News

'Mission, Values, Vision'

Leaked text messages and an ensuing investigation reveal a toxic culture in at least one unit at EPD

By

3 comments

On March 16, 2018, Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson, then just six months into the job, sent a memo to all department personnel with the subject line: "Mission, values, vision and goals for EPD."

"As we work together to move the Eureka Police Department forward in a positive direction for 2018 and beyond, it is important for everyone to understand the vision, values and goals we hold in support of our mission," Watson, a former theologian and substitute teacher, wrote. "These five broad departmental purposes should operate in balance and harmony, and guide all that we do."

He then went on to list each:

"1) Create a culture of accountability and professional excellence.

2) Build a positive work environment and an atmosphere of trust.

3) Find our identity as a customer/community service-oriented department.

4) Cultivate and support creative, collaborative crime fighters.

5) Safeguard and enhance public trust."

He then closed by urging EPD employees to "do what's right, do the best you can and treat people the way you'd like to be treated."

On March 17, 2021, the Sacramento Bee published an explosive report detailing vulgar, misogynistic and dehumanizing text messages sent between a group of officers that someone leaked to the paper. The Journal has since independently corroborated the texts through a California Public Records Act request and uncovered others not included in the Bee's reporting. Together, they depict a unit — led by Sgt. Rodrigo Reyna-Sanchez, a 22-year veteran of the department — with a prevailing culture that objectifies and dehumanizes women, embraces violence and detests homeless people.

In the immediate aftermath of the Bee's report, Watson announced that he'd placed two officers — Reyna-Sanchez and Mark Meftah, who combined to send the vast majority of the offensive texts — on paid administrative leave pending an investigation. The city quickly entered into a far-reaching contract with the Bay Area law firm Sacks, Ricketts and Case LLP, giving the firm sole authority in determining "the means, manner and findings related to the investigation" and "full discretion" to conduct the investigation without the city "influencing or interfering with the outcome."

Just last week, Watson confirmed to the Journal that he has also placed one of EPD's two captains — Patrick O'Neill, a 26-year veteran of the department who oversaw its Field Operations Division, which includes patrol — on administrative leave. Citing confidentiality laws related to police officer personnel files, Watson declined to say whether putting O'Neill on leave stemmed from the texting investigation or something else, saying, "It is the city's policy not to comment regarding ongoing investigations or identify officers who may be subject to disciplinary actions."

But several current and former Humboldt County law enforcement officers interviewed for this story, all of whom declined to be identified discussing EPD's personnel matters, said internal affairs investigations have a way of sprawling, sometimes uncovering misconduct unrelated to the initial scope of the investigation that also warrants looking into. In this way, there's often no telling where these types of investigations will go or what they might uncover.

According to billing invoices received through a public records request, Sacks, Ricketts and Case had billed the city for 47.9 hours of work through April at a total cost of almost $17,000

Todd Simonson, a partner at the firm who signed its firm's contract with the city, declined to comment on the investigation's scope or timeline when contacted by the Journal. What is clear, though, is that many in and around EPD and city hall feel the stakes of the investigation and its outcome are incredibly high.

"Public trust is hard to earn and easy to lose," Mayor Susan Seaman said in a statement shortly after the Bee's report. "People are angry and they should be. I'm angry. There is no excuse for the demeaning, disrespectful content reported to have been included in those messages."

The Texts

Responding to a request seeking all text messages exchanged between members of Sanchez's unit over a three-year span, which asked for messages sent and received on officers' personal cell phones, the city asked officers who worked on the unit to turn over any messages they had pertaining to police work. If officers said they did not have any, the city asked them to sign a declaration, under penalty of perjury, to that effect.

Of the more than one dozen officers who worked on the unit over the time period, all but two submitted declarations saying they did not have any text messages pertaining to police business, though there would have been nothing to prevent officers from simply deleting any such messages from their phones after the Bee's report published but before the records request was submitted.

Of the two who turned over messages — officers Matthew White and Ben Altic — White's is the only batch that includes texts referenced in the Bee's reporting. They span a period of about six months from January through July of 2020, and include messages that objectify and demean women, dehumanize homeless people and seem to fly in the face of the "sanctity of life" principles Watson has repeatedly espoused for the department. Throughout the messages, Reyna-Sanchez and Meftah are the two officers who repeatedly cross the bounds of decency, while other officers only rarely chime in and others — like White — don't send a single text.

While some of the texts are indicative of a kind of junior high school locker room mindset in which officers make jokes about each other's penis size and masturbation, others are far more troubling.

In one thread reportedly discussing a woman "who was known to shoplift and who also had a history of mental illness," according to the Bee, Reyna-Sanchez urges his subordinates to "get pics of her rack!!" To which Meftah replies, "Saggy ol udders."

In other threads, Reyna-Sanchez refers to a former Humboldt County health officer as "bitch," a term he also uses for a woman contacted at Motel 6.

"You all dealt with the Motel 6 snatch again this morning huh. Hope someone got to punch her in her batch mouth," officer Nicholas Jones responds. He then immediately texts again to correct his typo, "Bitch."

On Feb. 26, the unit got word that one of its officers — Ryan Cassidy — would be temporarily moving to another shift, with a female officer taking his place. Reyna-Sanchez does not hide his feelings about his subordinate from her colleagues.

"I have voiced my concerns about her incompetence and officer safety issues and they have fallen on deaf ears," he writes. "Seems the powers that be feel [her previous unit] is too green to correct any issues that she has, and she had a lot of issues ... so they're putting her on days so that all u veteran officers can unfuck her."

Jones then inquires about how many "personal" breaks the female officer would get.

"Well she needs to milk herself," Reyna-Sanchez responds, then making reference to her and another female officer on his unit — Young Porambo — having a "safe room."

"It's a fucking cry room sarge," Porambo responds on the thread, apparently distancing herself from other female officers on the force. "Those bitches need a fucking cry room."

In an April 18, 2020, exchange, Reyna-Sanchez notes that someone is having flowers sent to the department's animal control officer, saying, it would "be nice if we could all be at the pd to clap for her ... maybe she'll jump up and down???"

"I'll be there for the jumping," Jones responds.

In another thread on Feb. 26, Meftah makes fun of Reyna-Sanchez for having just taken his Christmas lights down, noting, "It's almost March man."

"Yea," Reyna-Sanchez responds. "I only have access to one set of tits ... when the owner of those tits says, don't take them down yet, they stay up."

In another thread, Reyna-Sanchez 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 the "pos is at st joes with several extra holes in him!!" When Sieger is identified, Reyna-Sanchez refers to him as a "weird fucker" and makes fun of the decals Sieger put on his car.

In other exchanges, Reyna-Sanchez notes he has "some payback" for a suspect and in another thread urges his subordinates to "face shoot" a suspect who bailed out of jail, noting the suspect allegedly stole a tactical vest Reyna-Sanchez had loaned to code enforcement.

On June 6, 2020, Meftah tells the unit that U.S. Highway 101 is closed in Del Norte County due to a standoff with a man with a gun.

"Can we go???" he asks. "I need to work out some frustrations."

Much of the vulgarity and vitriol in the threads is directed at local homeless residents, whom the officers refer to as "trogs," an apparent reference to troglodytes, or cave dwellers.

When a fire broke out at John's Used Cars and Wreckers on Jacobs Avenue, which Reyna-Sanchez said was loaded with oil and fuel, Meftah quipped, "I'll go gather some trogs and herd them inside."

In another exchange, an officer jokes about using a giant bubble resembling a hamster ball to protect against COVID, as Jones says he'd like to roll it down the "buhne hill."

"We'll set up some trogs like bowling pins at the bottom!!" Reyna-Sanchez replies.

On April 19, 2020, Meftah, seemingly unprompted, asks, "You think if we ask nicely we could get the helicopter crew to do a really low pass over old town and decapitate a bunch of trogs?"

"It would have to be a really low pass ... they're all still sleeping," Reyna-Sanchez replies.

In another thread, the officers seem to espouse a philosophy regarding homeless services at odds with the one adopted by the department, which in recent years has been very supportive and actively partnered with various organizations offering free meal and other programs. In the thread, Meftah posts a photo of a man feeding pigeons.

"This pictures sums up what's wrong with Eka," he writes. "Feeding the birds just empowers them and makes them stay. Zoom in and note the birds perched on the roof line waiting to swarm the guy and just take his shit if he doesn't give it to them. Note more birds flying in because they heard there was free handouts. Now they are all shitting everywhere and this dude doesn't know what the fuck to do with the situation he created!"

"Yes," responds Reyna-Sanchez. "One of my write ups involved comparing the homeless to pigeons and how if we feed them they won't ever leave!!!"

Process

In the wake of the Bee's article, dozens of people turned out to several protests to call for the officers' firing, incensed Reyna-Sanchez and Meftah were simply on paid-administrative leave. But, as Watson has explained, the officers have protections guaranteed by law.

Known as the Police Officer's Procedural Bill of Rights, a powerful collection of state laws guarantee officers due process rights that most employees simply do not have. These rights ensure that officers aren't disciplined — or suspended without pay — absent an investigation and a sustained finding of wrongdoing. Additionally, they guarantee officers access to an attorney through a legal defense fund, an advisement of the allegations against them and an opportunity to prepare for interrogation. And the rights guarantee that the interrogation be conducted in a specific manner, with only one officer questioning them at a time, and that any investigation be completed within one year.

State laws also fiercely protect officers' disciplinary records. Senate Bill 1421, passed in 2018, was considered a landmark transparency bill in California as it, for the first time, compelled departments to release the findings of internal investigations into officer involved shootings, uses of force causing serious bodily injury and sustained findings of dishonesty or sexual assault. But virtually any other sustained finding of officer misconduct in the state remains protected, prohibiting departments from even advising other officers of an investigations' findings and ensuing disciplinary action.

For example, when it comes to Meftah and Reyna-Sanchez, the Journal requested any disciplinary records releasable under Senate Bill 1421 and the city said there are none, meaning neither has faced a sustained allegation of dishonesty or sexual assault. But beyond that, their disciplinary records remain secret.

We do know, ironically due to the released text messages, that Reyna-Sanchez faced a complaint in February of 2020, though we don't know if any disciplinary action ensued.

"For those of u who came to my rescue yesterday ... the male subject filed a complaint against me," he texted his unit. "Seems he took offense to me telling him he was being retarded ... anyway, expect the (captain) to call u in at some point to ask if u saw/heard me say that ... I've already corrected him and told him that my actual words were, you're real close to going to jail for being fucking retarded!!"

Ultimately, Watson holds a tremendous amount of discretion in how discipline will be meted out as this investigation moves forward, though he will surely lean heavily on Sacks, Rickets & Case's findings and recommendations.

According to the firm's website, Simonson, the partner, represents management in "all areas of labor and employment law, with an emphasis on matters involving public safety employees." His bio on the site notes he has more than 20 years of internal investigative experience and has "prevailed in numerous arbitrations and administrative appeals upholding serious disciplinary action."

While some departments have a discipline matrix for violations of policies and procedures that specify certain ranges of punishment for specific malfeasance, EPD does not, meaning Watson has wide latitude. And whatever disciplinary decisions he makes are appealable — first to the city's personnel board, then to the city council.

But due to the constraints of the laws governing police officer disciplinary records, there seems a significant chance the public will never know exactly what this investigation finds and what actions are taken as a result.

'Time Will Tell'

When looking at the current controversy facing the Eureka Police Department, it's also important to note that it is just the latest to enmesh the department over the past two decades.

After a string of five fatal officer-involved shootings in the span of 15 months and amid overtime costs that were spiraling out of control and eating into the city budget, Eureka hired Garr Nielsen from out of state to take over as the department's chief in April of 2007, with the goal of reform. Nielsen quickly set about making changes — disbanding the department's SWAT team, tapping the California Attorney General's Office to investigate any officer-involved shootings, clamping down on overtime costs and outfitting patrol cars with dash cameras — but he faced fierce resistance.

The situation quickly turned ugly, with an anonymous blog airing departmental dirty laundry and salacious accusations, leaving Nielsen facing what some dubbed an "insurrection" from officers intent on running him out of town until he was fired without cause after four years on the job. When Adam Laird, who had been promoted to sergeant under Nielsen, was later arrested and charged with committing assault while on duty for allegedly using excessive force in the arrest of a juvenile suspect, Nielsen went so far as to pen a sworn-declaration saying he believed elements of EPD's "old guard wouldn't hesitate to frame Laird for a crime in order to force him out of EPD."

Nielsen went on to identify this "old guard" as a group that included Reyna-Sanchez, current EPD Capt. Brian Stephens and others who have since left the force. Criminal charges against Laird were later dropped but Nielsen's declaration stands as a reminder of just how nasty some feel the department's internal turmoil can get.

In recent weeks, some people purporting to be EPD employees have penned anonymous letters to a local blog, airing strings of accusations that seem alternately aimed at defending Meftah and Reyna-Sanchez by casting dispersions on other officers or further impugning their character. The situation certainly has shades of turmoil in the department's past.

Asked about the operational challenges of running a department currently operating without a captain, a sergeant and an officer, all on administrative leave, Watson noted impacts can reverberate beyond staffing logistics.

"The internal impacts of these kinds of investigations, including on staff, workload and morale, can be significant," he said. "But we cannot allow these challenges to ever deter us from doing the right thing, holding ourselves accountable before the community and each other, and from conducting thorough, complete, fair and objective fact-finding investigations."

Regarding morale, it seems worth noting that both O'Neill and Reyna-Sanchez's spouses are also employees of the department.

In the aftermath of the Bee's report, the Journal has reached out to dozens of officers who have left EPD over the past five years. Most declined to comment or didn't return calls. Most of those who did declined to be identified speaking publicly about their experiences.

But Katherine Howden, who retired in 2016 after 26 years with EPD, during which she became the first female officer to serve on a SWAT team in Humboldt County, served as a field training officer and supervised the criminal investigations services division, agreed to share some thoughts.

She said it seems the department has made some "solid advancements" under Watson.

"I believe, having worked with him, that his morals, integrity and commitment to the community are unwavering," she said. "However, the Eureka Police Department and Humboldt County, in general, have a long road ahead if the goal is to become evolved, unbiased and effective in public safety."

When it comes to the content of the text messages first reported by the Bee, Howden said she wasn't surprised.

"I can honestly say that while I was surprised by the boldness of delivery regarding the events leading to the outside investigation, I wasn't at all surprised by the content," she said. "Eureka PD has some very good people working for the organization and I'm sure they're collectively disappointed right now. I'm also sure that those same good folks will continue to do the work professionally and justly, for the community and for their pride in the profession.

"I certainly hope that the sequence of events coming to light finally brings a sea-change that Eureka so badly needs," Howden continued. "Time will tell."

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.

Tags

Comments (3)

Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment
 

Add a comment