Colored drawing by Anthony Jensen

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Quintana Arbitration Hearing: City Wins by Damning Themselves, Again

Well, the City and APD hasn't scrubbed its “schizophrenic mess” clean quite yet; we won’t know for certain until the arbitrator rules mid-October. But for most hearing observers, there’s little indication the arbitrator will see ANY reason to put Leonardo Quintana, gun and Taser in hand, back on the force.

Or we can hope. These hearings show how much our City gave away in contract negotiations with the police union such that one person can override the Chief’s opinion along with a whole chain of command that an officer is not fit for duty. Not a jury of his peers, much less citizen overseers, but one person, who is completely unaccountable to the community, decides. Firefighters, meter maids, municipal court judges, private sector employees; no one has such recourse if fired or disciplined in Texas. Just cops.

APD's Dizzying Definition of "Good Cop"

“Nominally, the firing and this hearing addressed every bad moment in Quintana's APD career except the most notorious, his May 2009 shooting of Nathaniel Sanders II…” noted Michael King of the Austin Chronicle. But former “nine-year APD veteran Leonardo Quintana appeared relaxed, smiling at times as his supervisors revealed a list of dirty laundry,” as described in KVUE’s next-day coverage. So “relaxed” it was eerie, seemingly full of confidence in his claim that he "had an exemplary career.”

But his bosses painted an entirely different picture…or did they?

Reminds me of a another personnel issue where APD rookie Ramon Perez believed himself unfairly dismissed and diligently attempted to seek justice through a federal civil suit with a religious discrimination claim. Up until the last month of his employment, APD documented Perez as a competent officer, recognizing his leadership and people skills, but after a small cabal of supervisors decided ‘his kind wasn’t needed here,’ ended up saying he was a bad cop: “unsafe” (complete with new, contradictory documents). This officer has since served Pflugerville and hasn’t yet put a bullet in the back of anybody’s head, much less been arrested for drunk driving.

It is amazing how a story changes at APD depending on internal personality conflicts or external political factors, and how many red flags are -or should be- raised from the resulting gaps in logic. Was Quintana a good cop, according to superiors when he shot Sanders and all those previous times they chose not to discipline him on other infractions and only became a bad cop only the moment he drank and drove? They had given other officers with off-duty DWIs multiple-day suspensions vs. termination, so what makes him a “bad cop” and them “good,” worthy of keeping? (There is the small matter of his also carrying a firearm; attempting to flee the scene –which could/should have been another charge on him-- and refusing the breathalyzer, yet this wasn’t mentioned at the hearing by the City in context with the other disciplinary actions).

Should a Cop Be a Cop if He Breaks the Law?

Quintana didn’t actually “break the law” as far as the courts are concerned, but at the hearing, never did speakers insert the word “allegedly” before saying “driving while intoxicated.” Heck, not even Tom Stribling, Quintana’s attorney, used it. This speaks volumes about how law enforcement takes for granted that all their arrests are, in fact, valid arrests. He hasn’t been indicted by Williamson County yet, a hand-ringing situation for them, if you were to judge by WilCo prosecutors’ actual hand-ringing during the hearing (and some frustrated tears by one in the hallway). In fact, they are so worried about how the publicity of this hearing will affect their proceedings, they asked the City to not air this hearing on Channel 6 until they adjudicate their case…months from now. Thankfully, the City didn’t grant the request (it aired the following two days, but it is not downloaded on the City website for viewing).

He didn’t “break the law” either in 2005, when he shoved his way into his girlfriend’s home against her wishes, since she was later convinced by others to drop the charges and change her 911-call story from: Quintana shoving her onto the ground/hurting her; to: her “accidentally tripping” and Quintana trying to prevent her fall. She was a fellow officer; females don’t seem to be afforded as much leeway as the males at APD.

Interim Chief Cathy Ellison (herself a pawn during the police chief selection game), waved off filing a criminal charge for Quintana but did, however, grant a 15-day administrative suspension, stating in her memo that his actions "constituted criminal trespass." This was later reduced to a verbal reprimand by Chief Acevedo because…well…he felt sorry for pobre Leonito that the basis of the domestic dispute – cruise ship tickets that would go to waste now that the couple was at odds — had cost him some personal money and that his unpaid suspension was going to cost him even more (he made $88,000/year thereabouts and drove a Cadillac Escalade, not exactly indigent). Or something to that effect. I asked reporters at the hearing their take and all were as confused as I. Definitely doesn’t pass the smell-test.

So the story is: he was “officer of the year” from 2002 until December of 2009, except if you exclude his not turning on the video camera in May, 2009. Although by dismissing the other infractions found around the shooting by the Police Monitor/Citizens Review Panel as well as by KeyPoint, the narrative became that not turning on the camera was 'simply an oversight,' so he was still a “good cop,” essentially. The 15-day suspension didn’t exactly send the message that he’d done wrong, since it simultaneously insulted the community by being so minimal considering an unarmed young man was dead.

How Much Support is Too Much Support?

So there were supposedly no red flags on this man, despite the numerous complaints filed on him, despite the 2005 community report on his abuse of Tasers (5 times in 9 months is an extraordinary record), until he admitted to having a drinking problem in late 2009. Even then, he wasn’t mandated to go to rehabilitation. It was voluntary — and he volunteered not to go.

It also seems his “tumultuous” relationship with APD Officer Lori Noriega wasn’t any indication that he had issues that might affect his work because as APD Lt. Jessica Robledo stated in testimony (and other officers echoed in theirs), it’s quite prevalent that officers have unhealthy personal relationships; considerably more unhealthy than the general population, it seems.

What are APD’s psychologists doing over there besides getting good cops fired (as in Perez’s case)? What kind of “support” are they offering officers?

None of the other officers the night of his DWI were investigated (others likely drove drunk if they drank alongside Quintana, they just didn’t put their car in a trench). “The entire episode reflects an alarming, if unsurprising, casual drinking culture among cops, not the most recommended form of stress-relief for armed officers” (Michael King). While it’s no one’s business what an officer does off duty unless he breaks the law, if they are going to overuse substances, the public safety is impacted on and off-duty if they drink to excess or pop steroids, as both contribute to aggressive behavior and alcohol has the added bonus of depression.

Given all the red flags we can now see in hindsight, and that the City admitted to in the hearing despite trying to paint a completely different picture of him as they defend him in the civil suit, we must ask: what’s APD’s distinction between support and enabling; or abetting, even?

“Schizophrenic Mess” Describes APD Too

There’s no support if you buck the politics that keep the blue shield firmly in place, but if you are an overtly aggressive, girlfriend abuser who carries his gun off duty (as a matter of habit?) with the mindset to flee the scene of your own crime…you get one or two slaps on the hand for the ‘mishaps,’ then a few pats on the back and an “Officer of the Year” or two award!

APD holds THIS guy up as the MODEL officer…then comes to testify what a bad cop he’s been all along – or was it only since May or was it December of 2009? Meanwhile, they gave Ramon Perez the Ernie Hinckle Humanitarian Award — but later (their psychologist) deemed him too humane to safely serve in the department.

In 2007, Perez received another award, being named the ACLU-TX Central Texas Chapter "Civil Libertarian of the Year," for “his courage, bravery and unwavering commitment to protect the Constitution and serve with integrity.” He chose NOT to use excessive force and buy into the “forget what you learned in the academy, this is how we do it on the streets” mentality, despite pressure to do otherwise. His story, extraordinarily documented by Michael Brooks, is a must-read for APD police accountability advocates. It intimately describes the “schizophrenic mess” that is our police department: holding officers to certain standards on paper, but actually expecting something different.

Perez lost the case despite the City contradicting itself throughout the trial. Still, the City won because juries won’t indict their government for fear of having to face up to bigger issues that need to be addressed, and darn it, we just don’t have time to pay attention! Like the Quintana hearing, they tried to prove what a “bad cop” Perez was despite not taking any action during that time to address those supposed issues.

But if Perez was so “unsafe,” then, as The Austin Chronicle posed, “why allow him to resign and keep his peace officer's license?” We don’t know yet how the DWI will affect Quintana’s peace officer’s license, he may lose it if he pleas…but as of now, he is working in private security and maintains it.

When a Leonardo Quintana is coddled, but a Ramon Perez is run out on a rail...Austin – we have a problem.

“Poor Judgment is a Mitigating Factor” – for Cops…or at least for cops who play the game right

“Back to Work. I'm ready to go at it again. Here we come so bring on the bad guys.”

This was the headline under a picture Quintana posted on his FaceBook page holding an AR-15 in his uniform – before being ordered by superiors to take it down immediately (a fact not revealed until this hearing). “In yo’ FACE!” he essentially said to the Sanders family and community of Austin. He had just come off of his 15 day suspension for not turning on his video camera before shooting a person who was asleep 2 seconds prior to having the first bullet in his shoulder.

"It was an ass-chewing. ... I'd never been talked to like that before in this department,” Quintana described of his supervisor’s demand he take it down...testimony so rife with symbolism it was dubbed “Quote of the Week” by the Austin Chronicle. Unfortunately, it seems “exemplary” Lenny didn’t understand why posting the picture was in poor taste which caused APD to finally admit that it’s that kind of disconnect that makes him a “bad cop.”

So the real problem is that he’d “never been talked to like that before.”

"We believe he should have been fired for the shooting. We believe he should have been fired for a number of incidents before the shooting...There were many red flags in this officer’s career that predicted something like this occurring." – Adam Loewy, Sanders family attorney

“But cops are human too!” was Stribling’s and the APA’s defense. Quintana was 'basically' a good cop, he’s just prone to messing up...a lot, it seems, according to his superiors who nonetheless didn’t see fit to discipline him over multiple complaints or only offered a hand-slap if they did.

We, the People, don’t get to use the “oops, I’m human” excuse in officer encounters, but aren’t THEY supposed to be held to a higher standard, not the other way around?

So “poor judgment” can be tolerated over and over until the public is paying attention and it reflects poorly on the department. Only then will APD out a truly unsafe officer, or quash one who speaks against officer abuse of power.

The Disappearing Victim Card Trick

“Lenny Quintana is not the victim here,” said Michael Cronig for the City, which is ironic because after the shooting that’s all we heard about, what a victim Officer Quintana is! It’s about time they admitted otherwise.

There are many victims in his wake, however: from fellow female officers to people shot with 50,000 volts in the back (fleeing means they aren't posing a threat to the officer), to the countless complaintants and likely many more who didn’t complain (for fear of retaliation or understandable lack of faith in the oversight system), and, of course, Nathaniel Sanders, II and his survivors.

“It's still difficult to this day,” Quintana, attempting to reclaim the victim role, testified about his shooting Sanders. But if he is so certain it was justified and that the public outcry and the hired consultants’ findings were baseless, then what was driving him to “self-medicate” with alcohol?

What ARE They Saying About Us Down at 8th and Colorado?

The City tried to get the Perez case thrown out after the Federal District Court ruled it should go to trial. Until this point, I had seen the City stomp their feet with the courts when defending officers (or in this case defending APD against an officer) and mostly get their way. I had not yet seen such a harshly-written response from a federal judge to our City (“Defendants”) essentially telling them to stop wasting the court’s time with their crap:

“Although they couch their arguments in various legal forms, Defendants essentially quibble with the district court's determination that there is a genuine factual issue as to the reasons for Perez's termination. But the district court expressly found that there was a genuine issue of fact as to whether Defendants terminated Perez for his religious beliefs, and in an interlocutory appeal of qualified immunity, this determination is unassailable.”

The judges saw the writing on the wall, unfortunately, in four short days of reviewing 1000s of pages of information and hearing +/-25 hours of testimony, the jury could not.

THEN came the letter from Judge Sparks to our City after our Council voted down the Sanders settlement, a negotiation they had previously ordered go forward. The Judge ordered the City vote more than 25 days before a scheduled trial begins since judges “cannot rely on the City of Austin to support the recommendations of its lawyers.”

He went onto say that his “court accepted the lawyers at their word and removed the case from the July 19, 2010 trial, a mistake (I) will not make again,” adding that it had already resulted in “a substantial expense to the American taxpayer.”

I don’t see the City being able to stamp its feet and get what it wants in any federal courtroom anytime soon, but the question is…how much will our loss of credibility cost us in future litigation?

Worst Case Scenario

If Quintana gets back on the force, it will be to the detriment of Austin…as our loss of Officer Perez to Pflugerville was. The community will become even more negatively impacted over the furor that would surround such a ruling, but it would be the City’s fault for their own lack of accountability over some officers and for all their missteps following the Sanders shooting.

And the saga continues…