Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Eureka Looks to Discipline Five Officers After Texting Probe

Posted By on Tue, Dec 14, 2021 at 1:26 PM

The city of Eureka is moving forward with taking disciplinary actions against five police officers stemming from the months-long investigation into the text messaging scandal that rocked the department earlier this year, when a unit of officers was revealed to have shared a host of vulgar, misogynistic, violent and dehumanizing text messages.

Eureka City Manager Miles Slattery told the Journal the five officers have been notified of the “corrective actions,” but he declined to specify what discipline was being taken or exactly what misconduct was found in the outside investigation conducted by the Bay Area law firm Sacks, Ricketts and Case. Slattery said the officers have due process protections under the Police Officers’ Bill of Rights, which allow them to first plead their cases in front of the police chief in what’s known as a Skelly conference then formally appeal any disciplinary actions the city takes.

Slattery said once those processes play out and any disciplinary actions become final, the city will work with the outside law firm Liebert Cassidy Whitmore to determine what information and records from the investigation can be publicly disclosed.

“It’s our intent to be as transparent as possible without violating anyone’s rights,” Slattery said.

While such “corrective actions” can hypothetically include everything from an official reprimand to termination, Slattery declined to say specifically what range of discipline the five officers face.

News of the city moving forward with disciplinary actions against five of its officers comes as the department is in a period of transition, with former Chief Steve Watson having stepped down from his position Nov. 30 and Capt. Brian Stephens holding the post for 30 days as acting chief until an interim appointment is made by the city.

Slattery told the Journal that notices of the corrective actions were signed by Watson before he left his post, but any Skelly hearings will be conducted by Stephens or, more likely, whomever steps in as interim chief.

The department has been roiled by controversy to some degree since the Sacramento Bee published an explosive report in March, detailing a host of text messages sent between a group of officers led by Sgt. Rodrigo Reyna-Sanchez. (The Journal later confirmed the authenticity of the texts leaked to the Bee through California Public Records Act, which unearthed additional incendiary messages.)

The messages obtained by the Journal span a period of about six months in early to mid-2020, and include messages that objectify and demean women, dehumanize homeless people and seem to fly in the face of the "sanctity of life" principles that Watson repeatedly espoused for the department. Throughout the messages, Reyna-Sanchez and officer Mark Meftah are the two officers who repeatedly cross the bounds of decency, while some other officers only rarely chime in and others don't send a single text.

While some of the texts are indicative of a kind of junior high school locker room mindset in which officers make jokes about each other's penis size and masturbation, others are far more troubling and include jokes about the mass killing of homeless people, Reyna-Sanchez mocking a subordinate, referring to wanting “some payback” for a suspect and texting with seeming glee to tell officers that a mentally ill man who had been in a standoff with police was heading to the hospital “with several extra holes in him!!” and Meftah pleading to go to the scene of another standoff with an armed suspect because he needed “to work out some frustrations.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Bee’s report, the messages were condemned by the Eureka Police Officers Association, Mayor Susan Seaman and Watson, who placed Meftah (who has since left the city’s employment) and Reyna-Sanchez on paid administrative leave pending the investigation.

EPD Capt. Patrick O'Neill was also placed on administrative leave in May, pending the findings of an investigation, though it's unclear if that's related to or independent of the texting investigation.

Speaking generally and not about O’Neill, Slattery said when Sacks Ricketts and Case first began its investigation, some other unspecified allegations unrelated to the texting scandal were included in the scope of the inquiry, but it became “unwieldy” and was pared down. Asked whether those other allegations would be the focus of a future investigation or investigations, Slattery said it’s possible.

“We don’t know yet,” he said.

Slattery said one thing that’s come to light during his tenure as city manager, which began last year, is that EPD’s disciplinary practices have historically been overly secretive, saying there have been instances when the city’s human resources department didn’t become aware of an allegation or disciplinary action being taken against an officer until it had already reached the Skelly hearing phase of the process.

“It is the definition of the fox guarding the hen house and that needs to change,” Slattery said.

Through the texting scandal, Slattery said he believes city hall has been in better communication with all levels of EPD employees than in the past, with the department’s employees urged to come to him or the human resources department if they feel there are issues that are not being addressed.

Regarding the Sacks Ricketts and Case investigation, Slattery said it went “all the way up the ladder,” looking not just at “certain people who were accused of things” but also “who knew about this and was there anything done about it.” Watson previously told the Journal that he explicitly asked investigators to look at his leadership and that of the department’s command staff and they “found no issues there.” Both Slattery and Watson have described the Sacks Ricketts and Case report as “comprehensive” and “thorough.”

It’s very unclear, however, what parts — if any — will be released to the public.

Police officer misconduct and disciplinary records enjoy far-reaching confidentiality protections under state law and generally cannot be disclosed to the public. Senate Bill 1421, which went into effect in 2019, mandated that records pertaining to investigations of police shootings and uses of force that cause great bodily injury shall be made public, as shall records related to sustained findings of officer dishonesty or sexual assault while on duty.

Senate Bill 16, which was signed into law this year and takes effect Jan. 1, would require cities to release records related to sustained findings of unreasonable or excessive force, an officer’s failing to intervene when another is using excessive force, and an officer making an unlawful arrest or conducting an unlawful search. S.B. 16 also requires departments to release sustained findings that an officer made statements or writings “involving prejudice or discrimination against a person on the basis of race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation or military and veteran status.” Departments will, however, have until 2023 to release documents relating to incidents and investigations that took place before Jan. 1.

Not knowing exactly what the sustained findings are from the texting investigation, much less whether they will hold up to various appeal processes should the five officers challenge them, it’s difficult to say how S.B. 16 might apply.

When or if the city’s proposed corrective actions are made final, Slattery said he and City Attorney Bob Black, with S.B. 16 in mind, will get input from Liebert Cassidy Whitmore on what information the city can release publicly under the law from the texting investigative report.

“I think everybody involved from the decision-making level will want to be as transparent as possible, but we also need to make sure we’re not violating anyone’s rights or exposing the city to unnecessary liability,” he said.

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Thadeus Greenson

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

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