Andrea Heath, a former police officer in Desert Hot Springs, California, died three years ago at forty-four years of age. Her untimely death was indisputably the result of trauma she suffered in the line of duty. Yet she was not the subject of an elaborate state funeral, nor was her name inscribed on the Officer Down Memorial Page. She was an authentic victim of what can legitimately be called a war on cops – specifically, the unending war waged within law enforcement against whistleblowers who cross the Blue Line.
Attorney Jerry Steering, who represents Heath’s family in a federal lawsuit, describes her suicide as the culmination of an unremitting campaign of harassment by the police department and the bankrupt Desert Hot Springs municipal government in retaliation for her involvement in a federal civil rights investigation.
“They didn’t pull the trigger, but they drove her to it,” Steering asserts. “She told the truth and in response they retaliated by driving her out of the department, driving her out of her mind, which led to her suicide.”
In October 2011, Heath, who had been cooperating with the FBI, testified before a federal grand jury regarding criminal misconduct by fellow officers and cover-ups undertaken by their superiors. The most egregious episode of that kind took place on Febuary 25, 2005, when a thugscrum led by Sgt. Anthony Sclafani beat, kicked, tased, and pepper-sprayed a handcuffed, intoxicated woman named Angelica Vargas and her boyfriend, Jamal White.
According to Heath’s testimony, which eventually led to Sclafani’s conviction on federal charges, the sergeant and several other officers “took turns kicking, stomping, and tasing [Vargas]… until she was unconscious and convulsing on the floor of the station, and when she crawled away from the officers, they pepper-sprayed her and continued to torture her.” Sclafani would later insist that this was appropriate treatment for a person he characterized as “a piece of sh*t” who “was banging on the jail wall.”
On previous occasions, recounts her lawsuit, Heath had “witnessed several other DHSPD police officers falsely arrest, beat, tase, pepper-spray, and otherwise torture detainees and arrestees.” One of those incidents involved a man named Edward Moore, who made the tragic mistake of calling the police to report a hit-and-run in front of his home. When Moore tried to hand Sgt. Sclafani a note containing the license plate number of the vehicle, the officer – as if by reflex – responded by pepper-spraying and punching him.
Behavior of this kind is commonplace in law enforcement, rationalized by the routine perjury called “creative writing,” and protected through the tribal solidarity of the coercive caste. Whatever her faults and weaknesses, Andrea Heath was blessed with the moral honesty to recognize this conduct as criminal, and the character to confront it. Local avenues of redress being unavailable, Andrea reported the criminal acts of her colleagues to FBI Special Agent Steve Novak and Assistant U.S. Attorney Lamar Baker in April 2007.
At the time, Andrea was an eleven-year veteran of the department. Within days of her interview with the FBI, she noticed that “none of [her] fellow officers were speaking to her, and were making remarks … in her presence about [her] `ratting’ them out,” narrates the lawsuit. Other comments made about Andrea – a relatively fair-complexioned woman of African ancestry – were vulgar racial slurs. In one instance she overheard Sgt. Sclafani describe her as a “bull dyke.”
In April 2008, roughly a year after Andrea approached the FBI, she was demoted from Investigator (a rank akin to detective) to patrol officer, and given a five percent pay cut. Although she was informed that her position had been discontinued for budgetary reasons, the department simply hired an outside consultant to do the same job. While privatizing police functions is always desirable, in this case the decision was made in the interest of retaliation, rather than for public benefit.
Not surprisingly, Andrea was told by several people that her name was on a “hit list” of officers being considered for termination. Equally unsurprising is the fact that Sgt. Sclafani, who was the subject of a federal investigation, was placed “in charge of patrol, scheduling, training, armory, issuing weapons, hiring and vetting of new police officers, [and] termination of police officers….”
Because of Andrea’s retaliatory demotion, Sclafani became her supervisor, and he made predictable use of his position to harass and threaten her. In May 2008, according to the lawsuit, Sclafani called Andrea into his office to interrogate her about her conversations with the FBI. Andrea was understandably reluctant to discuss the matter. This triggered a petulant outburst from Sclafani, who whined that it was unfair for him to face the possibility of prison time for beating “a piece of sh*t” who, from his perspective, deserved to be stomped into a bloody mess.
Andrea was told in that meeting that she should consider applying for a job with another department. When she didn’t leave, Sclafani began to assign potentially violent calls to Andrea while refusing to provide her with backup.
On one occasion, while responding to a report of a fight at a hotel, Andrea arrived with another officer, who immediately disappeared once she entered the building to confront the suspects. Dealing with an injured manager and two belligerent men, Andrea recruited a nearby citizen to help her pacify the situation.
For more than a year leading up to her December 2009 grand jury testimony, Andrea was routinely placed in situations of that kind, and incessantly berated for her refusal to be a “team player.” Things grew immediately and dramatically worse for her after the deposition. Andrea’s patrol car and computer were vandalized. She was falsely accused of having another officer file her reports. During one call respoding to a report of armed suspects in a vacant neighborhood, Andrea she discovered that “the entire magazine was missing from the rifle” in her patrol car, and that all of the ammunition had been removed.
Amid proliferating rumors of her impending termination, Andrea learned that she had been placed on “trainee status” – nearly a decade and a half into her career with the DHSPD. She was told “that she was going to start like a new trainee, and would go through all the phases of what a newly hired officer would endure,” recounts the lawsuit.
This was done not because of any deficiency in Andrea’s performance, but because she had not learned the most important lesson – namely, that Blue Solidarity is the only thing that really matters.
Sclafani, meanwhile, continued to function as Andrea’s superior, even though he was under indictment. He had the enviable luxury of evaluating her performance, choosing her patrol assignments, and deciding what – if any – firearms and ammunition she could use. During an August 2011 “Skelly Hearing” (a proceeding in which a government employee facing termination responds to allegations against him or her), Andrea’s supervisors claimed that she was unfit for duty because “she was afraid for her life to patrol the streets of Desert Hot Springs with Sclafani being her supervisor….”
Heath family attorney Jerry Steering readily concedes that Andrea was fearful – with substantial justification.
“She was afraid he would whack her for talking to the FBI,” he explains.
Sclafani’s allies succeeded in getting Heath removed from the force through a “non-industrial disability retirement” in September 2011. This didn’t put an end to the campaign of harassment and witness intimidation, however.
On the eve of her testimony in Sclafani’s February 2012 trial, Andrea “received e-mails and texts” from the Desert Hot Springs Police Officers Association, the local police union, “attempting to dissuade her from testifying against Sclafani.” Four days earlier, while picking up her daughter at school, Andrea was nearly rammed by two vehicles (one with the California license plate number 6JTJ389, reports the lawsuit). On the following day, the city canceled Andrea’s medical insurance.
Despite the implacable hostility, and overt threats, directed at Andrea by the police department and the city government, Andrea testified at Sclafani’s trial. He was found guilty of deprivation of rights under color of law and sentenced to four years in federal prison.
Following her ouster from the department, Heath filed a $5 million lawsuit. Many of her allegations were confirmed in a second lawsuit filed in November 2012 by Officer Paul Tapia, who at the time was president of the Desert Hot Springs Police Officers Association. Tapia, a 22-year Navy vet, claims that he, too, faced retaliation following his public criticism of official misconduct within the department. Significantly, Tapia had previously been one of Andrea’s tormentors: As the head of the police union, he had allegedly sent her threatening e-mails in an effort to prevent her from testifying in Sclafani’s trial.
Support for Andrea’s claims was also provided by former Desert Hot Springs Police Sergeant Eddie Cole, who like Andrea cooperated with the FBI’s investigation and testified before the federal grand jury. In addition to corroborating Andrea’s account of the beating and torture of Angelica Vargas, Cole told the FBI of several other incidents – including one in which two officers “slammed” a wheelbarrow on top of a cornered burglary suspect.
In February 2010, Cole – again, like Andrea – received a retaliatory demotion, in his case from sergeant to patrol officer (which, despite the penurious condition of the city, is an extravagantly well-compensated position, to be sure).
Following her termination, Heath found an honest job with a delivery company, took care of her daughter, and invested her hope in the prospect of vindication through her lawsuit against the city. That hope was demolished in May 2013, when U.S. District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez dismissed the suit. Heath’s despair grew in crescendo for several months, culminating with her suicide on October 8 of that year – the day before a conference that had been scheduled to discuss a settlement with the city. On September 28 of this year, a $30 million lawsuit was filed on behalf of Heath’s children.
“Could you imagine losing your mother, her committing suicide because she exposed criminal conduct by people charged with our security and safety?” Steering asks. Although that is the advertised function of law enforcement, Steering points out that the Desert Hot Springs Police Department – like most others – is devoted first and foremost to institutional self-preservation at whatever cost.
“These people know no boundaries,” Steering declares. “They will stop at nothing to get back at people.”
In recent months, police unions and allied sycophants have taken up the refrain “Blue Lives Matter.” Amid the formulaic paeans to the supposed valor and decency of the state’s consecrated agents of violence there is no recognition of the authentic courage displayed by the occasional peace officer who is willing to condemn criminal misconduct within the ranks. Some “Blue Lives,” apparently, matter less than others.