Blue Amnesia in Orange Country

Breaking the Code of Silence Does the sheriff’s reaction against the D.A. suggest the “code” is a bigger problem than cops let on?

by Steven Greenhut by Steven Greenhut

The lady sheriff doth protest too much, methinks. So too doth the union boss, who unleashed the dogs of war against the district attorney. Forgive my bad Shakespeare imitation as I write about the latest law enforcement dispute. Let’s just say the Bard of Avon and the sheriff’s department of Orange County have something in common: a large trove of drama, tragedy and farce.

Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs President Wayne Quint were both furious — Wayne had steam coming out of his ears, according to one associate — at District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, and more specifically at his press spokesperson, Susan Schroeder, for a few matter-of-fact comments she made after a recent mistrial. When asked why the office was not going to retry the excessive force case against a deputy who used a Taser on a handcuffed suspect, she gave an honest answer: "We argued in closing arguments that we felt there was a code of silence — what is it? A thin blue line. We’re very disappointed. … It’s very important for the District Attorney’s Office to have ethical and law-abiding law enforcement officers."

The D.A. believes OC deputies had "blue amnesia" — they lied, or conveniently "forgot" critical facts — when testifying in a case involving one of their own. It’s the latest incident in a string of cases involving sheriff’s deputies who allegedly covered up for their misbehaving colleagues, ranging from the D.A.’s allegations of departmental perjury and witness tampering following the John Chamberlain jail murder in October 2006 to the possible cover-up by sheriff’s officials of a deputy, Gerald Stenger, accused last year of child molestation.

The jury voted to acquit the Taser-happy cop, Christopher Hibbs, by an 11-1 verdict. According to Rackauckas, speaking at a press conference on May 12, it did so because the key witnesses changed their stories.

Deputies painted a clear picture of Hibbs and his Taser abuse in an internal investigation and before the grand jury. But they told differing accounts of the event once the trial got under way. The public knows that cops frown on "ratting out" one another, even though this undermines the rule of law. While a "code of silence" is no surprise, the sheriff’s overreaction to a few words certainly is surprising.

There’s little that would shock me coming from union chief Quint, a guy who once publicly threatened to release criminals in the neighborhood of a rival union official. But the personal attacks he unleashed on Schroeder — a vitriolic letter sent to deputies statewide with a big photo of her, along with demands for her resignation — were indecent. (Quint said, "Since the communication was to my membership which consists of 1,850 fully sworn peace officers the likelihood of targeting Ms. Schroeder for harassment is a ridiculous assumption." He obviously hasn’t followed the many news stories of police abuse or been on the receiving end of one of those "we hope you don’t get pulled over" e-mails.)

"My concern is when the association sends out this letter telling hundreds, maybe thousands, of deputies that this is a person we dislike and here is her picture, then there may be repercussions to this," Rackauckas said. "[I]t might invite harassment." On her departmental blog, Hutchens wrote that "Recent statements by a prosecutor about a ‘code of silence’ as part of a ‘thin blue line’ are an affront to all in law enforcement. In my 30 years in law enforcement I have never heard a prosecutor make such an irresponsible claim." One will find little outrage over the details of the alleged perjury, however.

"Why are they so offended by what I said?" Schroeder asked. "Why aren’t they offended by what the deputies did?"

Those are my thoughts exactly. Responsible leaders would assure the public that blue amnesia isn’t tolerated and leave the personal criticisms to behind-closed-door meetings. At least Rackauckas did the right thing. He stood by Schroeder and laid out the facts to the sheriff’s department, the union and the media. The facts make Schroeder’s case.

On Sept. 13, 2007, Deputy Christopher Hibbs and Deputy J.C. Wicks observed a suspicious-looking man in a trench coat walking the streets at 2 a.m. in Anaheim.

The suspect, a parolee named Ignacio Lares, ran away and, with the help of an off-duty Los Angeles officer who was in the area at the time, they caught him. Hibbs used a Taser on Lares, who was resisting being cuffed. Other officers show up. Wicks writes up the police report and includes the Taser incident in it, which is required under department policy. No problem.

The cops catch a fleeing bad guy, use a Taser to subdue him and file a report.

But then in December, Hibbs is about to be transferred to Villa Park. As part of that hiring process the higher-ups get wind of locker room banter about the possible misuse of a Taser. As it turns out, Hibbs didn’t just use the Taser once on Lares that night, but he used it at least one other time while Lares was handcuffed in the back of the squad car. After an interview with Deputy Chris Thomas, an officer who arrived on the scene, the sheriff’s department concluded in a memo: "Thomas saw Hibbs attempting to question the subject, again, handcuffed in the back of the unit, and when the subject refused to answer or was belligerent, Hibbs used his Taser to ‘drive stun’ the suspect. According to Thomas, he used the Taser several times."

Or as the boys in the locker room jokingly mimicked the sound of a Taser (according to one deputy’s testimony): "What’s your name, what’s your name, clack, clack, clack, clack. Tell me your name, clack, clack, clack, clack." Lares reportedly was crying and pleading for mercy. At the grand jury, deputies were clear about what happened that night. Thomas, for instance, said he did not see anything that justified the use of the Taser in the back seat of the car and explained that "it was in my mind that this is enough, we have to stop this."

But as the case moved toward trial, the sheriff’s department — which handed information about the Hibbs incident and cooperated with the D.A. — called the D.A. and said that the witnesses were going "sideways." According to an internal affairs interview, Thomas said he "could only hear the sounds of a deployed Taser, but he did not actually see Hibbs deploy it." At the grand jury, Thomas thought that the Taser use had gone too far and testified that there was no obvious reason for it, but in his new interview he suggested that "there had to have been justification for it."

At the grand jury, Wicks said he could see Lares through the window and never heard him struggle or do anything that would justify the Taser use. At the trial, Wicks said he couldn’t see Lares or inside the vehicle. At the grand jury, Sgt. Robert Long testified that department policy requires that the person who uses a stun gun must document it in the report, but at the trial he claims that there is no such requirement. The sergeant who wrote the memo explaining what Thomas saw, Robert Gunzel, testified at the trial that his report wasn’t based on facts, but on assumptions. At the trial, the deputies even changed their minds about where they were standing when Hibbs used the Taser.

After the D.A.’s press conference last Tuesday, Hutchens and Quint calmed down, happy that Rackauckas said the code of silence accusation applied only to specific cases and not to accepted departmental behavior. But Hutchens and Quint were long privy to the details of this case.

They know about Stenger and Chamberlain and everyone knows about convicted witness-tamperer and ex-Sheriff Mike Carona.

Yet they decided to protest so much that anyone would suggest there’s a code of silence in the department and so little about the alleged bad behavior by their deputies. Methinks this problem might be bigger than any one wants to let on.

Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register. He is the author of the book, Abuse of Power. Visit his blog.

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