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Why a Judge Thinks There's Evidence of a 'Code of Silence' in SDPD

A federal judge found the department didn’t seriously discipline an ex-cop despite numerous warning signs and an expert says the department’s policies are lax.

This summer, a federal jury will decide if San Diego police condone sexual and other serious misconduct by officers and if a code of silence prevents misconduct from being investigated.

A victim of ex-officer Anthony Arevalos is suing the city. On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Michael Anello said lawyers for the victim, known as Jane Doe, have provided enough evidence to allow a jury to determine if Arevalos was a bad apple who acted alone or the department’s culture tolerated his behavior. Here’s why:

The department didn’t seriously discipline Arevalos despite numerous instances of sexual misconduct.

For years sexual misconduct complaints against Arevalos piled up, but he was never seriously punished. Anello listed five instances, ranging from allegations he sexually assaulted a woman with mental disabilities in the late 1990s to two departmental investigations that cleared Arevalos of sexually assaulting a DUI arrestee in 2010.

Yet Arevalos’ personnel file only contained documentation of getting caught with computer porn, Anello said.

“Based on the voluminous record of misconduct engaged in by Officer Arevalos, a reasonable jury could conclude that Arevalos acted toward Jane Doe in a manner in which he thought he was impervious to the consequences of his misconduct,” Anello wrote in his decision.

Beyond his own actions, Arevalos makes the “code of silence” case himself.

Three former SDPD officers told the court they believe there’s a code of silence within the department, Anello said. One of them was Arevalos.

“Officer Arevalos testified that he had seen the code of silence ‘with [his] own eyes,'” Anello wrote. “He testified that he saw ‘captains get stopped for DUIs,’ only to be ‘driven home’ for fear of retaliation.”

A police expert believes it’s “nearly impossible” for SDPD officers to be held accountable for misconduct.

The department’s handling of Arevalos was not the only problem Anello identified.

SDPD doesn’t have a policy that requires officers to report misconduct.  There’s also no policy to prevent officers who report misconduct from retaliation, said Jeffrey Noble, a former high-ranking official in the Irvine Police Department and an expert witness for Doe.

Such policies are vital to encouraging officers to document misbehavior, Noble said. It’s especially relevant because Arevalos had a well-known reputation among his colleagues for targeting attractive women for traffic stops.

Former Police Chief William Lansdowne testified in his deposition that those kinds of policies were necessary for maintaining a professional and honest police department. Lansdowne said he “thinks” the SDPD had the policies, but never read them.

It turns out the department didn’t have a policy that required officers to report misconduct.

“Chief (Shelley) Zimmerman is instituting and working on a policy of that type now, and anticipates it to be in place in the next few weeks,” SDPD spokesman Kevin Mayer told VOSD.

Noble didn’t like the department’s policies on citizen complaints, either. The department isn’t required to accept and document all complaints, he said, which allows supervisors in the field to ignore them. That means legitimate complaints can be hidden from upper management. (Mayer said the public can make complaints in numerous ways beyond reporting them to a supervisor.)

Altogether, Noble said, deficient complaint and investigatory procedures make it “nearly impossible” for an SDPD officer to be held accountable for misconduct.

The city obviously disputes the idea that the department fails to discipline its officers. But Anello said the city never suggested that Noble misrepresented the department’s policies.

The judge has sided with Doe before. But he’s also sided with the city.

Anello’s ruling Tuesday was his third major decision in the case in recent weeks, all of which shaped what the trial will look like.

Anello decided the city was on the hook for Arevalos’ sexual misconduct against Doe. The city argued Doe was a willing participant in a deal that allowed her to get away with a DUI in exchange for sexual favors. Most notoriously, the city contended that Doe had “bribed” Arevalos with her underwear. (The city later withdrew that accusation.) Anello disagreed with the city’s argument.

“The undisputed facts demonstrate that the sexual encounter occurred while — and because — [Doe] was directly subject to Officer Arevalos’ improper use of authority,” Anello wrote. “He controlled her throughout the encounter, consistently reiterating his ability to arrest her for a DUI.”

Doe’s lawyers also argued that Arevalos’ supervisors, including Lansdowne and former Chief David Bejarano, should be personally liable for Arevalos’ behavior. Anello said no individual supervisor had knowledge of Arevalos’ pervasive sexual misconduct.

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