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Light into Dark Places 

Humboldt's first police misconduct records released under new transparency law

click to enlarge Jacob Jones is sworn in as a Willits police officer June 12.

Facebook/Willits Police Department. Photo illustration by Jonathan Webster.

Jacob Jones is sworn in as a Willits police officer June 12.

Eureka Police Officer Jacob Jones had been on the force about a year and a half when, shortly before 6 p.m. on May 25, 2018, he was dispatched to a report of a potential weapons violation. About 40 minutes earlier, a 46-year-old man had opened the back door of his Eureka residence to call in his dogs. When one dog — described in police reports as a small-breed female with brown, curly hair — didn't come, he worried she'd escaped, as she sometimes did, and stepped out into his fenced backyard to look for her. Along the north fence line, he found her lying dead, a bloody wound visible on the left side of her chest.

According to dispatch records, Jones arrived on scene at 6:58 p.m. and didn't stay long. The dog's owner would later tell Jones' supervisors that the officer "was very unsympathetic." Three minutes after arriving at the home, Jones radioed dispatch to say no further resources were necessary. Within six and a half minutes of arriving at the house, Jones was en route back to EPD, having radioed dispatch to say he was closing the call without a report or assigning a case number.

Jones was back in the classroom at EPD headquarters when his supervisor, Sgt. Edward Wilson, followed up with him. Wilson would later tell an internal affairs investigator that he'd seen the call pop up on a dispatch computer screen when it came in but his attention was quickly diverted to another incident — a report of someone brandishing a gun — in another part of town. Wilson said he just wanted to follow up with Jones and asked him about the call. Jones reportedly told his commanding officer that there'd been a dead dog at the residence with a deep circular wound that looked like it had been stabbed or shot with a BB gun. Wilson then asked if Jones had taken photos documenting the wound and where the dog had been found.

"He said, 'Yeah, I took photos,'" Wilson later told investigators.

An internal affairs investigation completed seven months later would conclude that Jones lied about the photos that day, repeated those lies when pressed and that he subsequently took steps to conceal his dishonesty from his superiors. He was suspended without pay for a month, about the most severe discipline a patrol officer can receive short of being fired. But the reverberations of Jones' actions didn't end there.

The Humboldt County District Attorney's Office is the midst of a months-long effort to re-evaluate all prosecutions involving the officer, with at least three cases resulting in dismissals or pleas to lesser charges and another 19 still needing to be reviewed.

"I expect the prosecution of the majority of those will be impaired to some extent," District Attorney Maggie Fleming wrote in an email to the Journal, adding that from her perspective, the result of Jones' internal affairs investigation "rendered him unable to serve as a witness in criminal prosecutions," necessitating the dismissal of cases that were dependent on his testimony. "This example illustrates the damage done to the pursuit of public safety by improper law enforcement and how survivors of crime are victimized twice when cases can't be prosecuted."

You may have noticed that a lot of stories like this have been making headlines throughout California in recent months. It's not that the Golden State is experiencing a spike in police misconduct, just that a new landmark transparency law is bringing police misconduct records into public view.

For 40 some years, California has had some of the strictest police officer privacy laws in the country. Known as the Police Officer's Bill of Rights, the laws so tightly protected the confidentiality of police personnel records that they even allowed agencies to deny prosecutors access to them — a protection that officers in no other state enjoyed.

For years, transparency efforts in the Legislature have stalled, with police unions strongly opposing any measure they felt would compromise officers' privacy or open them up to added public scrutiny. But a spate of police killings of unarmed people of color and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement added urgency to calls for increased police transparency.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) said in a statement that she introduced Senate Bill 1421 with the aim of "rebuilding trust" between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve through increased transparency.

The bill, which passed the Senate on a 25-11 vote and the Assembly 44-30 on Aug. 31, 2018, requires that agencies make public the records from officer involved shootings and major force incidents, as well as any sustained allegations of sexual assault or dishonesty while on duty. It was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 1 and went into effect in January.

S.B. 1421 split some segments of the state's law enforcement community. A number of unions representing rank and file officers — like the Peace Officers Research Association of California and the California Association of Highway Patrolmen — opposed it, arguing the new law could make officers "hesitant" during critical incidents and that it could undermine public trust and lead to costly civil lawsuits. Other police groups — most notably the California Police Chiefs Association — supported the measure after certain amendments they felt were needed to protect ongoing investigations were made.

"As police chiefs, the ability to illustrate the depth of our investigations and the post-incident training or corrective actions taken will lead to increased trust and confidence with the communities we serve," the association wrote in a letter to Skinner announcing its support for the bill.

While the law nominally went into effect Jan. 1, it faced a series of unsuccessful legal challenges that rose all the way to the California Supreme Court.

In March, the Journal submitted California Public Records Requests to all local police agencies seeking documents newly made public under Senate Bill 1421 for incidents dating back to 2010. A number of agencies (like the Rio Dell and Ferndale police departments) responded quickly to say they have no such records — meaning they hadn't had an officer-involved shooting or a sustained misconduct allegation in the time period. Others — like the Fortuna and Arcata police departments — promptly turned over records associated with officer-involved shootings. While these records added additional depth to information that had already been reported, none of them included records of officer discipline or indicated the information already provided to the public about the incidents had been inaccurate.

Responses from the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office and EPD, meanwhile, continue to trickle in, with Jones' case being the first documenting a sustained allegation of wrongdoing. (The sheriff's office has thus far only released reports on officer-involved shootings.) According to local law enforcement officials, complying with S.B. 1421 presents a daunting challenge for the county's larger law enforcement agencies, which, in addition to having more officers, also have more shooting investigation records to comb through.

As an example, consider the Aug. 18, 2016, shooting of David Alan Fulton, who had barricaded himself in a McKinleyville apartment complex during a 17-hour standoff with police. Records of the shooting investigation, which the sheriff's office released to the Journal earlier this year, contain hundreds of pages of supplemental reports from dozens of officers from the multitude of agencies that responded, each of which had to be redacted to avoid identifying witnesses or disclosing other protected information. In short, processing these records requests can be incredibly time consuming. (As an aside, the California Highway Patrol has informed reporters it won't finish poring through its responsive records until the summer of 2020.)

EPD Chief Steve Watson said he's "OK with S.B. 1421 at the end of the day," finding that it appropriately balances officers' privacy interests with the need for transparency. But he does have one serious criticism.

"S.B. 1421 didn't make any additional funding available to agencies," he said, adding that EPD Records Manager Amanda O'Neill has taken on the time-consuming responsibility of fulfilling public records requests under new law in addition to all her other duties. "We're having to scramble."

Jones' internal affairs investigative file spans 245 pages, which detail his alleged dishonesty regarding the dog killing case and another set of allegations that are redacted. While the second set of allegations were also ultimately sustained in the investigation, they do not meet the criteria of what's publicly discloseable under Senate Bill 1421 and remain confidential, according to EPD.

Paging through the report, a couple of things seem abundantly clear: that EPD's leadership took this investigation seriously and that disciplining an officer is a long, painstaking process.

On July 10, 2018, some six weeks after Jones responded to the fateful dog call, Wilson penned a memorandum to Capt. Brian Stephens officially notifying him of his concerns. The two-and-a-half-page document outlines allegations that Jones initially told Wilson he'd taken pictures, that the officer then went to access the camera in the duty pack he'd been using the day of the call to see if he could find the photographs, that he told another officer he had not, in fact, taken any pictures but that he ultimately just reported back to Wilson that he "was unable to locate any photographs he had taken of the deceased dog."

"I am deeply concerned about this incident to say the least," Wilson wrote to Stephens. "I do my best as a field supervisor to create an environment where my personnel can approach me no matter what the issue is. I am saddened that it does not appear that was the case in this incident."

Nine days later, Stephens sent a memorandum to Jones officially notifying him that he would be assigned to administrative duty, effective immediately, as he was being investigated for conduct unbecoming and knowingly making false statements, both violations of EPD policy. Stephens assigned Sgt. Greg Hill and Sgt. Rodrigo Reyna-Sanchez to conduct the internal affairs investigation and informed Jones that when the time came to "obtain his statement," he would be notified in advance and could choose to have an attorney present with him. When the administrative interview took place Sept. 14, Jones was represented by Julia Fox, a senior associate of the law firm Rains, Lucia and Stern's Legal Defense of Peace Officers Practice Group.

On Feb. 22, 2019, Stephens again sent Jones an official memorandum, this time to inform him of the department's decision to suspend him without pay. The 12-page document, which details the allegations against Jones and the investigation's findings, also notifies the officer he has the right to a pre-disciplinary conference — essentially a last chance to plead his case in front of the police chief in what's known as a Skelly conference — and an administrative appeal hearing.

During the Skelly conference, a transcript of which is included in the internal affairs investigation, Jones argued the whole thing was a misunderstanding. He said he did initially tell Wilson he'd taken photos but it was an honest mistake, one that he made no efforts to hide the following day when he realized he hadn't taken photos and, according to his statement, hadn't even had a working camera at the scene that day.

"I nonchalantly responded to my sergeant when he asked me if I took pictures," Jones said, according to the transcript. "I absentmindedly said, when he asked me, 'Hey, did you take pictures?' 'Yeah.' And when I realized I hadn't ... I told him that."

Arguing on Jones' behalf, the lawyer urged Watson to think about Jones as a person — to take into account "the hoops that Jake has jumped through personally to achieve this goal" of becoming a police officer.

"It would be illogical and idiotic for him to completely foreclose his ability to pursue that line of work by being dishonest over something that's chicken shit, his taking photos of a deceased dog," she said. "You know that."

Watson concedes that lying about whether an officer took pictures at a potential crime scene would seemingly be "trivial" thing to throw a career away over. But then he quickly changes course.

"With that being said, nothing's really truly trivial in our ... in our profession," he said. "Our customer service, our honesty, our integrity ... is crucial to who we are and what we do, and the trust that the public has in us," he said. "What I would ask you now is, uh, can you explain to me why the supervisors ... seem to have such a markedly different recollection of what you communicated to them versus what you've been telling me here. Because knowing both of them, having worked with both of them for many years, uh, I've never noticed either one of them to be even remotely dishonest or to take these kinds of things lightly."

Nine days after the hearing, Watson notified Jones that he was upholding his suspension.

"I find that you were untruthful in your responses during the underlying events, during your (internal affairs) interview and during the Skelly conference," he wrote. "I find that your statements ... demonstrate a lack of credibility and attempt to conceal information on your part."

Jones was suspended March 22 — his police powers revoked — through April 21. Jones subsequently requested an appeal hearing before a personnel board that was scheduled for May 16. If successful, it would have resulted in his being given back pay for his period of suspension and the disciplinary action being stricken from his record. But the hearing was never held. Instead, Jones resigned his position with the city May 5.

Despite all the handwringing about a potential suspension for lying to his superiors being potentially career ending, Jones has landed on his feet. On June 12, he was sworn in as his hometown of Willits' newest officer.

Reached by phone Aug. 26, Willits Police Chief Scott Warnock said he was well aware of the allegations Jones faced in Eureka when the decision was made to hire him.

"Of course when somebody has an IA it raises some red flags," the chief said. "We thoroughly investigated it and determined we were comfortable hiring him ... He's a great officer."

Meanwhile, as Jones polices the streets of Willits, the district attorney's office continues to sort through the mess that his alleged dishonesty left in Humboldt.

Reached Aug. 26, Watson said these types of investigations are grueling and painful for a small department. He pointed to the fact that a sergeant and a captain have to conduct these investigations amid all their other duties. Plus, he said, there are statutory protections for accused officers that dictate notifications and timelines, and the whole process plays out with an officer on administrative duty while the vast majority of his colleagues don't know why. Plainly, he said these types of investigations take a toll on morale. But he said they're also necessary.

"This is part of being an agency that is accountable," he said. "I recognize that our men and women have a very difficult job to do and they work in a dynamic, rapidly changing environment. They have to make split-second decisions. But at the same time, we have high standards that we have to hold ourselves to and when someone engages in misconduct there has to be ownership of that and accountability.

"I care very deeply about the members of our agency and I understand their sacrifices and I care about their futures greatly but, as a chief, I also care very much about the reputation of the Eureka Police Department and the trust the public holds in us, and the trust the public holds in the institution of policing. These types of investigations are necessary because we recognize how absolutely vital the public's trust is and how easy it can be broken."

To read the full redacted version of the internal affairs investigation, click here.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

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

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