Friday, May 28, 2021

EPD Captain On Leave Amid Investigation

Posted By on Fri, May 28, 2021 at 3:12 PM

click to enlarge Patrick O'Neill - CITY OF EUREKA
  • City of Eureka
  • Patrick O'Neill
One of the Eureka Police Department’s two captains has been placed on paid administrative leave.

EPD Chief Steve Watson confirmed to the Journal that Capt. Patrick O’Neill is on leave, but declined to discuss why or in relation to what matter, saying he’s legally prohibited from doing so.

“The penal code and evidence code prohibit the city form publicly discussing any police officer’s performance or discipline,” Watson told the Journal. “Therefore, it is the city’s policy not to comment regarding ongoing investigations or identify officers who may be subject to disciplinary investigations.”

It’s unclear if the matters are connected, but O’Neill’s leave comes amid an internal affairs investigation conducted by a Bay Area law firm looking into inappropriate text messages sent between officers in a unit led by Sgt. Rodrigo Reyna-Sanchez, as first reported by the Sacramento Bee. The texts sent by Reyna-Sanchez and officer Mark Meftah included misogynistic, violent and vulgar language, and dehumanizing references to homeless residents.

Both Reyna-Sanchez and Meftah were placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation, which remains ongoing. Todd Simonson, at Sacks, Ricketts and Case LLP, who signed the firm’s contract with the city to conduct the autonomous investigation, declined to comment on the investigation or its status when contacted by the Journal.

O’Neill, a 26-year veteran of EPD and lifelong Eureka resident, was promoted to interim captain when Watson was promoted from captain to police chief in 2017, and the promotion was later made permanent, giving him oversight of the department’s Field Operations Division, which includes patrol. In rising to the rank of captain, O’Neill followed in the footsteps of his grandfather James, who filled the rank for EPD in the 1950s. In 2016, O’Neill graduated from the prestigious FBI National Academy Program, which offers 10 weeks of advanced communication, leadership and fitness training. He previously served as a field training officer, drug task force agent and detective sergeant.

The Bee’s report brought to light text exchanges between officers in which they joked about beating up protesters and shooting a suspect in the face, and made dehumanizing comments about multiple women’s physical appearances as well as about homeless residents, while also disparaging a female EPD officer. In its immediate aftermath, the city entered into contract with Sacks, Rickets & Case LLP to conduct an independent investigation, giving the firm sole authority in determining “the means, manner and findings related to the investigation,” and giving it “full discretion” to conduct the the investigation without the city “influencing or interfering with the outcome.”

According to the firm’s website, Simonson represents management in “all areas of labor and employment law, with an emphasis on matters involving public safety employees.” His bio on the site notes he has more than 20 years of internal investigative experience and has “prevailed in numerous arbitrations and administrative appeals upholding serious disciplinary action.”

As the investigation moves forward, at least for the immediate future, EPD will be operating without several officers, including a captain and a sergeant.

“The internal impacts of these kinds of investigations, including on staffing, workload and morale, can be significant,” Watson said. “But we cannot allow these challenges to ever deter us from doing the right thing, holding ourselves accountable before the community and each other, and from conducting thorough, complete, fair and objective fact finding investigations.”

A message left for O'Neill seeking comment was not immediately returned.
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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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