Internal Combustion

Dailies cast uncritical eye at Anaheim P.D. audit

Photo by Jeanne RiceThere's nothing particularly odd about the Anaheim Police Department announcing that after a months-long investigation, an outside auditor gave the force's Internal Affairs Division a rave review. What is strange is that both the Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register thought the news worthy of uncritical, front-page coverage.

As both papers reported on Aug. 15, a Palo Alto lawyer named Robert Aaronson spent three months examining a total of 29 cases investigated by Anaheim's Internal Affairs Division. "Overall, he characterized the department's investigations as 'excellent,'" the Register reported, adding that "Aaronson urged the department to glean insight from citizen complaints that don't uncover misconduct but instead point to failures by employees to satisfy community members."

It's unclear whether the dubious conclusion that citizen complaints don't involve misconduct but simply "failures by employees to satisfy community members" was one reached by Aaronson or Register editors. What is clear, according to both dailies, is that Aaronson interviewed only Anaheim police officials—and not one member of the community that the department serves.

Neither the Register nor the Timesquestioned this shortcoming. In fact, it was only mentioned in the last few sentences of the Register piece: "Aaronson said his task was to assess procedures, so he did not need to interview members of the public." The Reg then quotes Aaronson: "I am sorry I did not get a chance to do that. It would have been nice, but it was not critical."

One person who should have been on Aaronson's critical list is Josie Montoya, a lifelong Anaheim resident and co-founder of United Neighborhoods, a veteran activist group based in the city that has exposed Anaheim P.D. brutality. Montoya helped found the organization in the wake of the 1978 "Little Peoples' Park Riot," when Anaheim officers raided a Latino picnic, thrusting police-community relations into a vicious downward spiral from which the department still has not recovered.

Over the past two decades, Montoya has crusaded for better community-oriented policing and has helped to document numerous cases of police brutality against Latino residents.

Another person the auditor neglected to interview who could have shed light on the Internal Affairs Division's shadowy history is Steve Nolan. In the early 1990s, Nolan was a decorated officer with Anaheim's elite anti-gang unit. After Nolan went public with charges that his gang unit superiors knew about—and tolerated—the routine beating of suspected Latino gang members, including handcuffed suspects, he was forced out of the department by Internal Affairs, which alleged he had falsified reports.

Nolan sued the city over his wrongful termination six years ago. In 1997, two years after he filed his whistleblower suit, a jury awarded him $340,000 for his mistreatment by the Anaheim P.D. in the wake of the excessive-force allegations. (A separate investigation by the FBI produced no criminal indictments and was closed the same year.) The department has never acknowledged wrongdoing in the Nolan affair and claims he is free to return to the force whenever he desires.

Nolan has declined, and in an interview last year, he said it's unlikely the department learned a single lesson about police officer accountability despite his successful lawsuit. The proof: "All these guys have been promoted and are now in positions of authority and supervision," Nolan said.

One of those is Craig Hunter, Nolan's former supervisor in the gang unit. Hunter has since been promoted to lieutenant in Internal Affairs—the very division charged with investigating interdepartmental wrongdoing. Nearly every gang-unit member Nolan implicated is still with the force.

And Randall Gaston, the Internal Affairs chief who supervised the investigation that cleared Hunter and other officers of wrongdoing? He was promoted to police chief before his death last year.

 
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