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Tulare PD Termination Overturned

In the field of law enforcement, officers are all too familiar with the phrase, “You lie, you die,” meaning that if they falsify official documents (such as police reports) or are dishonest, their career is dead. As such, the importance of honesty and truthful0ness are instilled in officers from the very beginning.

For one Tulare Police Officer, her integrity was, and still is, her most important trait. Prior to becoming a police officer, she had served in the Marine Corps. She knew how important it was to be sincere and honest, perhaps even to a fault. This officer believed that if you told the truth, you would have nothing to worry about. Quite likely, it was that belief that landed her in Internal Affairs, not once, but twice without an attorney representative, and contributed to her termination as a police officer.

In February 2011, the officer was on routine patrol in the early morning hours in the city of Tulare. She observed a black Infinity fail to make a complete stop at a stop sign. She followed the car down different streets with the intent of affecting a traffic stop. As she caught up to the vehicle and as she turned on her overhead lights, the subject vehicle pulled into the driveway at the residence of a homeowner. The officer approached the vehicle and conducted a routine traffic stop, making contact with the female driver at the driver’s side window. She noted no other passengers in the car or nothing unusual. She wrote down the female’s name in her notebook, asked her where she was headed, and gave her a warning.  While she was talking to the driver of the vehicle, the homeowner exited his residence and spoke to the officer. He told her that he did not recognize the driver of the vehicle or the car, and asked if everything was okay. The officer said it was, and for him to go back into his residence.

As the officer was completing her traffic stop, she heard over the radio that other officers were being dispatched to a nearby gas station for a robbery call. The officer finished up and left the residence en route to the gas station. Once at the gas station, she heard over the radio that the homeowner of residence she had just been at for the traffic stop had called in to report someone in his backyard. Having just been there, the officer left the gas station and returned, this time with other officers, to the residence.

Once at the residence, it the cash register till from the gas station robbery was located. The officer didn’t speak to the homeowner again, but one of her partners did. The homeowner informed the officer’s partner that he had told her that someone had run through his backyard when she was on the traffic stop. Hearing this, the officer adamantly informed her partner that he in fact had not told her that.

Troubled by the statement of the homeowner, the officer spoke to her sergeant, who told her to write a report. The officer did so, commemorating her traffic stop, and the statement that she had been told by her partner, including the fact the homeowner had not told her that someone was running through his backyard. The report was accepted and forwarded to the detective’s bureau.

As soon as the assigned detective received the officer’s report, he realized that he had a few more questions for her and that she could possibly assist with his robbery investigation. The officer, as a result, was ordered by her sergeant to be interviewed by the detective. In a 30-45 minute interview a month after the event, the detective questioned the officer about all that she had seen or had heard the night of the traffic stop. He questioned her pertaining to her memory and account of the incident. He asked her why she didn’t see the passengers that fled the vehicle and if she froze up during the incident, implying that she was lying about what had happened. He questioned her recollection and asked her to estimate distances and explain routes of travel. He did not show her maps or photographs to aid in her explanation. After the interview was concluded, the detective reported his findings to the captains and wrote his report, which the officer was never shown.

Based on the officer’s supplemental report which indicated that the homeowner had not told her about anyone in his backyard and the information interpreted by the detective during her interview, the officer was placed on administrative leave and investigated for false and misleading statements. She went to her scheduled interview with a clear conscience, confident she could explain…and without an attorney or representative. During the interview, it became clear to the officer that her statements to the detective were misunderstood by him. She was questioned about his report, which she had never seen or had been able to confirm the accuracy. As a result, the Department sustained the finding of false statements in the report and added a sustained charge of dishonesty during the interview.

The officer’s luck continued to deteriorate. While on administrative leave for the above investigation, she had forgotten to return a department laptop which was in the trunk of her take-home car. When investigators realized she was still in possession of it, they came to her residence to retrieve it. The officer admitted to being in possession of the laptop the entire time she had been on leave (at this point, for roughly a month) and for storing it in her trunk, in violation of department policy. This resulted in her second Internal Affairs interview. Again, believing that the truth would set her free, the officer again went to the interview alone, without representation.

While at the interview for the laptop, the captain questioned the officer about her use of the laptop while on administrative leave. The officer denied using it; indicating she had forgotten it was there, and had her own methods of accessing the internet while at home. The department had the laptop forensically examined by a detective, which showed that she was the last person to log on to the laptop and that there may have been internet activity. As a result, the department sustained the violation pertaining to the storage of the laptop and added a sustained charge of dishonesty for her alleged use of the laptop and access of the internet while on leave.

With two Internal Affairs investigations and a total of four sustained allegations, including two for dishonesty, the officer was given a Notice of Termination. At this point, for her representation at her Skelly hearing she was assigned Partner Kasey Castillo.

Even at first blush, the evidence against the officer was tenuous at best. In her interviews, she was as honest as possible, speaking to matters of which she had personal knowledge. It was clear that she was being held accountable for information investigators believed she should have known (in the robbery case) and for the disbelief of the captain who had interviewed her both times.

Based on the investigation and the incredulous captain’s recommendations, and after what amounted to a ten-minute Skelly hearing where the Chief asked no questions, the officer was terminated.

The hearing in this matter took place over several days and was heard by the City Manager of Tulare. The Department put on both of its cases against the officer, separately. In what became known as “the robbery IA,” the Department called the captain (who conducted both of the Internal Affairs investigations), the homeowner and the driver the officer  had contact with at the traffic stop, the officers at the scene, the officer’s sergeant, the detective who interviewed the officer, the lieutenant in charge of records, and the Chief.  The officer testified in her defense, as did a character witness, her former FTO.

After cross-examination, the following was abundantly clear: the officer  had not heard the homeowner report anyone in his backyard; the female driver of the vehicle the officer stopped was likely the getaway driver for the robbery and was trying to distance herself from the crime, and thus had motivation to lie; the officer  had not, in fact, seen anyone run from the car; the detective who interviewed the officer was confused and misunderstood her statements to him during the interview; the report the officer wrote after speaking to her sergeant contained the information she thought relevant and was without specific direction from her sergeant; and the dispatch recordings offered by the Department showed nothing, contained multiple inaccuracies and were ordered not to be admitted into evidence against the officer. Interestingly enough, when questioned about the accuracy of the dispatch transcripts, the captain under oath, testified that they were true and accurate. However, a month later when the hearing resumed, he testified once more, and was forced to point out the multiple inaccuracies that were present in the Department-offered exhibit against the officer. The testimony of the Chief showed that he had relied heavily on the faulty investigation of the captain in order to make his findings.

As a result of the above, the City Manager found that the Department had failed to meet its burden in proving that that officer had falsified her report or that she had been dishonest.

After the “robbery IA” case was concluded, the Department put on evidence in the case of the “laptop IA.” From the beginning, the officer had always been candid and upfront about the storage of the laptop in the trunk of her car, admitting to the violation and accepting full responsibility. In its case to prove the alleged dishonesty relating to the use of the internet (which was not a violation of Department policy anyway), the Department again called the captain who conducted the interview, the detective that conducted the computer forensic examination, the City’s IT guy and the Chief. For her defense, the officer’s attorney, Kasey Castillo, requested a digital image of the hard drive of the laptop. It was sent to an independent computer forensic specialist who, after an extensive assessment, found that the officer was not lying about not accessing the internet. The Department’s computer detective was unable to disagree with the computer forensics expert, and it was revealed that the officer had, in fact, not used the laptop or accessed the internet, just as she said.

Once again, after reviewing all of the evidence, the City Manager found that the Department had failed to meet its burden that the officer had been dishonest about anything in the “laptop IA.”

The Department attempted to show a pattern of dishonesty and failed. The officer is now back at work, where she belongs. She never lost faith that truth would prevail and her reputation for high integrity would be restored. She will however, never go to another Internal Affairs interrogation without an attorney representative.

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