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

Monday, May 17, 2010

The RPD Retirements Continue and Could An Old Face Be Returning?

Sgt. Frank Orta Retired by City

The first retirement involving a key figure connected with the handling of the ill-fated DUI accident and traffic stop on Feb 8 took place after Sgt. Frank Orta called it quits after a lengthy career with the department. He accepted a medical retirement offered by the city leaving the department sooner than his anticipated departure date this summer. Before him, Former Chief Russ Leach, the subject of the traffic stop took a medical retirement.

Orta had originally planned to retire last December but had decided to continue working at the department for six months longer due to staffing shortages at his rank. A decision that he might regret now given all that's transpired during the past several months since the Feb. 8 incident that led to the ouster of Leach and no doubt could lead to even more departures as the house of cards that defines the top level of management of the department has been shaken to its less than stable foundation.

But it's interesting that a sergeant who was at a retirement age anyway was given instead a medical retirement and that begs the question, was this an attempt at discipline by the city or not? In what position was Orta in when working out the terms of his departure from the police department? A position of power of someone creating an exit strategy for himself or as someone who was given an ultimatum? That part might never be fully known since the city manager's office plans to release very little information about the results of its internal probe of the incident and the aftermath. But the timing of his retirement with the completion of Hudson's internal probe is very telling.

Orta's culpability in the handling of Leach's DUI incident and the attempted cover up is considerably greater than that of the two patrol officers who really had little to no involvement in it rather than actually performing a DUI evaluation on Leach for "objective" signs of intoxication and then calling for a supervisor to take over. As supervisor, he bears a degree of responsibility for what transpired including the drafting of a highly questionable report on Leach's accident and traffic stop. He had two officers who had believed that Leach had been drinking and exhibited signs of intoxication there on the scene when he arrived and he himself, had been a court recognized DUI expert so he could clearly see the same objective signs that were noted by two relatively inexperienced officers who lacked that same expertise. And he let those officers down by not properly supervising the situation which they entrusted him to handle, interweaving them even deeper in the incident and its aftermath than they had been in reality.

But even though the level of responsibility that rests on him is greater than those of the two patrol officers, it's less than those individuals who were higher than him in the command structure who were also involved in the incident. These two individuals were Lt. Leon Phillips who served as the graveyard watch commander and Asst. Chief John DeLaRosa who it's believed ultimately made the decision for how the situation with Leach would be handled by those onscene and communicated that information to Phillips in one or more of the phone calls that took place between them that were recorded in a city log which documented the use of city-issued (but not home or private) cell phones.

Orta was viewed by those who knew him as ethical but a person who would take commands from those higher in rank inside a department which often punished people who didn't. He served in the department for many years including as a motor officer. While serving in that capacity, he played a critical role in the arrest of serial killer, William Suff who was later convicted of killing over a dozen women. But Orta found himself mostly through his work assignment and bad luck as being in the position to respond to a call for supervision by two patrol officers during his watch. And working inside a department where arresting the boss might have gotten him fired or so he most likely believed at the time. If that were the case, then more likely there was reason for him to believe that was the case and that climate contributed to what transpired during the handling of that traffic stop.

Orta was in the position where for the most part, he took orders from his superiors and wasn't giving them considering that his two subordinates, the patrol officers, didn't remain at the scene for very long. Phillips was in the position where he gave orders to Orta but likely received them from DeLaRosa whereas DeLaRosa as the highest ranking officer who wasn't inebriated was in the position of making a decision on what the officers did, albeit by cell phone. Whether or not anyone at City Hall including the city manager's or city attorney's office was involved at that point is inconclusive when you consider the evidence because of the exclusion of certain phones from the very selective logs provided by City Hall to the Press Enterprise.

City Attorney Gregory Priamos made the legal call to withhold his own city-issued cell phone from the public release request citing attorney/client privilege when most people know that he could have easily released those records with any phone calls falling under that privilege redacted from the records. City Manager Brad Hudson and Asst. City Manager Tom DeSantis released their phone records for city-issued cell phones but oddly enough for being the city's top administrator, Hudson's phone didn't make any phone calls on Feb. 8 until early evening and apparently didn't receive any as well. Which if that's the case, makes you wonder how Hudson got wind of the chief's incident. But anyway, Hudson had said to the press in response to some questions raised by the Eastside Think Tank through its press release that he had turned off his phone because he was in various cities touring theater facilities.

Guess he never heard of switching to "vibrate" or "silence" but it's of course very reassuring that a highly paid top administrator has his phone off for the majority of time he spent out of town that day. But if that practice has the blessing of his employers, the city council and mayor and they really buy into that, then that's what is important and it's also important for the voters to know how gullible or not their elected representative is, ahead of time. Though without a complete accounting of all the phones in the possession of all the involved parties, it's impossible to get a really accurate history of what transpired that morning and exactly who knew what when and who did what. And despite the city's touting the selective release of these records as a shining example of transparency in government, its action generated more questions than answers.

So Orta takes a medical retirement even sooner than he had planned to take his prior retirement and he had relatively little culpability in the incident in comparison to his superiors, Phillips and DeLaRosa. That makes one wonder that if he received anything that hinted of disciplinary action or threatened present or future disciplinary action which preceded more than one retirement in the police department in the past few years or perhaps even the past few weeks. And if he did, how does that compare with any similar treatment to be received by the two larger players in the incident, Phillips and DeLaRosa? With Phillips of course being less culpable than DeLaRosa given the professional relationship between their respective ranks in the chain of command.

If they have been fingered as the principle parties in the attempts to help Leach avoid accountability for his criminal actions in his DUI incident, Phillips and DeLaRosa could be facing different scenarios. Phillips and Orta had lawyered up not long after the incident hit the media and part of the reason for doing that is to create an exit strategy for yourself down the line if you are found culpable of misconduct or policy violations and are facing discipline particularly that which can affect your retirement income. If for example, either or both Phillips and DeLaRosa were demoted for disciplinary reasons, would they try to counter that discipline by trying to retire? Would they be given that option?

And if either or both of them were demoted, that provides an interesting contrast between them and the chief that both appeared to be trying to protect. After all, Leach received a medical retirement and no disciplinary loss of rank or termination that would have sharply impacted his pay given that he might have retired at some point soon anyway. Leach commits a DUI and get convicted of it and in addition, might have played a role in the handling of his own traffic stop by initiating a phone call to DeLaRosa who then called Phillips and he gets a retirement while others involved in the latter part of it who he outranked could face demotions and not be given that retirement option. It does show that there's power and privilege closer to the top of the chain of command (which remember according to the chief's job description is Hudson) and if you want to avoid meaningful discipline, then you should be a department head. Because Leach is the person who committed the initial criminal conduct which led to a cover up that he might have ordered and he made off with the best deal for an exit strategy.

Rumor is that Phillips is trying to broker a retirement through an attorney but so far it's not been successful, at least not nearly as much so as Leach was considering he was the one who was ultimately convicted of the criminal violation. DeLaRosa had allegedly said that if the city was interested in having him leave, he wouldn't go easily. Both stand to potentially lose their current ranks and that earning power while close or past retirement age and it would make sense for either one of them or both to take strategic moves to prevent this from happening. Because Phillips could be demoted to sergeant, bringing his nearly two year stint as a lieutenant to an end. DeLaRosa holds the assistant chief position which is an unclassified title and in reality, he's classified as a captain. Meaning that he is "at will" at the higher rank and could be demoted even if it's not a disciplinary action, but merely a change in who's serving as chief.

That means that technically he could be demoted to the level of lieutenant but if he does face demotion from Hudson's office, it remains to be seen what his new rank will be or whether he has hired counsel to help him to offset such an action, thus bringing his over 30 year career with the police department to a close. But there's some interesting history to remember that could have resulted in a different outcome for the current acting chief.

That is, what could have happened if the first contract that he had allegedly signed to become the department's assistant chief were still in affect (instead of being nullified and essentially vanishing along with that of former deputy chief, Pete Esquivel's from the public record). Under that "at will" contract, he could have been terminated by Hudson without listed cause.

It remains to be seen what will happen in the days and weeks and even months ahead including when the new chief whoever he or she might be is hired by Hudson and inquiring minds will find out whether it's a chief with some autonomy or a puppet. And a lot of what happens rests on Hudson's bosses on the dais meaning the city council and the mayor and how it all goes down in the remaining months of 2010 could play heavily into the four council elections taking place next year. But the department's morale has suffered greatly because of the actions that have taken place in the department's upper echelon and in City Hall including the general lack of leadership there. Not the least of which was through the fact that upper members of management operated under a code of silence while many city residents called for the terminations of the patrol officers and Orta. But also too, through actions taken by elements of City Hall to build a department from the top-down that had a shaky foundation which is currently crumbling, including through the retirements of most of its top leadership.

And the community's trust in its law enforcement agency which had built itself back up slowly in the last decade has been sorely tested, necessitating even more effort to restore it. Most people don't even know who's in charge of the department given that DeLaRosa became a lot less visible after the release of his city-issued cell phone records which was followed by the abrupt retirement of Deputy Chief Pete Esquivel after the department allegedly opened up internal investigations on him after he considered filing for the chief's position. Not surprising in a department which was built essentially by people rising to the top through being out to get everyone else and then having that ability to do just that serve as their defining skills once they reach the top. Don't be surprised if people double cross each other, even stab each other in the back to rise to the top of the chain of command and then because they got there through that behavior rather than through the development of management and leadership skills, that you see the former type of behavior dominate the management environment. The ability to undermine your peers or superiors dominating over the ability to lead and manage the department.

That unfortunate dynamic came to the police department courtesy of City Hall including the city management office. Until it changes, the department's employees won't have a trustworthy management team and the city residents will be hard pressed to have a healthy and functioning department. But who has the leadership ability and autonomy to make the necessary changes to the dynamic that City Hall itself created?

The new police chief? Sorry, but that doesn't seem all that likely, not until the chief is hired who can accomplish the reforms that are needed at that level and who can actually carry that out rather than be the city management's puppet. There's been no evidence so far whatsoever despite the harsh lesson that's been taught through the past several months which stem from a very problematic five year period that this has happened. In fact, the hiring process so far just suggests the opposite, that Hudson's looking for his next puppet not an independent police chief.

Extremely disappointing but the people who could change that are not engaging themselves in much of what their responsibilities are though maybe that will change next year when some of them are up for election. The public needs to be more engaged too, to push for a more independent police chief but except for the Eastside Think Tank, no one else has yet stepped to the plate, which is just seen as too politically risky for some but is really necessary for the future of the police department and this city. The stakes are very serious ones but the leadership is still sticking to what's safe for it politically.

Which means that even with a newly anointed police chief with a blank slate, there's risk of repeating the history that led the city and department to this point.

A Familiar Face Returning?

The city is still in the process of selecting its next police chief after having received 60 applications thorough its recruitment firm of choice and City Manager Brad Hudson told the press that the list would be narrowed down to 10 finalists who would then be scrutinized more carefully and then interviewed by a panel consisting of individuals from the business and community sectors as well as representatives from the two police unions representing sworn employees inside the police department. Also, it’s heavily rumored that two elected officials including Councilman Steve Adams and Rusty Bailey might be sitting on the panel as well which if true, would be inappropriate given that this would improperly weigh favoritism in the panel process towards those who are the direct employers of Hudson, who will ultimately make the hiring decision. If Hudson had to weigh the insights or even votes taken by his interview panels, would he really place those of community or business leaders or even city employees as highly as those of his own employers? Could he, considering that if he went against their wishes, he could find himself taken to the proverbial wood shed and reprimanded. So if council members are included on this panel, then color it the ultimate puppet panel, especially considering that it's highly unlikely that at least community leaders will be able to choose their questions to ask candidates if past history of such panels is any indication.

If Adams is finagling his way into the chief hiring process, it would hardly be surprising given his history of ahem, involvement in the Riverside Police Department. I mean this is the guy who allegedly had the power on at least two occasions of yaying and naying the final selection for the promotional position of captain despite his clear knowledge that his involvement violated the city charter and according to him, state law as well. Leach himself said in court records that Adams and former councilman (and housemate) Frank Schiavone were constantly involved with the department. That probably is and was true and it's also probably true that the department and city are more clearly experiencing the fallout of such involvement, certainly in the past few months. Schiavone is most likely awaiting to see what happens with the Bradley Estates scandal (where Schiavone became the first developer to have his legal fees paid for by the city, imagine that) which is now being reviewed by Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco who himself might find it a political hot potato if it turns out that he knew about it that unseemly situation longer than most people think.

Having elected officials serve on the panel would just makes that process seem more like a puppet show than it does already considering that in most of the city’s hiring processes involving the use of interview panels including community members, the panelists are fed questions to ask candidates ahead of time rather than allowed to come up with their own questions.
If people are picked to serve on a panel and then are provided with questions to ask candidates, then why even have panelists serving representing community organizations in the first place? If the city management and city government are truly interested in having community members participate in the process, then they would allow panelists to ask their own questions. News to city management and its bosses, if you truly value the opinions of city residents (and that's actually quite useful for different reasons) then trust them enough to know how to ask appropriate questions from the perspective they've been selected to represent on this panel.

As you know, competing for the experience of being interviewed by the panel as a finalist are 60 candidates which was better than the last time a chief was hired by the city.

Rumored candidates have included individuals in different agencies including the CHP and the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, including Undersheriff Valerie Hill who retires in June from the department. So far even after being asked, City Hall hasn't given any statistics of a racial/ethnic/gender breakdown of the candidates before it begins the winnowing down process.

The most intriguing candidate who may have submitted an application is former assistant police chief, Mike Smith who retired several years ago and now works at the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office in charge of investigations. He allegedly was approached to apply for the top spot by some of the labor leadership, the same one he applied for and lost to Leach 10 years ago. He was the last assistant chief until DeLaRosa’s promotion in 2007 to the same position, deference to him serving as acting chief during two stints in 2000 while the city sought first an interim and then a permanent chief. But since then, he's been working for that other inland county and has a pretty good gig there, so it remains to be seen if he would be willing to give that job up to return to what's become a real quagmire at the police department and the power dynamic at City Hall.

And there lies the problem that's hanging over the hiring process. What kind of candidate would want to earn even a healthy paycheck to lead an agency which has some serious issues including at its top echelon and be micromanaged not just by the city manager's office but perhaps an elected official or two? Granted the paycheck might get even healthier the more power that a chief surrenders to Hudson's office as appears to have been the case involving Leach but does the city really at this time need candidates and ultimately a chief who will just get paid to be a puppet or rubber stamp for any part of City Hall?

The new chief will be in charge of any future promotions which will need to be done at some point to replenish some severe staffing shortages not to mention hiring to replenish some other long-standing deficits. But will it be business as usual, with the chief perhaps coming up with candidates particularly in management and then if they rubbed an elected official the wrong way, they'll have to take a drive out of the city (where they won't run into anyone they know) to make things right with that official before any promotion goes through? How many candidates will be told that they were promoted and then later told, no we're playing the ultimate joke on you and it's going to someone else who's got more political chips to barter with than you do.

And it's interesting that the candidates promoted through this process which now extends into the lieutenant and sergeant levels are always falling by the wayside one by one with potentially more to follow. Which isn't surprising because having an elected official approve or veto promotions is a ludicrous not to mention illegal system and while people like Mayor Ron Loveridge called that and other allegations of micromanagement of the police department by City Hall, "fiction", the city was finalizing a settlement involving the lawsuit which raised these allegations.

Settlement talks in the lawsuit filed by a Riverside Police Department lieutenant have stalled with Tim Bacon's attorney asking for more time for both sides to hammer out the language in the settlement.

Another councilman, another criminal trial, as this seems to be all too common occurrence in the Inland Empire.

This time, it's some disgraced official from Grand Terrace. Next time?

A mistrial in the trial of a former law enforcement officer charged with drowning his wife.

The Riverside County board of supervisors say to departments, Whoa on your budgets.

The Press Enterprise Editorial Board endorses incumbent Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff.

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