Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Phoenix ex-officer Contreras sees fraud charges renewed

A one-time Phoenix police officer has been indicted for the second time in a year on fraud and racketeering charges.

A Maricopa County grand jury indicted former patrolman George Contreras on three counts of fraud and illegal control of an enterprise after investigators presented evidence suggesting Contreras and his employees were paid for hours of off-duty security work that they did not perform.

Contreras was originally indicted with three other Phoenix officers in 2010 on similar charges, but the case was sent back to a grand jury in July after a judge determined that testimony presented to the grand jury could have violated the officers' due-process rights.

Contreras was the only officer to be reindicted. Prosecutors dismissed charges against his former co-defendants, Steven Paul Peck, Benjamin Hugh Sywarungsymun and Aaron Lentz.

The new indictment alleges that Contreras committed fraud and operated an illegal enterprise by receiving payment from condominium complexes for security work that Contreras and his employees never performed.

Contreras' attorney, Cary Lackey, said that any wrongdoing on the part of his client was an oversight and that Contreras was the victim of a "witch hunt" orchestrated by Phoenix police administrators who disliked the former patrolman.

The new indictment handed up last week eliminates four theft counts that targeted the other three officers. Their charges were dismissed on Friday.

Lackey said state prosecutors cut deals with the other three officers in exchange for testimony against Contreras, but he said he was not concerned about what their testimony might reveal.

"There was really not a whole lot they could say that was that damaging anyway," Lackey said. "I don't hold it against them or any of their attorneys for what they did."

The case centers on whether Contreras and employees of his company, Raptor Services, performed security work they were paid for from 2005 through 2007 at a townhouse complex near 48th Street and Broadway Road.

The criminal case grew out of a three-year police administrative investigation that reviewed the work of nearly 30 officers, including 15 from the South Mountain Precinct where Contreras worked.

A spokeswoman for Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said the Phoenix Police Department will use administrative investigations to handle any remaining issues with the three officers whose charges were dismissed.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Karen O'Connor's July order sending the case back to a grand jury included instructions that state prosecutors had to tell the jurors a number of facts:

That there were no written agreements in place between the officers and the homeowners associations.

That none of the HOAs involved had documentation showing any financial loss.

That Contreras' business did not coordinate payments to the officers that came directly from the HOAs.

Lackey said the absence of Police Department guidelines prohibiting Contreras' business and the lack of any victims from the townhouses will continue to play a role in his defense, in addition to ensuring that prosecutors heed O'Connor's instructions about grand-jury testimony.

"I plan to go over that (grand jury) transcript with a fine-tooth comb and hold the state's feet to the fire," Lackey said. "We have an attorney general willing to sign off on this investigation on a 5-year-old overbilling of a condo complex when they can't even get their victims straight. There was no intent. They have to prove he intentionally or knowingly stole something from somebody."


Monday, November 21, 2011

Goodyear police spokesman put on paid administrative leave

The Goodyear Police Department's spokesman has been placed on paid administrative leave.

Interim Police Chief Bill Cusson confirmed Friday that John Rowan, a civilian employee who also is the assistant to the police chief, was placed on administrative leave Wednesday as the "result of an internal investigation."

Cusson would not say what allegations are being investigated. He said whether Rowan returns to work or is terminated "would depend on the outcome of the investigation at this point."

Rowan declined comment, citing city policy.

The move is the latest development in the inner turmoil that has plagued the Goodyear Police Department this year.

Rowan was reassigned last November and in January told city leaders he felt the move was retaliatory for sworn testimony in a federal lawsuit he gave the day before he was reassigned.

The lawsuit is related to the hit-and-run death of 18-year-old Jered Pendleton April 6, 2008, that involved a Goodyear officer. In his testimony, Rowan recounted a possibly incriminating conversation in Police Chief Mark Brown's office the day after the hit-and-run.

City Manager John Fischbach said at the time the reassignment was not retaliatory and was meant to preserve the integrity of an investigation spurred from Rowan's testimony. Rowan was moved back to his post in April after the investigation was completed.

That investigation turned out to be an independent inquiry into the department's handling of the Pendleton case, which concluded the department mishandled the investigation and officers protected one of their own.

Brown retired abruptly March 30 after the investigation was released, and Cmdr. Ralph McLaughlin, the department's second in command, resigned July 18 amid additional investigations into mismanagement and misconduct allegations.

A department-wide management audit released in August found several issues, including inadequate ethics and professional-conduct training, poor internal communication, and little accountability for professional standards.

Auditors made 31 recommendations, many of which Cusson already had addressed since taking over the department in April.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

County to Shell Out $1 Million to Family of Man Who Died While in MCSO Custody

You can tack another $1 million on to the more than $50 million in legal settlements Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has cost county taxpayers -- the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors is expected to approve a settlement in a lawsuit filed by a man who died while in the sheriff's custody.

The family of Juan Farias Mendoza initially sued the county for $6 million.

Mendoza found himself in the custody of the MCSO following a 2007 arrest for driving under the influence. While in custody, Mendoza had several altercations with Arpaio's detention officers, which the lawsuit claims led to his death.

According to the notice of claim, Detention officers used pepper spray, Tasers, physical force, and a spit mask on Mendoza while he was in custody. A county medical examiner later found that the bruises on Mendoza's body showed signs of trauma.

The sheriff's office didn't immediately respond to our request for comment, but Arpaio tells the Arizona Republic that he doesn't recall the details of Mendoza's death.

"It was settled due to the nature of doing business," Arpaio tells the paper. "That wasn't up to us, that was the county that decided to settle it. We have nothing to do with us. We never like to lose anybody in jail, but we have ... 300,000 (inmates) come through our jails since I've been sheriff. Sometimes you have people that pass away."

Luis Guerra, the attorney representing Mendoza's family didn't return New Times' multiple phone calls.

See Mendoza's family's notice of claim here.


Ex-Glendale officer barred from state law enforcement

A former Glendale officer accused of sending sexually explicit text messages to teenage girls and sexually abusing one of them is now barred from police work in Arizona.

The state Peace Officer Standards and Training Board on Wednesday voted to revoke Christopher Balmaceda's certification to serve as an Arizona officer.

Balmaceda, a 3 1/2-year officer, resigned from the Glendale Police Department in April.

Maricopa County prosecutors opted not to pursue a criminal case against him.

For two years, the married father worked off-duty at Mountain Ridge High school twice a month, usually providing security during the day. Balmaceda was removed from the job and assigned to administrative tasks in late January after a parent told police that his daughter's friends had received suggestive text messages from Balmaceda.

Mountain Ridge students told police that the 25-year-old officer sent at least four female students, ages 15 to 17, text messages from his personal cellphone.

Records obtained by investigators showed Balmaceda sent 3,600 text messages to five female students from September 2010 through January, according to an internal probe.

Detectives began a criminal investigation after a 17-year-old said Balmaceda had kissed and touched her one night in January after she met him at an abandoned Bashas' store in north Glendale while he was on duty.

Balmaceda admitted to police investigators that he had sent "numerous sexually explicit text messages" to the high-school students and that he had an encounter with the 17-year-old, according to a Glendale police report.

Balmaceda did not speak to detectives investigating potential criminal matters.

Police recommended Balmaceda be charged with one count of sexual abuse and four counts of luring a minor for sexual exploitation.

The Maricopa County Attorney's Office later decided not to charge against Balmaceda, saying there was no reasonable likelihood of conviction. The county spokesman cited two reasons: the 17-year-old victim's comments that she was trying to get information from Balmaceda to report his wrongdoing and a cellphone provider couldn't provide the text messages Balmaceda sent.

In addition, Balmaceda's reported admissions during an administrative interview could not be mentioned in court due to federal laws, a county attorney's spokesman said.


The cop group coordinating the Occupy crackdowns

As cities across America evict encampments of the Occupy Wall Street movement, similarities of timing, talking points and tactics among major metropolitan mayors and police chiefs have led critics to wonder: Is some sort of national coordination going on?

The White House says there’s no federal oversight. Speaking November 15 aboard Air Force One, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said “The president’s position is that obviously every municipality has to make its own decisions about how to handle these issues.”

But a little-known but influential private membership based organization has placed itself at the center of advising and coordinating the crackdown on the encampments. The Police Executive Research Forum, an international non-governmental organization with ties to law enforcement and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has been coordinating conference calls with major metropolitan mayors and police chiefs to advise them on policing matters and discuss response to the Occupy movement. The group has distributed a recently published guide on policing political events.

Speaking to Democracy Now! On November 17, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler acknowledged PERF's coordination of a series of conference-call strategy sessions with big-city police chiefs. These calls were distinct from the widely reported national conference calls of major metropolitan mayors.

The coordination of political crackdowns on the Occupy movement has been conducted behind closed doors, with city officials and PERF refusing to say how many cities participated in the conference calls and the exact nature of the discussions. Reports of at least a dozen cities and some indication of as many as 40 accepting PERF advice and/or strategic documents include San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Portland, Oakland, Atlanta, and Washington DC.

The San Francisco Police Department and Mayor Ed Lee's office did not returned the Guardian's request for comment about the PERF calls by press time. However, Oakland interim Police Chief Howard Jordan was quoted by the Associated Press confirming Oakland and San Francisco police involvement in the strategy sessions.

PERF coordinated a November 10 conference call with city police chiefs across the country – and many of these cities undertook crackdowns shortly afterward.

"We know that there were influential conference calls of private groups that include police chiefs who played key roles in repressing the anti-globalization movement, in order to stage rolling attacks on occupations across the country,” said Baruca Peller, an organizer for Occupy Oakland. “In less than a week an unprecedented number of protesters have been brutalized and arrested, and in many cities such as Oakland these evictions were pushed for by the local one-percent.”

“Occupy Oakland is calling for a national day of re-occupation on Saturday, to let them know that if they can take a national offensive against us, we can take a national offensive in response and we will re-take these public spaces and what is already ours."

According to PERF's website, general membership in the group is exclusive to “the executive head of a municipal, county or state-funded agency that provides general police services. The agency must have at least 100 full-time employees, or serve a population of 50,000 or more people.”

PERF’s current and former directors read as a who's who of police chiefs involved in crackdowns on anti-globalization and political convention protesters resulting in thousands of arrests, hundreds of injuries, and millions of dollars paid out in police brutality and wrongful arrest lawsuits.

These current and former U.S. police chiefs -- along with top ranking police union officials and representatives from Canadian and British police -- have been marketing to municipal police forces and politicians their joint experiences as specialists on policing mass demonstrations.

Chairing PERF's board of directors is Philadelphia Police Commissioner and former Washington D.C. Metro Police Chief Charles Ramsey, who was responsible for coordinating the police response to protests against international banking institutions including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Those protests, and Ramsey's response to massive anti-war demonstrations in Washington DC in the lead up the the Iraq War, often resulted in preemptive mass arrest of participants that were later deemed to be unconstitutional.

Ramsey's predecessor as organization chair is former Philadelphia Police Commissioner and former Miami Police Chief John Timoney, who is responsible for the so called “Miami Model,” coined after the police crackdown on the 2003 Free Trade Agreement of the Americas protest.
The police response to protesters in Miami lead to hundreds of injuries to protesters. The ACLU won multiple suits against the Miami P.D. over abuse to protesters and free speech concerns.

Prior to the 2003 protest, Timoney was quoted as saying that the FTAA was “the first big event for homeland security … the first real realistic run-through to see how it would work.”

Timoney arrived in Miami with plenty of baggage. At the 2000 Republican National Convention, Timoney coordinated a crackdown that resulted in more than 420 arrests with only 13 convictions, none of which resulted in jail time. As in Miami, there was well documented abuse of some of the people arrested.

Also among PERF's directors is Minneapolis police chief Tim Dolan, who was responsible for the crackdown on protesters at the 2008 Republican National Convention. That event also resulted in lawsuits, protester injuries and an outcry from the national press about police brutality and the preemptive nature of the police action.

PERF is more than a mere policy group. Wexler has personally represented PERF at major political events, in face-to-face dialog with police tactical commanders and leadership. That was the case at the 2008 Republican National Convention, where Wexler and Minneapolis Police Chief Dolan coordinated what is widely regarded as one of the most aggressive political crackdowns in recent American history.

Wexler spent the afternoon of October 14 observing Occupy Philadelphia with Philadelphia police commissioner Ramsey.
Speaking to the Philadelphia Tribune, Ramsey said: “They wanted to see what the Occupy protesters were doing here in Philadelphia. As we walked through their encampment, almost immediately they were texting other groups around the country – it was happening while we were there and that was very, very interesting. It’s instant communication, and it’s worldwide. We have to become more adept at using the technology. Our police department has its own active Facebook page as a way of reaching out to the community.”

“Had a great one-day conference in Philly about social media – very pertinent these days with the occupy protests ...” Wexler stated from his twitter account.

As the occupation movement grew, PERF began circulating a publication titled Managing Major Events: Best Practices from the Field. The manual – a copy of which we downloaded -- amounts to a how-to guide for policing political events, and gives special attention to policing “Anarchists” and “Eco Terrrorists” at political events.

The guide encourages the use of undercover officers and snatch squads to “grab the bad guys and remove them from the crowd.” It urges local law enforcement to use social media to map the Occupy movement.

An earlier PERF guide Police Management of Mass Demonstrations advocates the use of embedded media to control police messages, the use of undercover cops to infiltrate protest groups, the use and pitfalls of preemptive mass arrest, an examination of the use of less-than-lethal crowd control weapons, and general discussion weighing the use of force in crowd control.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

2 Goodyear police officers cleared in fatal hit-run probe

Goodyear officials announced Monday two police officers accused of misconduct in a fatal 2008 hit-and-run investigation will not face criminal charges and that a police vehicle involved in the incident has been cleared of causing the teen's fatal injuries.

A letter from the Arizona Attorney General's Office dated Oct. 19 said the office would not pursue criminal charges against Det. Anna Ybarra or Sgt. Deron Miller because "no reasonable basis, factually, or legally, exists to justify or support criminal charges of Obstruction of Justice, Hindering Prosecution, or any other criminal offense," according to the document obtained by The Republic.

Michael Benchoff, the senior litigation counsel who wrote the letter, also said he did not believe "any jury would find them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, if in fact they had been charged." He based his decision on a review of a Department of Public Safety criminal investigation into the officers' conduct.

An independent investigation into the Goodyear Police Department's handling of the hit-and-run released in March concluded Miller hindered the investigation by not informing investigating officers that Goodyear Officer Bradley Hardin may have been involved. It also said Ybarra obstructed justice when she called Hardin two days later to tell him officers were coming to his house to seize his vehicle.

Goodyear officials also said Hardin's police car has been ruled out as the vehicle that caused 18-year-old Jered Pendleton's fatal injuries by a Maricopa County Sheriff's Office evidence examination.

According to an evidence comparison outlined in the MCSO examination report, bolts from the car's undercarriage were a different size than injury patterns found on Pendleton's body. The comparison also ruled out a GMC tow truck because the bolts were a different size and shape.

Bolts from a Chevrolet pickup truck also were compared and had a similar shape and size but could not be identified or excluded as a match because there wasn't enough detail in the injury pattern, the report states.
No arrests have been made in Pendleton's death and the case remains open.


Ex-Tempe policeman sentenced in theft case

A former Tempe police officer has been sentenced to probation for stealing items from the department's property and evidence facility.

Authorities say Elliot Campbell was arrested in May and resigned after 11 years on the force.

Maricopa County prosecutors say Campbell was sentenced Friday to two years' probation for theft of a credit card or obtaining a credit card by fraudulent means. He also was sentenced to a concurrent two-year probation term for tampering with physical evidence.

His work vehicle was searched by Tempe investigators and evidence envelopes were located that contained impounded gift cards.

A search warrant was served at Campbell's home. Police found a refrigerator, men's wrist watch and some tools that had been checked out of the property and evidence facility.