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

by Mary Shelton Wednesday, May. 23, 2001 at 9:58 PM

Disatisfied, with the police department's decision to assign an officer to investigate himself, I decided to file a second complaint against several officers from the internal affairs division, and in management. But was I to find the justice with the newly formed police commission that had been lacking in the department?

errorThe Community Police Review Commission, was created by an ordinance passed by the City Council in March 2000, after months of agitation by the community for an improved form of civilian oversight over the police department. Although the ad hoc committee created by the Council had narrowly approved a fairly strong model of review board, modeled after Berkeleys, several city council members pushed for consideration of several weaker models, even though these council members had never received notification of their existence. People speculated about whether the states Brown Act had been violated, but most sat back helplessly as the council members sat in their chairs flipping through papers and looking disinterested before trying to undo six months of work performed by its own ad-hoc committee, by pushing the two weaker models into consideration for approval. After all, more than one of them had accumalated campaign money from the police officers association and its members into their coffers. Residents were frustrated that they could show up enmasse to speak in favor of a strong form of civilian review while knowing that the real decisions were likely being made behind closed doors. Police Association president, Jay Theuer had appeared, casually dressed one morning, to meet with Loveridge, and council members Maureen Kane and Laura Pearson. Interesting development, considering he had sharply criticized Loveridge during his annual state of the city address, less than a week earlier.

The furor had erupted during the Address, when Loveridge, in a moment of bravado that was about a year late, criticized the conduct of the Police Officers Assocaton headed by Theuer, including the decision of the officers to shave their heads in protest of the firings of the four officers, the previous year. The officers who had attended the Address remained seated during the rousing standing ovation that followed his speech.

Theuer wrote in a Feb. 1, 2000 letter to the assocation:

The new administration of the RPOA has a number of issues confronting us. One of the issues has taken care of itself with Jerry Carroll leaving. We now have a chance to get some consistent and ethical leadership into the Department. We have a tarnished image with some of the power brokers in the city and we have been maligned and highly criticized. However, we are expected to take a leadership role in getting the department and the city back on track.
Our task has been made even more difficult by a misinformed and irresponsible mayor who has joined the feeding frenzy. In his attempt to gain power and authority, he has insulted every man and woman who works for the Riverside Police Department. The city council has wisely kept the mayoral position as a figurehead and the mayor's most recent conduct is an excellent example of why it should remain that way. Still, we are asked by the city leadership to disregard his rantings and move forward. As distasteful as it may be, we all must realize that we are the responsible and mature people who need to initiate the changes needed and move forward.

However as was typical in the world of political intrigue, less than a week later, the two beleagured men were holding private meetings, apparently patching up their differences. Apparently, the axe between them, buried or forgotten, when it came to dealing with the creation of a new police commission, which the Association did not want, but that they could not prevent in some form or another.

Not surprisingly, a few weeks later, the Council voted 5-2 in approval of a weird hybrid, consisting of traits from the two weaker models, and the review board was born, for better or worse. Six months later, after a somewhat pro-longed and controversial selection process, the nine commissioners were sworn in, by the city clerk. Six of these individuals, as well as the newly hired executive director, came from strong law enforcement backgrounds, and the other three had served on other city boards and commissions, ranging from the Human Relations Commission to the Planning Commission.

Community members were upset that law enforcement was so strongly represented on a commission enacted to deal with complaints involving police misconduct. They believed in the adage, once an officer, always an officer and wondered whether this commission would treat complainants fairly. Commissioner member, and retired police chief, Bill Howe believed that these people were wrong in their belief that law enforcement officers could not put down their biases, and judge a complaints allegations fairly. He and the other former brass on the commission would soon be put their biases to the test, whether it pleased them or not.

The executive director who presided over the Commission, at a salary of approximately $85,000 a year (more than half of the alotted budget for the commission) was hired by the city, after a nation-wide search. Don Williams, a former sergeant from the Houston Police Department filled the position, and relocated, from the San Diego area where he had served on a similar commission, serving the county's law enforcement agency.

The timeliness of this new commission was not lost on me. After some thought, I decided to take my complaint to the next available level, through this new police commission. I prepared to file complaints against Audrey Wilson, Robert Meier and Michael Smith for poor service and improper procedures. And an additional complaint against Meier for his discourtesousness during the conversation I had with him, where he delivered the ultimatum: Orrantia or nobody. I listed Ron Orrantia on the complaint as well, but found myself reluctant to include him, because his role in the episode was still a mystery. Did he want to investigate himself, or was he forced to follow a questionable order, given by his supervisor, Wilson? Even when asked to do something wrong, an officer can get into worse trouble for refusing to obey this order, than for going along with a bad act. Still, I included him because I believed that his actions were at least questionable, and investigating them were necessary, to get to the bottom of what had happened during this non-Internal Affairs investigation.

Russ Leach had taken over the reins as chief of the police department, and had begun to change the structure of the management, promising to keep a tight rein on those who immediately surrounded him. Perhaps, previous chiefs would have referred to it, as keeping your friends close, and your enemies closer, as the leadership of this police department had proven to be of short duration for the previous three chiefs in power. Leach had not stepped into a new position, but an old mine field. Like he had in El Paso, he hooked up with community organizations, at least those he and other city officials felt comfortable referring to as community organizations. The vast majority of Riversides populace did not know many of these bodies existed. Some of his actions like community outreach, people applauded, others, they questioned.

The promotion of Guy Toussaint, to sergeant after the new year, raised more than a few eyebrows, in the community. This is a good officer and he'll be even more outstanding as a sergeant," Leach had said about Toussaint, the officer who had held Gallegos under a wristlock, for 20 minutes while issuing him a traffic citation on Retaliatory Monday, and then told him to have a nice day. Not to mention that his actions regarding a fatal incident in 1994, had been partially responsible for a $1.1 million jury-designated payout to the family of the victim.
Toussaints promotion was a difficult pill for many people to swallow, given his reputation since that killing, including the reality that some of those he had worked with in the past, had called him scary, without any further explanation.

Both Wilson and Smith were also included in the flurry of promotions. Wilson was promoted from captain, to deputy chief, and former deputy chief Smith was promoted to a newly created position, assistant chief. Otherwise, the promotions showed the tightrope that Leach was walking upon, in terms of promoting several men of color who had waited years to advance, through the glass ceiling. Yet, on the other hand, promoting several of the suing sergeants, Mark Boyer and John Carpenter. A year earlier, they and eight others had accused then chief Jerry Carroll of reverse discrimination when he chose to promote two men of color and a white woman to lieutenant, a decision which ultimately ended his career when the ten white men were used as pawns during an attempted coup-dtat by members of upper management. According to their attorney Susan Silver, the city in settlement talks had promised to promote Boyer and offer a cash settlement to Carpenter. Now, a year later, they were promoted, along with African-American officer Darryl Hurt. In 1995, Hurt and officers, Alex Tortes and Ron Orrantia, filed complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging minorities were underrepresented in management positions. It does not seem likely that any captain ever went over to Human Resources to lobby on their behalf, as they had for the white sergeants.

In the midst of this upheaval, that had hit a city, and its police department, with a consent decree of some sort on the horizon, I filed my police complaint with the commission, wondering what would happen next. Would it be an encore performance of the non-investigation performed by the cast of characters from the department, or would it instead be an avenue for justice and due process? I was to find out, which path I was heading down, soon enough

(to be continued)