee Layoff Watch

So far, one city employee has been laid off, a communication technician from the Fire Department. Human Resources Director Rhonda Strout still has a few days left to soften up the news before she has to give it at the monthly meeting of the Human Resources Board.

And in the burning question category.....

Who's Left Standing in the Sire's Crowd?

[That other City Hall...]

In Illinois, former police sergeant Drew Peterson prepares to begin his murder trial for allegedly killing his ex-wife Kathleen Savio. His current wife, Stacey is still missing and hasn't been seen for nearly three years.

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