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Journey through Riverside Police Department's Internal Affairs: the reforms

by Mary Shelton Thursday, May. 31, 2001 at 4:02 PM

As I moved from the labyrinth of Internal Affairs, to the Police Commission, the department entered into its legal agreement with State Attorney General Bill Lockyer, to reform or else. Any encouragement I felt at that development was dampened by the conduct of over 200 officers at an award ceremony, towards a former police sergeant named Gregory Preece...

errorLt. Robert Meier, and eight other individuals who had responded to a shooting, and hostage situation in City Hall, in 1998, received the Medal of Valor at a ceremony. However, they were quickly upstaged by award recipient Gregory Preece, the former sergeant who had presided over the shooting of Tyisha Miller. The same man, who had used racist language after the shooting had also apparently been involved in incident involving three officers, who had beaten a Latino man, and had thrown him in Lake Evans. The man had contacted the supervising sergeant, allegedly Preece, who had failed to alert his superiors, about the incident. Preece received more applause and cheers than any other award recipient that day. A sad moment, not lost on activists, who realized that little had really changed since the tragic shooting of Tyisha Miller over two years previously. A department that was moving in a direction of greater racial inclusion and tolerance could not applaud a man, who had used racial slurs during the tragic incident, at the expense of a dead woman and her family. As he walked by the front row, where members of the city government applauded him, I remembered that he had told the four Miller shooters to stop their hi-fiving and laughter, because the animals were coming by the busloads, a reference to Millers grieving family members who had begun to congregate at the scene, in shock. As Chief Russ Leach slapped him on the back, and posed for a picture with the fired officer, I recalled reading how Preece had said to another officer, if it will help, tell them we shot her with black bullets. The former officer who had reported these comments to Internal Affairs, had been retired, and essentially exiled by the department, while the man who used racist language was being celebrated. It was like being at a Klan meeting, where someone was receiving a plaque for a lynching, and cast a pallor on the ceremony. The nearly all-white sea of faces applauding a man who had used racial slurs made it clear that the culture which had this department in a stranglehold, was still alive and unchanged. And if the arbitrators ruled in Preeces favor, there could very well be a homecoming for him soon, if he was given his job back.

Preece had fallen out of the spotlight, two years after the shooting. Three of the other officers, Michael Alagna, Daniel Hotard and Wayne Stewart came to watch their beloved supervisor get his awards. I saw several of them in the crowd, getting slaps on the backs from their former colleagues but could not believe it was them. Like Preece, Stewart and Alagna were in the never-ending process of arbitration to try to get their jobs back, and it was expected that in some capacity, they would be brought back into the fold, if only to get back pay, and other financial compensation. Most likely, as soon as the shadow cast over them, courtesy of the U.S. Attorneys office had been lifted forever, which was only a matter of time. Indictments were unlikely at this point, especially under Attorney General John Ashcroft, who never met a cop he did not like. Preece was keeping himself busy, passing along his skills, to other officers as an instructor at the Ben Clark training center, a job he had held before he was fired for nine violations of policy and procedure for his actions on the early morning hours of Dec. 28, 1998. A job he still held nearly two years later.

I had my first discussion with newly appointed Executive Director, Don Williams about my complaint, before it was filed with the police department. He assured me, that it would be assigned to an officer outside the Internal Affairs division, or else the same allegations on my complaint would play themselves out again, on the same canvas. He agreed that something out of line had happened during the investigation conducted by internal affairs. So far, so good, I thought. I provided five witnesses and listed them on my statement, with contact numbers.

A month later, I got a phone call, from Captain Richard Dana, head of personnel, who had been one of the captains who had objected to the promotional procedure used by ex-Chief Jerry Carroll when he had promoted two men of color and one white woman to fill lieutenant positions, much to the ire of 10 white men who sued, according to news reports. He and I had clashed on numerous issues, usually at meetings. Once, when I was discussing the plight of the homeless at the hands of police officers treating them as NPIs at a meeting, he slammed his fist on the table, and mouthed an expletive. Other times, he would smoke a cigarette and casually talk about the officer who slammed a tree repeatedly, with his baton, and what made him a candidate for the early warning system. He was an enigma, a wealth of experience and knowlege but an officer who had risen through the ranks, during some of the departments most turbulent years. Like other officers, he had several relatives working in the same agency, as officers and dispatchers.

One day, at work, he called me on the phone to ask a question about my complaint, but with officers, it is never only one question. And I decided, I had plenty of questions for him, about what had happened with the previous investigation. He agreed, that something had happened, that was not right, but focused his comments on the fact, that in his mind, Lt. Orrantia should never have taken the position of investigating himself. The situation that might exist between an officer who was promoted, and one of the men who objected to it made me uncomfortable. I tried to sidestep the issue of Orrantias involvement in the investigation. If he was indeed to blame, what of the person who issued him the order to investigate himself? We disagreed over the discourtesiness allegation involving Meier. Dana had listened to the audiotape and his explanation was succinct: Meier was frustrated with me, because I was asking him to do something he did not have the power to do. I asked, was not Meier the head of internal affairs? Dana said, yes. I then said, that was it not one of the powers of the head of Internal Affairs to assign complaints to investigators. Silence, on the other end. Dana probably was not the best person the department could have assigned to investigate a complaint involving an investigation that likely had crossed his path at one time, as Meiers supervisor in the chiefs office. What had happened to the process of the investigation between the desks of Meier and Smith, was unknown. I told him I expected all my witnesses to be interviewed, because I knew full well, that they automatically took the word of a police officer over that of a civilian, but I also knew full well, that would never happen. It was however, a polite conversation, and an enlightening one.

Another month passed by, the city got dragged into signing a legally binding agreement with State Attorney General Bill Lockyer to implement a series of reforms. Lockyer had built a fairly strong case against the department, and apparently had officers willing to testify to the patterns and practices of racism in the department, so the city knuckled under finally, and signed the agreement to avoid a costly, embarrassing ride through the courts. Lockyer had grown more confident, in the year since I had seen him last. In June 1999, an activist had overheard a couple of shaved officers told him to leave, because this was their town, and his word did not mean anything here, when he criticized them for their actions. Now, as the top cop in the state, he had this department where he wanted it, on the pathway towards some form of compliance with reforms, whether they wanted it or not, a position that had become necessary. And except for more pay, and better equipment, too many of these officers definitely did not want any part of it. Sure enough, the members of the RPOA decided that they would use their collective bargaining rights to get more retirement bucks, in exchange for agreeing to videotaped roll call rooms, a toughened up early warning system and an extention of the probation period for sergeants. Sgt. Theur, most recently the leader of the pack of suing sergeants said that this was being done to make the department more attractive to officer candidates looking for an agency to call home. Other people shook their heads, thinking that Theuer and his bunch had created too much of a hostile working environment for everyone but straight white men, especially through the filing of the reverse discrimination suits, that led to the ouster of a chief, something people of color and white women might not quickily forget. Not to mention, that the officers, had created such an environment of racial, sexual and homophobic remarks and jokes during roll call sessions, that they were to be monitored by videocameras from that point on. Obviously, teaching these officers through the diversity and cultural sensitivity program had not shamed them out of this behavior, so it was left to the unfortunately, necessary big brother tactics to straighten them outat least in the roll call room.

It was painful, learning of how officers considered people who were poor, homeless or non-white to be NPIs. I had never heard that term before, but found it sickening. It was difficult listening to a group of detectives at a local outdoor eating spot, score women who walked by, on their desirability, like they had no feelings at all. as I walked by. How could an officer call a woman, a sexual term at noon, then go out and take a rape report at 1 p.m.? Why do they reinact shootings outside local gas stations, complete with sound effects and laughter, like they are discussing a video game, and not human life? Why do some of them involve themselves in trying to disenfranchise gays and lesbians? How do they draw the line between making racial slurs, and then shooting a black girl, in a car? And why did those officers who were supposed to be the good ones, even those who comprised the racial, gender groups that were the target of the slurs, not do anything? These questions filled my mind, more than they had before, because I was realizing that the reforms created by the Mayors Use of Force Panel, and the Stipulated agreement with the Attorney General, were not making a dent on the insidious culture. And it was this culture that had led to Millers death, as it had Hector Islass, Derek Haywards and others, as much as what was lacking in experience, training and supervision.

Even when an officer was friendly or helpful to me, I would never look at that behavior in the same light, ever again. Was it because he was a good person? Or was it because I was white? Female? Or relatively neat in appearance? I had experienced the walking while protesting phenomenon since I got active in this movement, but still was beneath the radar of most of the officers, who looked at me as a young white woman, and often not any further than that.

Williams contacted me telling me that my complaint had come back from Dana, and the department but that he had questions still to ask me. He had a genial style, actually for an ex-police officer, and was surprisingly easy to talk to, but I had little trust left for police officers, and many questions. He did not tell me what the findings were, involving the officers but that he had planned to make policy recommendations regarding the way internal affairs did business, at a future meeting.
Still, I would have to sit and wait for someone to tell me what would happen next, and as usual, that frustrated me...

(to be continued)
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