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The Killing Fields revisited: The Riverside police department post consent-decree

by Mary Shelton Saturday, Feb. 01, 2003 at 12:17 AM

Two years after it entered into a consent decree with the state, the Riverside Police Department has had an increase in fatal officer-involved shootings as its union desperately tries to rewrite the history the agency lived before the shooting of Tyisha Miller

Anastacio Munoz.

Michael Vetter.

Robert McComb.

Three months, three fatal shootings, and it seems the Riverside Police Department is back from an exile imposed upon them by a stipulated agreement with the State Attorney General’s office in 2001.

As the stipulated agreement approaches its second anniversary this March, concerns have been raised that the reforms imposed by Bill Lockyer’s office have done little to change the attitudes and cultural influences which ultimately led to the consent decree involving the beleaguered department. That even as the infrastructure of the department has changed on paper, little has changed in the culture which permeates the agency where the command staff is still primarily white and male. And now, it appears that the department, especially its union seems determined to restore itself to its pre-consent decree glory. The increase of officer-involved shootings in recent months is only the tip of the iceburg.

Before the signing of the consent decree between the city of Riverside and Lockyer, the Riverside Police Department averaged 20 shootings per 1000 officers.

After a lull of three years, the department now averages nine shootings per 1000 officers. The national average which includes large agencies as well as medium agencies like Riverside’s department, is seven.

For several years, the police department has restrained itself on fatally shooting civilians, even as it retrained its officers on less-than lethal techniques as mandated by the decree. Only one fatal shooting, that involving a Laotian-American man, occurred between Dec. 28, 1998 and November 13, 2002. Rather remarkable for an agency which previously averaged at least four or more annually for over 30 years.

On Nov. 13, 2002, the dam broke, with the fatal shooting of Munoz, who was shot inside his vehicle by two officers, one who hit him on the side of his head. He had been involved in a pursuit for alleged drunk driving, and his blood alcohol was listed as 0.20. One officer who shot him had been a close friend of another Riverside Police Department who was fatally injured in 1996 when she was struck by a car on a highway driven by a woman who was legally intoxicated.

Vetter was the second to die, on Dec. 31, when his mother called 911 after he had allegedly assaulted her. She later said when she called the police that she thought her son would be handcuffed and arrested. She never expected to hear several hours after the incident that police had killed him. According to police accounts from four officers involved in the incident, Vetter was shot from two feet in the back of the head after he had charged another officer with two knives, one held against the officer, the other to a throat of a four-year-old child he had grabbed. However, while relating another account of the incident, a police representative said that Vetter had stopped advancing, one officer was trying to grab the knife out of his hand, when suddenly another officer fired the fatal shot which pierced the back of Vetter’s skull.

The officer involved in the shooting was a lateral hire from the New York Police Department who had been hired by the department last April. Of the three other officers, one was a Medal of Valor recipient in 2000, another had been sued at least five times for assault and battery, and was exonerated by a Riverside County civil jury for an incident involving assault and battery against two Mexican-Americans. In 1999, a man filed a complaint against him for assault and battery after he had been stopped on an alleged felony domestic violence warrant.

One of the officers had brought a less-than lethal rifle into the bedroom, but dropped it because if he used it within the short distance between him and Vetter, it would have become a lethal weapon.

Less than one month later, McComb was shot and killed by a training officer and his charge in the early morning hours of Jan. 27, during a foot pursuit near Riverside’s Auto Center. Police alleged that during the pursuit, he turned and pointed a handgun at them so both shot multiple rounds into his upper and lower torso. A handgun was allegedly recovered in front of a squad car and bloody clothes were found quite a distance away.

Ironically, later that same day, a jury convicted Steve Woodruff of first degree murder with special circumstances of a Riverside Police Department officer and attempted murder of another officer after one hour of deliberation after a trial which had began Nov. 4, nine days before the first shooting involving Munoz.

The Riverside Community Police Review Commission has intitiated independent investigations into all three shootings as is mandated by the ordinance that created this body after the fatal shooting of Tyisha Miller in 1998. In response, the Riverside Police Officers Association has waged a campaign to severely weaken or eliminate the Commission and its ability to investigate independently. As more officer- involved shootings have occurred, threats of law suits by the RPOA are waged against the commission.

Last November, the RPOA’s lawyer threatened the commission with a law suit if it was allowed to have access to officers’ personnel files and the commission was forced to cancel several case review meetings in response as it awaited legal advice from the city attorney. If there are more officer-involved shootings involving Riverside’s police department, community members expect this campaign against the commission to escalate.

Community members are more concerned about other disturbing developments involving the police department as well. Recently, the city council offered two former police officers, Michael Alagna and Wayne Stewart, ,000 a year, tax –free for life, after they were reinstated by an arbitrator. They and former sergeant Gregory Preece had appealed their firings after the controversial shooting of Miller. The city viewed the decision to pay off the officers as a means to close the book on the Miller incident, to provide healing for the city’s residents. However, to many community members particularly African-Americans, it smacked of a bounty payment to two white officers for killing a black woman.

The city council made another decision soon after that poured salt on the wounds of many by settling a reverse racial discrimination filed by five white male sergeants in 1999. The five men had sued to protest a decision made by former chief Jerry Carroll to promote two highly qualified men of color and a white woman to lieutenant, a decision that later led to his retirement when he discovered that city officials were secretly negotiating with the white officers to obtain promotions and financial compensation for them even though they were not as qualified to be promoted as the other officers.

Initially the men alleged that Carroll had said he was pressured by the community to promote a black man to lieutenant, however, the promotions went to a white woman, a Hispanic man and a male American Indian. Several black sergeants were considered but not chosen by Carroll to be promoted at that time. Then, the white officers alleged that the American Indian sergeant was really a black man, which was news to many. Later, they claimed that Carroll had really said that he was pressured to promote minority officers.

Current police chief Russ Leach quickly promoted four of the white sergeants in 2001 and the fifth retired from injuries he suffered when he was shot in 1998. Leach also spoke at several public meetings about his reluctance to discuss the promotional process as well as the department’s racial and gender demographics by rank, because he feared more similiar lawsuits.

This latest settlement promoted one sergeant who had retired last year to lieutenant. Because the other white men had been promoted, they had their promotions retroactively moved back to the date when the two men of color and white woman were promoted. The city gracefully announced that the previous promotions would be allowed to stand, but many people felt it was a slap on the face to three hard-working, qualified officers who had been overlooked for years by the four white male captains who compiled promotion lists to hand to the chief for consideration. Only one councilman, the sole African-American, said that the reverse racism law suit was ridiculous while the majority of the council voted for it.

Concerns have been raised because the department is supposed to be implementing reforms listed in the agreement between the state and the city of Riverside, and on paper, the program is moving forward. And police officers have benefitted from th decree because they have been able to use it as a bargaining chip to ensure themselves numerous salary increases and improvements in benefits especially in terms of retirement. However, the cultural attitudes which brought the city to the brink of disaster in the aftermath of the Miller shooting continue unabated so true progress is limited, as the RPOA remains determined to march backwards instead of foreward.

In the past few months, several key players in the old Riverside Police Department have retired, including the deputy chief and assistant chief. However, it took two months for a replacement to be announced as a deputy chief, who surprise, was another white man who was a captain for less than two years. Although rumors have said that Leach might reach outside to fill the assistant chief position to sidestep several problems which remain in the upper heirarchy, it is likely that the replacement will come from the old guard within.

The most recent developments have many people concerned at what direction the department is going, and whether it's revisiting old, troubled ground, rather than breaking new, and better ground

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