Whistleblower Blues

Photo by Jeanne RiceFive years before revelations ofwidespread corruption in the Los Angeles Police Depart-ment's anti-gang unit, Officer Steve Nolan publicly revealed that his colleagues in Anaheim's anti-gang unit routinely beat Latino juvenile suspects.

The similarities end there. The scandal in LA's Rampart division—of police violence against suspects, perjury, theft and drug use—has led to banner headlines, jail sentences, indictments, a crisis in the district attorney's office, and the overturning of 99 criminal cases so far. In Anaheim, there was no scandal other than this irony: while the men Nolan accused have been promoted through the ranks of the Anaheim Police Department, Nolan hasn't worked as a police officer in seven years.

Nolan was a nine-year veteran of the Anaheim PD—two of those years spent with the elite gang unit—when he broke the code of silence in 1995. On several occasions, Nolan alleged, he witnessed officers brutalizing teenage suspects in police custody.

The first time this happened was on Dec. 28, 1991, when Nolan arrested a 16-year-old robbery suspect named Jorge Alvarado. He turned Alvarado over to gang unit officers John Kelley and Mike Bustamante for the ride downtown. Later that evening, Nolan found Alvarado still handcuffed, sitting on a bench in the station house. Alvarado's eye was purple and swollen half-shut. According to a lawsuit Nolan filed against the city in 1995, Bustamante had beaten Alvarado on the ride to the station. Bustamante was never disciplined, and when Nolan complained about that to the gang-unit commander, Sergeant Craig Hunter, he was told to back off.

A few months later, on March 14, 1992, Nolan alleged in his lawsuit, he saw Kelley hit Jerry Sanchez, a 19-year-old gang member, over the head with a flashlight after chasing the suspect on a carport rooftop. According to Nolan and his ride-along partner that night, Jim Blythe, police removed Sanchez's shoes and forced him to stand next to a wall for 20 minutes while his head was bleeding. Meanwhile, Hunter, Kelley and other gang-unit officers allegedly joked about what had happened, taunting Sanchez in the nasal whine of a stereotyped Latino accent.

At first, Nolan kept his mouth shut. But when he finally told a sympathetic police captain, he was ordered to tell then-police chief Joseph Malloy. Malloy not only cleared Kelley of any wrongdoing, but he also did so in a memo posted on a department bulletin board. The memo said the charges had been made by a “department employee.”

“It may as well have just read 'Steve Nolan,'” Nolan later remarked.

Shortly thereafter, Nolan found himself charged by Hunter with destruction of evidence and suspended—part of what he says was an effort to drive him out of the department. When he successfully challenged his dismissal through the police union in 1992, telephoned death threats started pouring in. “They were coming into my house [and] my father's house at all hours of the night,” Nolan said. A typical call went like this, he says: “Hey, Steve, welcome back! Don't forget to wear your bulletproof vest when you come back!”

Nolan decided not to return to the Anaheim PD. In 1995, he filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the city. Shortly after that, someone fired a gun through his wife's windshield while she was driving to work on the Riverside Freeway near Anaheim. No suspects were ever identified in the incident.

In 1997, two years after he filed his whistleblower suit, an Orange County jury awarded Nolan $340,000, finding that he had been mistreated by the Police Department after making allegations of excessive force. (A separate investigation by the FBI produced no criminal indictments and was closed the same year.) Anaheim has never acknowledged any wrongdoing in the Nolan affair, maintaining that the whistleblower is free to return to the department whenever he desires.

Although still officially with the department on unpaid leave, Nolan used the police union's administrative process to seek a stress-disability retirement package. That effort failed, and Nolan is now suing the city once more, citing the atmosphere of intimidation and fear he says he would encounter in the department.

Because Nolan's retirement lawsuit is being considered by an Orange County Superior Court judge, neither the Police Department nor the city of Anaheim would comment for this story.

These days, Nolan owns a restaurant in Corona—and is more than happy to talk. In a Feb. 28 interview, he told the Weekly that the Rampart scandal in LA doesn't surprise him at all.

“Rampart shows that this stuff happens every day,” he asserted. “The police have a problem admitting there's a problem even when it's right in front of their face. They won't admit anything unless they're forced. It's just a matter of whether they get caught with their hand in the cookie jar.”

Nolan says he doesn't regret blowing the whistle on police brutality in Anaheim, but he acknowledges that he still misses police work. “After you invest so much time with the city and the retirement system, it's not right to have to walk away from that,” he said. “But the main problem is that all these guys have been promoted and are now in positions of authority and supervision.”

Nolan was referring to Hunter, his former supervisor in Anaheim's gang unit. Hunter has since been promoted to a lieutenant with Internal Affairs—the very police agency charged with investigating police corruption. Randall Gaston, the internal-affairs chief who supervised the investigation that cleared Hunter and other officers of wrongdoing, was promoted to police chief before his death last year. Bustamante, the officer who allegedly beat up a handcuffed Alvarado, has been promoted to sergeant. Other members of the gang unit implicated in Nolan's successful whistleblower lawsuit are still with the department.

Meanwhile, since leaving the police force, Nolan says he has suffered from depression and recurring anxiety.

“Steve has some legitimate fears about what will happen if he goes back to work,” said Steve Pingle, Nolan's attorney, who successfully argued Nolan's whistleblower suit. “It's not a really good idea for him to go back.” On the other hand, Pingle says, Nolan can hardly afford to walk away from his retirement package. “If the court does not see fit to order that Steve Nolan be granted a disability retirement,” Pingle said, “then he will report for duty at the Anaheim PD the day this case is concluded.”

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