Journey through the Riverside Police Department Internal Affairs: The coverup

by Mary Shelton Tuesday, May. 15, 2001 at 10:03 AM

After filing the complaint with Internal Affairs, I waited months for a response. What I finally got, was a phone call from one of my witnesses, that one of the involved officers was trying to contact him, with questions. And when I contacted the department with my concerns about this officer's interference in the investigation, I received the most shocking words so far, that he had been assigned by the field captain to investigate the complaint.

errorThe turmoil of 1999 merged into the more tranquil days of the new millennium, as the weekly demonstrations came to a halt, and activists returned to their daily lives that had been put on hold, when they had picked up the mantle for justice, and marched for over a year. A feeling of quiet resignation had settled over the city, under siege since the shooting that was heard around the world. Federal and state investigations of the police department continued, with no word of how much longer there was to wait, until the results were announced to an increasingly apathetic populace.

The negative peace, was broken in mid -January by the announcement that nine white male sergeants from the police department had been secretly negotiating with the city, to receive promotions they felt had been denied them, and given instead to two men of color and a white woman. Led by the officer associations president, Jay Theuer, the contingent of angry white men filed grievances with the city citing reverse discrimination. In reponse, city officials had considered creating new lieutenant positions for three of the white men, and to pay off the remainder, to avoid a court battle. Chief Jerry Carroll had gotten wind of the negotiations when City Manager John Holmes was undergoing his semiannual performance evaluation by the City Council, and was furious, at how his authority as chief, was being thwarted, by the citys attempt to avoid the embarrassment of such a law suit, during a time when it was under a microscope. And that his power to promote officers of his choice, was being called into question, by both the city and the officers closest to him, in rank.

After Carroll had promoted Ron Orrantia, a Hispanic officer, Alex Tortes, an American Indian and Meredyth Meredith, a white woman to fill lieutenant positions, two captains, Richard Dana and Mike Blakely had gone to the head of Human Resources, Judith Griffith, to complain that the process was discriminatory. Not entirely incorrect, as historically the promotion procedure had proved far more beneficial to white men, than to white women or people of color. Four captains, all white men, had submitted a list of candidates to the chief that did not include any people of color at the top. One captain had also reported that Carroll had said in a meeting that he felt he had to promote one individual, because he was black, even though that person actually was Indian. Many other people felt that since these officers especially Tortes were far more experienced than any of the white candidates, they deserved to be promoted. At months end, the city had decided to not settle with the officers, and Chief Jerry Carroll tendered his retirement. The fourth chief of police to be ousted by his subjects in less than 10 years for disobedience. His name had never even been painted on the glass door of the departments main headquarters, and then he was gone. And the city once again launched a search nationwide for a replacement.

As the department recoiled from the promotion scandal, another embarrassing revelation emerged. The police officers associations vice-president, Bill Rhetts had pursued a registered sex offender into a dog house, and even though the man was unarmed, blew his leg off. An incident that might not have gathered much attention, except for the fact that Rhetts was already under internal investigation for several other incidents. The first involved a racial joke he had told some less experienced officers, about the death of Tyisha Miller. His exact words, were in L.A. they treat you like a King. In Riverside, its Miller time. At the time that revelation broke through the ennui of the local newspaper, he was representing the Association on a committee researching improved models of civilian oversight that had been set up in response to Millers death. After being confronted by community activists at a meeting, he quietly resigned. The investigation into that joke, lasted at least nine months, with no resolution in sight. Yes, he had made the comment, but the investigators were grappling with the task of deciding exactly what he meant by it.

The bigger controversy surrounding Rhetts, an ex-LAPD officer who had worked in some of its toughest divisions and had once been partnered with Rafael Perezs partner in crime, David Mack, was his controversial web site( Homophobic in content, it contained essays that advocated using force to exert Gods wrath against sinners, and non-Christians. He scribed letters praising the hiring of Tyisha Miller shooter, Paul Bugar, by San Bernardino Sheriff, Gary Penrod, and criticizing the diversity training program for law enforcement officers at the Simon Weisenthal museum in Los Angeles. This letter, had been a topic of discussion on radio stations such as KPFK, much to the departments chagrin. Community members were pressuring then Interim Chief, Robert Luman to do something about Rhetts, who already had at least three officer-involved shootings underneath his belt, and was known for embracing people he had shot, in forgiveness. The last straw occurred when was revealed that Internal Affairs Detective Skip Showwaters essay on the shooting of an officer was posted on Rhetts sight, Luman finally decided to view the web site, and later assured community activists that Rhetts somehow would be let go, without getting into specifics, as required by state law.

While all this turmoil shook the department to its foundation, District Attorney Grover Trask announced that 20 protesters involved with the shutdown of the 91 freeway would be indicted for assorted misdemeanors. The law enforcement agency that had jurisdiction in this matter, the California Highway Patrol, had foisted off the criminal investigation to the Riverside Police Departments Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Division which had pushed for prosecution of these activists. So the year for these chosen individuals that was to be spent inside courtrooms was about to begin. Tyisha Millers killers would never see the inside of a courtroom.

I tried to encourage other activists to file complaints with Internal Affairs in relation to Retaliatory Monday, but they demurred, saying that they did not want to waste time with an agency that would investigate itself, and justify what happened on Retaliatory Monday. I agreed that dealing with Internal Affairs most likely was a waste of time, but said that whatever the department decided, I wanted it on paper. If they chose to justify the force used at that rally, and the selection of white male activists to be ticketed, I wanted it in writing. If the department tried to sell me the song and dance that yes, the SWAT team does routinely use force to issue traffic citations to the public, I wanted it in writing.

And so after waiting weeks, to get photographs enlarged and my statement in order, I filed it with the police department, with the stipulation that Detective Showwater, not be assigned to investigate it. Members of the Gay and Lesbian community had informed me that Showwater shared the homophobic viewpoints of his friend, Rhetts, and they had unpleasant experiences with him while trying to enfranchise gays in the ultra-conservative nest of Redlands, the city which housed a large number of police officers, attracted by its white middle-class neighborhoods.

Internal Affairs was headed by Lt. Robert Meier, though all the officers called him Bobby. Or at least every officer, I ever encountered. A few months previously, he had led a SWAT team into City Hall, to apprehend Joseph Neal, a black former city employee who had shot the mayor and several city council members, and taken them hostage. Meier had headed Internal Affairs for three years, longer than the usual stint.

I received a phone call from his office, several weeks after submitting my complaint, and walked to the station. He spoke to me, in the hallway, despite the presense of two detectives who had spent months following the Tyisha Miller protesters, with camcorders. The topic of conversation had little to do with my complaint, but instead dealt with the incident involving an officers apparent refusal to take a police report regarding the racist fliers. He wanted a copy of the flier, obviously thinking I would not be able to produce a copy. I called his bluff, and produced a copy, and pictures of the fliers posted on several traffic poles, and dropped it off the next day. Before I left, he assured me that as soon as one of his sergeants closed out a case, he would handle mine. When I walked out, I heard a masculine voice boisterously shout, Yo, Bobby, how ya doin So much for the separation of Internal Affairs from the rest of the department, I thought.

Weeks went by, and I become more preoccupied with getting arraigned and making court appearances, than with a complaint I figured would never be fairly investigated anyway. Hiring and then losing an attorney, to an untimely suspension by the state bar, and dealing with arrogant baby prosecutors kept me busy, as did the responsibilities of my life. Of all the white activists ticketed by the SWAT team, only one paid his ticket. The rest of the cases, were dropped, though activist Larry Halstead had his temporarily bumped up to a misdemeanor, that trailed his freeway case.

May became June, and June, July. No word from the police department even though they are suppose to dispose of cases within 60 days. Well, more days than that had come and gone, and my witnesses still had not been contacted, for interviews by the department. I did receive the usual form letter sent out to discourage people from filing complaints by telling them that the alleged misconduct was all in their head, and that the vast majority of contacts between officers and civilians are positive. I tossed it in the trash, where it belonged.

On July 27, all that changed. Gallegoes, the artist who had been the target of the SWAT team that day, called me and said that Lt. Orrantia had phoned him, asking to talk with him. Gallegoes refused to return his call, remembering the day, that four officers had held him, while he received a citation, and that Orrantia had been standing nearby, watching. He had been incensed when he read articles about the crackdown in the newspaper, and Orrantia had defended the use of force, as necessary for his safety. As I hung up, I asked myself, what the hell is an officer on my complaint trying to do by contacting my witnesses? Is he trying to intimidate them, to persuade them not to give their statements? I called the police department, and left a message for Meier, even though I knew that by 10am in the morning, every lieutenant and captain had already left for lunch, and it would never be returned.

Gallegos called me again several days, and told me that Orrantia had contacted his mother at 10:30 one night and asked questions about her son. A half hour later, a squad car parked in front of her house, and Detective Steve Lee knocked on her door. Gallegos mother answered, and Lee asked to speak to Gallegos, on behalf of Orrantia. The woman was scared, and told the officer, she had always taught her son not to run away from police and to do what they said. Lee said, that Gallegos was not in trouble, but he needed to talk with him. Lee left, and got back into his squad car with another officer, and they remained parked in front of the house, for about 20 minutes, before leaving.

I contacted Meier again, and also acting Police Chief Michael Smith, a 30 year veteren of the department who had desperately sought the chief spot, but so far it had eluded him. He had applied for the job, during the citys national search, and had reached the final three. I asked them, why my witness was being contacted by Orrantia, one of the officers whom the complaint was filed against. I said, that someone needed to tell him to back off.

Two days later, I received my answer in the form of a phone message left by the departments field captain, Audrey Wilson, but her matter-of-fact words shocked me, as she informed me that the complaint had been referred to her office by Meier, and she had made the decision to assign Orrantia to investigate it.