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, April 02, 2010

Coming Soon (but not to the Fox): The RPD's Very Own Barbershop Sextet

UPDATE: Earth quake, now tell me that's not the longest shaker felt recently...Baja California, 6.9

Another week comes to a close in the city of Riverside as the fallout from the Feb. 8 incident involving former Riverside Police Chief Russ Leach continues to spread, like a large rock that splashed into a pond and sent out ripples across the water towards the shores.

In just two months, the police department has lost Leach who had come into the police department when it had a revolving door when it came to police chiefs and he had made it his home for nearly10 years. Now even his name no longer remains on the door of the public entrance to the department's administrative headquarters on Orange Street in downtown Riverside. Would an exorcism had been as successful in removing all traces of a police chief who had come into a police department experiencing great turmoil and left it in a similar state? But memories can't be erased so easily, both good and not so good. Especially not when they come full circle.

The department faced millions of dollars in civil litigation before Leach came in and now in his wake, he's left more than $25 million just in claims for damages filed against the Riverside Police Department by its employees as well as city residents. Most if not all of these claims were denied including that filed by former Riverside Police Officers' Union President Det. Chris Lanzillo (which was canceled in a record four days) but don't be surprised if the city's legal division changes its mind and starts paying out settlements on some of the claims. Just enough to displease their insurance carrier if they still have one and put more dents in the city's coffer if they don't. But they can't afford not to pay out on some of these claims given that the city got its butt kicked during the one labor lawsuit that went to trial to the tune of $1.64 million in the case of Officer Roger Sutton. Because as some put it, that jury's verdict set the bench mark for civil litigation among the labor forces in Riverside and there's civil actions out there not to mention other possibilities that could make the Sutton payout look like a bag of peanuts.

Lanzillo in his claim had alleged that then Asst. Chief and current Acting Chief John DeLaRosa had known early on about Leach's accident and traffic stop, like when it was still all going down. Cell phone records selectively released by City Hall under the guise of accountability, transparency and not wanting to face the Press Enterprise in court did show that DeLaRosa's city-issued cell phone was ringing and buzzing with chatter at the time that two police officers, a supervisor and a watch commander were at the intersection of Arlington and Rutland tending to their inebriated department head. And now everyone knows that thorough the advance of wireless communications technology, DeLaRosa was apparently there too.

Since the revelation that his cell phone was tied to phone calls that went to and came from the city-issued cell phone of Watch Commander and Lt. Leon Phillips, DeLaRosa apparently hasn't been seen as much except at the administrative headquarters. That's in great contrast to just a week or so when he started appearing at more meetings including those with community organizations and he started engaging community leaders more in some neighborhoods. Some felt that he was auditioning to become the next police chief, to impress upon City Hall that the job should belong to him. And when he and other management personnel started showing up at roll calls to give speeches, in a sense same audition, different panel of judges.

In the midst of community and departmental furor that the next chief should come from the outside. But some people were confused and pointed at him dressed in his police uniform and said who's he? DeLaRosa as of late has after all been assigned more to behind the scenes administrative duties though he had been assigned to work in communities including Casa Blanca in the past so older leaders did know him pretty well.

If you want to be a police chief in this or any other city, you're going to be walking the tight rope with the community and police unions waiting for you to succeed or fail and sometimes helping you either way. Or more often, testing your commitment and your mettle either to the communities or the troops, trying to evaluate which side you favor because more often than not people are keeping score. But it's how you act in crisis situations as well as the more mundane day to day events that can help define a chief for better or worse. Riverside defines its chiefs through some of the most severe crises in the department's history. Leach came in the middle of a crisis and so in a sense did his predecessor Jerry Carroll but both ultimately left their department while it was in crisis as well. Now DeLaRosa who just weeks ago was appointed the department's acting chief is facing his own crisis and he's reacting to it in his own way by apparently reducing his visibility markedly in recent days.

Leaving one of the captains essentially issuing orders to other members of the somewhat apprehensive command staff and apparently having the time of his life. Capt. Mike Blakely who crashed the police department in the early 1990s with its former former former (and retired) Chief Ken Fortier. Blakely began his career at the police department as the second in command or deputy chief to Fortier and even after Fortier left town after essentially being voted off the island, Blakely remained to serve as the captain in the investigations and more lately, the personnel division which among other things oversees the police department's internal affairs division. Some have called him a barnacle, staying when others have left.

Blakely's work ethic is quite impressive as he put in his full shift of work as a captain even before it became fashionable to do so in more recent weeks. Whereas other command staff members seem eager to impress the new incoming police chief whoever he or she might be with their renewed level of activity, Blakely is content to be Blakely. In fact, the department's most senior captain appeared the most reluctant to join in on the department's version of a barbershop quartet (okay, quintet) which traveled from roll call session to session preaching the importance of family to a department and not to talk to the press or to bloggers for that matter. No one appeared to really want to be there but there they were channeling Sister Sledge.

Blakely's Internal Affairs division has been very busy lately since he's started issuing orders to the command staff members. After struggling for several years to catch up on a backlog which rivals that faced by the criminal side of the Riverside County Superior Court, the division had finally adjusted to its impromptu move from some very nicely digs next door to the field office of a congressional representative, to the downtown terminal right next door to Greyhound. In fact, for a while there, confused patrons of Greyhound used to bang on the doors of the new location because there was no signage telling people that there were even police officers there. Even though the office lease had been scheduled to expire at the end of the year, City Manager Brad Hudson only gave the general services division two weeks notice that the IA division had to move to the terminal space vacated by the fire department's administrative division. So it took a while and solving a variety of problems to get settled in and placed in the mix was a new IA lieutenant, Mike Cook.

Cook had subbed before the IA office moved away from the Riverside Plaza area to its new home because the division's internal investigation numbers had increased significantly enough that a huge backlog was created and that put the division in danger of not meeting time line requirements on personnel investigations pursuant to the Peace Officers' Bill of Rights and Governmental Code 3304(d). Complaints averaged over 200 days just to finish the investigation process in the department and reach the Community Police Review Commission for review. One problem was that the sergeants would be working on one investigation as a high priority and then get pulled off of that one by management to initiate another one that was also high priority. And what often happens under that kind of system is that you wind up with a growing list of uncompleted investigations. Now a good triage system of investigation organization might have alleviated the backlog but the department struggled with this issue until not too long ago, there was a six month push to straighten out the backlog.

The division is staffed by a lieutenant and five sergeants and the departure of Sgt. Brian Dailey in the last shift change was alleviated by his replacement, Sgt. Julian Hutzler who was the last sergeant promoted before the three recent promotions. He was the third of four consecutive promotions of officers who had lateraled from the Oceanside Police Department with the fourth one, Michael Barney being promoted in the latest round. Reactions of the promotions of the four laterals were mixed, with some people expressing consternation and others being supportive. Hutzler along with Det. Linda Byerly (who is on the sergeant's list) and Barney had worked together on the investigation of former officer, Robert Forman while they staffed the Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Division, an assignment that didn't make them too popular at the time.

They did a very difficult job, one of the most difficult jobs of investigating one of their own and were professional. The department had its issues with Forman in the past as he allegedly had gotten into trouble from an onduty sexual contact with a homeless woman in one of the city's parks. An act that apparently he had captured on his department-equipped digital audio recorder. There was some difference of opinion on whether the act was consensual or coerced but the fact that Forman would go on to erase over 50 belt recordings within a few months in 2008 and "forget" to record in other required contacts, well it's not clear how long it took the department's management to pick up on that huge red flag.

And now with Forman being convicted of a sexual assault under the color of authority charge and the city facing $11.9 million in lawsuits involving that case, it's not clear whether any lessons were learned from that apparent failure of some form of early warning system that should have caught an officer who would have been fired in many departments for the earlier incident. When city residents learn these things which are usually shrouded in secrecy, it causes a loss of trust in the department's leadership to protect them from officers who have serious problems. The department also more recently had to face the implosion of another one of its officers suffering from a serious drug addiction that was only admitted publicly through the officer's attorney recently. Former Officer Dave Reeves, jr. who is now in or heading to spend most of his life in state prison after being convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping charges became severely addicted to prescription drugs from a non-work related injury.

At the time he had started robbing auto part stores in Riverside and Moreno Valley, he had been in the process of apparently being given retired out of the department but without being eligible for a financial one. He had turned down a stint in rehab and had filed a lawsuit protesting a voluntary and then compelled drug evaluation ordered by Blakely, a legal action later withdrawn. His downfall wasn't uncommon in law enforcement as police officers are more likely like most people to become addicted to legal drugs including alcohol and medication than illegal substances. And given the demands on their bodies and their vulnerability to work related injuries, law enforcement officers across the country go to work while on prescription medication including pain killers and over the counter drugs. Some people can stay home from work when they're in pain. Many officers can't. One reason why as one person said, the police unions negotiated their drug testing policies separate from several other city employee unions because they can't always sit injuries or illness out.

Forman and Reeves, jr. were two of at least five officers arrested and prosecuted for on or off-duty criminal conduct in the past 14 months. Other officers may have been arrested but not charged in 2008-09 and at least one officer committed a crime and wasn't investigated like Leach even though it was a similar type of crime. Some say that it's the lack of leadership and supervision in the department strapped by budget cuts and some say compromised by problematic promotional practices at upper management that has led to the sentiment among some that there's no need to control conduct that they might have been accountable for under the consent decree. And the situation involving Leach does speak to that, because is it surprising for arrests and/or prosecutions to take place in the department and then have the police chief himself ultimately get arrested and convicted of criminal behavior? If the chief of a department winds up committing criminal conduct, then does it remain isolated to him or her, or does it impact what others do or more importantly the expectations placed on others? Can a department of employees not be impacted in different negative ways if the chief is committing crimes? Given that there's no current shortage of police chiefs and county sheriffs in trouble with the law across the country, there would be a huge pool of law enforcement agencies to evaluate to see if the ponds indeed do ripple when the rocks fall into them.

Of the three detectives assigned to investigate criminal allegations raised by three different women against Forman, only Byerly wasn't ultimately promoted to sergeant despite being an officer for over 20 years and a detective for around seven but then quite a few women including three on the top five of the lieutenant's list didn't get promoted this last round. The department not being the best of environments for its female officers as the attrition of female officers is considerably higher than that of its male officers, as was explained by department representatives at a Human Resources Board meeting last autumn. In fact, more females have been demoted at the supervisory ranks than have been promoted.

The Internal Affairs division conducts administrative investigations on the department's officers who have been arrested and/or charged with criminal conduct. In this case with Leach, the situation's different. The division is not investigating its chief but is looking at those around him to determine the role that any of a cast of characters played in the cover up of Leach's DUI accident. While people have raked the two patrol officers and even the field sergeant in different venues for public expression, it's more likely than not that these individuals closer or at the bottom of the department's food chain have the least culpability in the affair. They probably have valuable information to offer if the internal probe proves to be the best forum for them to safely tell it and that remains to be well as anything can be seen that's shrouded in secrecy. It's the further you travel up in the food chain of the police department and perhaps beyond where the waters get clearer even as the investigation likely will grow murkier in response.

It will burn hours. It will kill trees. It will involve interviewing people and perhaps sifting through the varying accounts of he-said, he-did, we-think that always take place in cases like this one. People might tell the truth if they feel they can tell it. Others might lie to protect themselves or someone else. And in the end what is produced may or may not resemble the truth of what happened. And as far as the public's concerned because it will never see the end result, the internal investigation will just be a cover up of a cover up of criminal conduct.

The department's paramount investigation as most people know is the Hudson probe, which is the internal investigation launched into the activities of the Feb. 8 traffic stop involving Leach and why the chief who appeared intoxicated on dash cam video, was never evaluated as a DUI. He had collided into some still unknown stationary object which cost him two wheels and so he had been driving around on rims for a while throwing up sparks. Calls to 911 came in about this "potential DUI" who was pulled over by two relatively new (even inside a very young patrol division) patrol officers who did evaluate him for DUI according to statements they provided for the California Highway Patrol. They then called in supervisor Frank Orta, the DUI expert, to handle the situation which for them was quite precarious due to their position on the department's pecking order. Orta at some point called Phillips on his cell phone and so interestingly enough, did DeLaRosa eight minutes later. Phillips would call DeLaRosa back twice and those calls were about three minutes in duration.

Meanwhile Leach was busy on his cell phone too calling Sgt. Marcus Smail a long-time friend of his who worked in the Internal Affairs Division. Smail's relationship with Leach and thus any accompanying knowledge he might then have of Leach's history would cause him to be in conflict with being assigned to the Hudson probe but he wasn't put in that assignment which would have been a difficult situation. The probe continues with "independent oversight" hire, Grover Trask of Best, Best and Krieger overseeing the process in apparently an active way.

Hudson's able to deftly control the release of information to the public, steering away any questions about culpability at City Hall in this whole affair involving Leach which began way before that Feb. 8 traffic stop and aiming it at the police department. And it's not to say that the police department shouldn't be a focus because of the employees including DeLaRosa who have been brought under intense scrutiny in the public eye. But many people know too that DeLaRosa in a sense is being handed out to the public as a sacrifice for what happened that day that actually began years ago and included elements inside the police department and at City Hall. Because if he's responsible for serious misconduct in relation to it, he wouldn't be the only one. He's just the only one so far that's not been put by the city government in charge of an internal probe into that incident. And Hudson's aware of what happened the last time a police was ousted from the city's fabric. He didn't pack his bags and leave River City by himself but took a city manager and city attorney with him.

DeLaRosa like the rest of the command staff that surrounds him were promoted, some more rapidly than others in the past decade, with Blakely being the only holdover from the 1990s. And what was that process exactly, how did it play out? Was it a system where everyone lined up their qualifications against their competition or was it like open market day where more of a bidding war takes place? Does it come down to who's the best candidate or who's simply left standing at the end of the day? And what have the repercussions of the RPD's rather interesting promotional process which can be vetoed anytime by those irrepressible chiefs, De
Santis and Hudson had on the police department? The picture just doesn't look all that pretty these days and the reasons might be complex but they do have a starting point.

The house of cards that was built in the years preceding this traffic stop that was heard around the nation only just collapsed the day after Super Bowl Sunday, it wasn't built that day. And in future postings, there will be further discussion of the construction of that house of cards.

Two San Bernardino Police Department cars collided and one crashed into a store.

A key member of a corruption probe in San Bernardino County files a multi-million dollar claim.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department assistant chief convicted of animal cruelty gets sentenced.

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