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'Abhorrent' 

Reported text message scandal leaves two EPD officers on leave, a community angry

click to enlarge About 50 demonstrators gathered at the Humboldt County Courthouse on Friday to demand that the Eureka Police Department fire officers who were exposed in a Sacramento Bee article about offensive group texts allegedly sent between the officers.

Mark McKenna

About 50 demonstrators gathered at the Humboldt County Courthouse on Friday to demand that the Eureka Police Department fire officers who were exposed in a Sacramento Bee article about offensive group texts allegedly sent between the officers.

The city of Eureka has put two of its police officers on paid leave and hired a third-party to investigate allegations in a bombshell report by the Sacramento Bee that detailed text messages the pair allegedly sent in a thread with four other officers, including misogynistic, dehumanizing, vulgar and violent messages.

Eureka Mayor Susan Seaman, Police Chief Steve Watson and the Eureka Police Officers' Association have all issued statements condemning the texts.

"People are angry and they should be," Seaman said in a recorded statement. "I'm angry. There is no excuse for the demeaning, disrespectful content reported to have been included in those messages."

Relying on a text message thread between six officers provided to the newspaper by an anonymous source, the Bee named two officers — Rodrigo Reyna-Sanchez and Mark Meftah — as participating in the threads, which made fun of homeless residents, included multiple demeaning comments about women's bodies, threats of violence and disparaging references to a female colleague.

The messages offer "only a snapshot of ongoing conversations spanning months," the Bee reported.

One exchange reportedly came just weeks into the pandemic when, on April 4, Reyna-Sanchez told the group, which he supervises, that public health officials had asked them to check on "a resident believed to have contracted COVID-19," according to the Bee.

"My plan if I had to go there was to knock as lightly as humanly possible on the door, give him an eighth of a second to answer, and then leave," Meftah reportedly responded.

"The public health dr. suggested we go there, knock loud and step back when he came to the door!!!" Reyna-Sanchez reportedly replied. "Nice plan bitch!!! I'll be right behind u!!!"

Sanchez, who's been on the force for 22 years, later texted to tell the team the situation with "the outbreak monkey" on L Street had been resolved.

According to the Bee's report, in another thread officers discussed a woman "who was known to shoplift and who also had a history of mental illness" and was walking through town. Reyna-Sanchez reportedly urged his subordinates, "Get pics of her rack!!"

"Saggy ol udders," Meftah allegedly replied.

In another thread, Reyna-Sanchez allegedly updates his fellow officers on a police standoff with John Karl Sieger, which ended with the reportedly suicidal military veteran being fatally shot after pointing a gun at officers, telling them Sieger "is at st joes with several extra holes in him!!" The Bee also reported other messages in which the officers allegedly joke about beating up protesters and "face shooting" a suspect released from jail after allegedly stealing a tactical vest of Reyna-Sanchez's.

Condemnation of the officers' alleged conduct came swiftly after the Bee's report published. Watson penned a letter to the community the same day saying he'd placed two officers involved on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an independent investigation. (Watson later clarified to the Journal that state law and city code prevent him from placing an officer on unpaid leave or otherwise disciplining them without a finding of wrongdoing sustained through an investigation.)

"While the investigation into the veracity of these reports is still underway, and every person is entitled to due process, the accusations are serious enough that this morning my leadership team and I placed two officers who have been reported to have made these statements on administrative leave," Watson wrote in the March 17 letter. "This leave is effective immediately and any change of status will be evaluated pending deeper review of this critical matter. At my direction, this investigation will be conducted by an independent, outside investigator."

Later that day, the Eureka Police Officers' Association — which has rarely, if ever, publicly commented on allegations of officer misconduct — issued a statement calling for a "fair and prompt" investigation. (EPOA President Terry Liles declined a Journal request for additional information about the statement — including whether it was approved by a membership vote and who wrote it — saying he couldn't comment on internal association business.)

"These alleged statements in the article reflect extremely egregious behavior," the statement said. "They are abhorrent, and do not reflect the character, integrity or attitudes of the vast majority of police department employees. Nor do they reflect the seriousness, maturity or professional attitude this difficult job demands. The POA does not, and will not, condone violent, racist, sexist or indifferent attitudes towards the community members we are sworn to protect and serve, or each other."

In her weekly video address to the community, Seaman said an "unbiased third party from outside the area" has been hired to conduct the formal investigation, but said the city won't identify the investigator until their report is complete. The mayor said she expects the investigation to deliver answers quickly.

On March 19, about 50 protesters stood in front of the Humboldt County Courthouse and called for Reyna-Sanchez and Meftah to be fired.

Reyna-Sanchez was hired by EPD in 1999 and promoted to sergeant in 2007 under former Police Chief Garr Nielsen. In 2010, Reyna-Sanchez fatally shot David Sequoia in the head as the 25-year-old Eureka resident and another EPD officer struggled over a handgun. The shooting was investigated by the California Attorney General's Office and deemed legally justified by then District Attorney Paul Gallegos, who also said there was no evidence of police misconduct in the case.

Meftah joined EPD in 2016 and has received several commendations, including once being named the department's officer of the month and receiving a life-saving award for doing extensive CPR to a local senior who'd fallen at his home. While an officer with the Uhrichsville Police Department in Ohio in 2014, Meftah received a commendation from the state attorney general for swimming into a fast-moving current in a flooded creek to save a drowning man.

"Officer Meftah swam quickly through the cold, fast current to reach the victim, who was face-down, had no pulse and was not breathing," reads a press release announcing the commendation, adding that after CPR and emergency treatment, the man survived.

The Journal reached out by email to Sherie Mahlberg, the CEO and clinical director of the Vacaville-based Restoration Counseling Center, which specializes in the treatment of first responders and their families and has worked with EPD in the past. The Journal asked specifically about the text messages reported in the Bee, potential dangers of using of dehumanizing language and humor as a coping mechanism and the importance of modeling appropriate professionalism and healthy coping strategies — and challenges to reporting lapses — within a hierarchical institution dependent on a chain of command.

Mahlberg did not answer any of them. Instead, her response focused on the need for officers to have safe places to process trauma and learn healthy coping strategies, noting that studies have shown higher rates of suicide in police officers than the general population.

"Officers respond from call to call, seeing, hearing, sharing and bringing order to others' traumas on a daily basis," she wrote. "As a society, we have put an expectation on them that is not realistic. We expect them to carry the community's trauma and not bend from the weight of it. ... Police officers are held to a higher standard than most, as a society we need them to be. They are the line that keeps our society functioning. It takes a unique human to run towards gun fire while everyone else runs away."

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

Kimberly Wear (she/her) is the Journal's digital editor. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or kim@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.

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Thadeus Greenson

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

Kimberly Wear

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Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor of the North Coast Journal.

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