10News I-Team Investigates 'Use Of Force' Complaints

We entrust law enforcement with tremendous powers.

"We're instructed only to use the force that is necessary," explains Bill Nemec, President of the San Diego Police Officers Association.

If that power is abused in a high profile way, headlines are made.

Some recent examples include Christian Morales of Chula Vista. His arrest, a case of mistaken identity, and subsequent damage to his brain, cost taxpayers $400,000.

An off-duty Coronado police officer who botched a drunken driving stop led to taxpayers shelling out $5,000,000.

San Diego Police are being sued by a drunken woman and her 8-year-old son, after an officer shot them during a road rage altercation.

But what about the cases that don't make it into the news?

"I couldn't believe what was happening," says Tom Skarvada.

He's an Encinitas resident and business owner. Last year he was riding in a car with his adult son on South Melrose Drive in San Marcos when, he says, a sheriff motorcycle officer cut them off.

"My son hit the breaks and the horn. The deputy didn't like the horn part, so he pulled us over."

They stopped in a nearby parking lot, when he says the deputy, "started shouting, 'I smell alcohol!' We were going to work in the morning."

They ended up cuffed, so tightly that Skarvada's wrists bled. Then came the deputy's story.

"He used the word psychotic, psychotic threat to ram police," Skarvada says.

It was a claim that landed Skarvada and his son behind bars. Skarvada was charged with resisting an officer and resisting arrest. He faced up to two years in custody. They never made it to work that day.

"The truth is, it can happen to anyone, and it does," explains Mike Marrinan, a civil rights attorney who has represented clients against police agencies for two decades.

"I do see the same officers over and over again, more than I should."

How often does that happen, and which officers are involved? That's information that is not easily learned.

According to Terry Francke of Californians Aware, police are subject to less public scrutiny than any other public employees.

"The legislature has given increasing blanket secrecy to officers who are accused of wrong doing."

So while the politicians are making it more difficult to find out about misbehaving cops, are the cops misbehaving more?

The 10News I-Team wanted to know how the public can identify the loose cannons, and which departments have the biggest problems.

Marrinan points out, "It's part of the police culture that if an officer makes a mistake he lies about it. It's also part of the police culture that his colleagues lie about it too, to cover it up."

There is a paper trial and a recent California Attorney General opinion that more information should be made public. Armed with that, and the state public records act, the 10News I-Team asked the largest local agencies for all use of force reports for the last decade, the names of the officers, and the cost to taxpayers.

The agencies all refused to give us use of force reports, agreeing instead to tell us the ones that resulted in settlements.

Bill Nemec of the Police Officers Association points out, "I hope you would trust us to police ourselves as well as we do this community."

The information provided to the I-Team by San Diego Police only goes back five years. The agency says 10 years is too much work based on how the information is stored. SDPD does provide a summary of claims, including who complained, where it happened, and how much it cost taxpayers. The officers are named when we request more information about specific cases.

The total is 213 excessive force cases over five years, costing taxpayers $1,600,000.

The rest of the agencies do provide varied information for the last 10 years.

The San Diego Sheriff's Department gave the most complete information. They had 57 cases, nearly $2,000,000 in settlements.

Chula Vista Police had 10 case settlements at a cost of $801,000.

El Cajon settled two cases for $555,000.

Carlsbad had five case settlements for $332,000.

Escondido had two settlements for $288, 000.

And Oceanside settled five cases for $254,000.

In each and every case the settlements were not an admission of guilt.

"I have yet to have a police agency admit that their officer did anything wrong," says Marrinan.

That's why a news release dated October 17, 2009 caught our attention. It's from Chula Vista's City Councilmembers Steve Castaneda and Rudy Ramirez. It says, "the agenda will include discussion of the Department's use of force during the 2006 arrest of Christian Morales." That's the young man whose arrest cost taxpayers $400,000.

10 News I-Team Reporter Lauren Reynolds and photojournalist Christian Cazares attended the meeting, believing it would be an unprecedented open discussion of a use of excessive force case.

Upon arrival to the Public Safety Subcommittee meeting, however, it was not what the press release promised.

Steve Castaneda told the audience, "We're not here to talk about that [Morales case], we're here to talk about the complaint process.

The police then launched a forty-minute PowerPoint presentation that some members of the audience had already seen about how to file a complaint against the police.

One Chula Vista resident walked up to the microphone and voiced her dissatisfaction.

"I was really disappointed when I looked at the agenda, because the email to me said we'd be discussing the Christian Morales case."

Marrinan says, "I see so often how these investigations are skewed in the manner of protecting the officer, rather than getting to the truth."

He also says victims of excessive force are often charged with crimes to cover it up, like what happened to Tom Skarvada, who couldn't believe the deputy's claims.

"He was obviously lying, he was making things up. He seemed out of control."

Skarvada went to trial for the criminal charges against him in Vista Superior Court. The deputy took the stand.

"This was under penalty of perjury, in front of a judge and jury, and the deputy is lying left and right. It was incredible," Skarvada says.

The Judge, Martin Staven, ruled to drop the charges before the trial even ended. He then granted Skarvada, at the request of his defense attorney, a "Finding of Factual Innocence." That means Skarvada wasn't just technically not guilty, he never should have been charged, and his record has been wiped clean.

Skarvada is now suing.

"What is to prevent this deputy from lying again, for the rest of his life?"

The I-Team called San Diego Sheriff's for a response. A spokesperson could only say that the deputy is still working on the force. By law, the spokesperson could not release any information as to whether the deputy faced any disciplinary action. Again, that is information that the California legislature has prevented being revealed to the public.

On Wednesday, the day our story was to air, the spokesperson from Chula Vista police called the I-Team, pointing out that Chula Vista Police had 170,000 contacts with the public last year, resulting in 28 complaints, two of which were found to have merit.

This information was not included in the response to our original request dated June 5, 2008, when we were denied information about complaints from citizens.

Print this article Back to Top