Thursday, July 01, 2004

Suit Alleges Racism in Rialto

Suit alleges racism in Rialto Police chief faces claim of discrimination against non-black employees 

By BRAD A. GREENBERG, Staff Writer

RIALTO - Police Chief Michael Meyers was hired six years ago to clean up racism. He now stands accused of fostering it.

A department that for years was said to be filled with white bigots is now giving preferential treatment to black employees, according to former and current employees and a $10 million lawsuit filed this week in San Bernardino Superior Court.

Meyers dismisses his critics as the bigots who once dominated the department and "needed to go.'

While he and Deputy Chief Arthur Burgess are black, four of their five lieutenants are white; one is Latino. Since he took the top post in May 1998, however, 64 officers including two captains, four lieutenants and seven sergeants have left the Rialto Police Department.

At least six of those former employees are Latino. The overwhelming majority are white. More than a dozen former and current employees contacted by The Sun declined to go on the record because they said they feared retaliation.

In an interview last week, Meyers said employees left because they did not like the changes he made. Many of them had been around during the years preceding Meyers, when claims of racism, sexism and criminal activity were regulary made against the department. "Other individuals in this organization could not deal with the changes in this community, specifically ethnicity,' Meyers said.

During the 1990s, Rialto's Latino population more than doubled to 51 percent. The white percentage of the population was halved, from 44 percent in 1990 to 21.5 percent in 2000. The black population percentage remained near 21 percent.

In 2000, Rialto had a larger population percentage of blacks then any other Inland Empire city, and was the only city where the white population was third largest.

But in the Police Department, whites are still the majority. Of the current sworn employees, 56 are white, 25 are black and 21 are Latino, according to figures released by the chief in May. Five others are Asian and American Indians.

"Change occurred in the community, and the Police Department did not change at the same time,' Meyers said of the demographics. "There was abject racism in the organization.'

On Monday, a Latino police officer filed a civil suit stating Meyers has engaged in systemic racism against non-black employees. Officer Aaron Vigil claims racism resulted in turmoil that cost him personally and has been a detriment to the community the department serves.

The defendants the city of Rialto, the Police Department, Meyers, Burgess and Officer Robert Carroll had not received the suit as of Wednesday. Meyers referred all questions to City Attorney Bob Owen. "Allegations are easy to make, and we will be looking into it as soon as I get a copy of the complaint,' Owen said.

Vigil, 33, joined the Police Department the same month as Meyers. The father of four is married to a dispatcher in the department. He is on medical leave and is expected to return to work in the next two weeks.

He referred questions to his attorney, Joseph Haytas of Upland. The attorney said the culture in the Police Department has affected officers on the street. "If things are tough at home, things are always tougher on the outside,' Haytas said.

The lawsuit states there were numerous attempts to ruin Vigil's career, even though several black officers hired by Meyers were not disciplined adequately for "egregious conduct.'

Vigil's duties as a field-training officer and SWAT team member were revoked this year after an internal affairs investigation into a "sexually suggestive' e-mail sent to a dispatcher. E-mails unrelated to work are common in any organization, Haytas said. "It certainly was not of a sexual nature,' he said.

About the same time, internal affairs investigated claims he had groped a female officer. Nothing was found. Two years earlier, then-dispatcher Carla McCullough accused Vigil of making a racist remark about another female employee. An internal investigation cleared him.

In Vigil's lawsuit and in documents obtained by The Sun, the conduct of black officers Darrell Lockley and Roddrick Clayton and Sgt. McCullough were called into question. Vigil claims they got preferential treatment because of their race. Other current and former officers contacted by The Sun made the same accusations.

Lockley was convicted of two counts of felony check forgery in 1990. His convictions were reduced to misdemeanors, according to documents filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in 1995.

He also failed background checks made by the CHP, Torrance, Compton and Los Angeles Park police departments, according to a confidential investigative memo obtained by The Sun.

Lockley, who was hired in 1999, declined three requests for comment. In the memo, a background investigator told Meyers he had "serious concerns about keeping Lockley on the payroll.' Meyers told The Sun he is not obligated to explain why he hired someone convicted of check forgery.The memo states that Lockley's criminal history will jeopardize his "integrity and credibility as a witness in a court of law.'

"You can imagine the jury thinking, 'How can I really trust you if you were arrested for theft? If you lied once, why wouldn't you lie again?'' said UCLA criminal law professor Sharon Dolovich.

McCullough once was placed on a performance improvement plan after she failed to finish police reports in a timely manner once holding onto a traffic collision report for more than 90 days, according to a confidential memo dated September 1998.

In a telephone interview last week, she said she was never ordered into such a program, and she is sure that document is not in her personnel file. "Maybe it was something proposed that never got me,' she said.

In January 1999, Internal Affairs pursued an "investigation leading to possible criminal charges against Officer McCullough for falsifying reports,' according to another confidential memo. It is unclear if the case was forwarded to the District Attorney's Office. Charges were never filed.

Two months later, McCullough received a letter of reprimand from Meyers because she was seen driving around with the "N' word on her license plate holder. She said a friend gave her the holder because it had the lyrics to a rap song she liked.

Clayton was arrested Dec. 23, 2000, on suspicion of shoving his ex-girlfriend, Euridici Johnson, and then waiving a department-issued handgun at two of her friends who were trying to pull her away, according to police reports. The officer was off-duty at the time. Clayton did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In the police report, Clayton admitted pulling out his gun, but he said it was in self-defense. Witnesses to the incident said Clayton had pointed his gun at them as they were trying to take his ex-girlfriend back into the apartment. Three weeks later, the District Attorney's Office declined to file charges. "I'm not saying no crime was committed,' Deputy District Attorney Vic Stull said at the time. "I'm saying we didn't think we could prove it without a shadow of a doubt.'

State law prohibits Chief Meyers from commenting about the personnel issues of Lockley, Clayton or McCullough without their permission. He said he would not ask them to waive their privacy rights to explain the situations.

Speaking generally about hiring and retention standards, Meyers said he is not opposed to hiring somebody who learned from the mistakes they made earlier in life. "People can change,' he said.

Last year, Lockley and Clayton received Medals of Valor for saving two children. In May, a semi-annual two-day investigation by the Commission on Police Officer Standards and Training reported hiring and training standards at the Police Department met state regulations.

Whoever leaked confidential documents to The Sun is frustrated by the success of black employees in the Police Department, Meyers said. The chief has asked an outside agency to find those who slipped the confidential documents to the press. He declined to say which agency.

"You'd have to be blind to think that the only people who have ever done anything wrong in this organization are African-American,' he said.

In April, white Officer John Candias was punished for working as a private investigator for Rancho Cucamonga teen Greg Haidl, who is charged in a high-profile gang-rape case. Rialto police officers must have administrative approval to do private investigations. Working for a defense team is not permitted. Meyers would not discuss details of the punishment.

Before Meyers was hired, the department had five chiefs in six years. The city's first black chief, Dennis Hegwood, abruptly resigned after four years.

Hegwood said rank-and-file officers discriminated against him. The police union said it was Hegwood's inability, not race, that motivated a no-confidence vote in the former Los Angeles Housing Authority lieutenant.

Meyers took the job in the midst of a Department of Justice investigation into allegations of racism and sexism. The former Oakland deputy chief was expected to end the allegations and lawsuits. He now is a party to one.