One cop's telling tale: Who will police the school police?

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A screen shot from a promotional video about the Fontana Leadership Intervention Program (FLIP). The Fontana Unified School Police Department runs FLIP to mentor “at-risk” teenage students.

 

 

Screen shot/Youtube

In 2013, a former police trainee was called to testify about an allegation that a sworn officer had assaulted her in 2006 while she was learning the ropes at the Fontana Police Department in Southern California.

The former trainee, or cadet, testified that the incident occurred during a ride-along in Fontana, a city east of Los Angeles in San Bernardino County. Officer John Garcia drove up at night to a deserted area where she said he told her that “little gangsters” were defacing walls with graffiti.

According to a court transcript, she said that after inspecting the area together, Garcia, her mentor, began joking about wrestling and allegedly began grabbing the 18-year-old’s wrists. He allegedly pinned down her arms with bear hugs while trying to kiss her, according to a court transcript, and she pushed him and knocked the radio on Garcia’s belt, causing it to crackle. The officer stopped, she said, and although she was shaken, she got in the police cruiser with him to return to town.

The next day, as documents show, she reported the alleged attack to superiors and an investigation began. Her testimony on the matter came in litigation against the officer by other women.

Garcia claimed that “he was simply going over defensive tactics techniques” with the cadet, a skeptical police investigator later testified. And in the end, although prosecutors decided not to pursue a charge of battery recommended by the investigator, Garcia was told he had failed a period of probation with the Fontana PD and quietly left the force in 2006 after about a year on the job.

Two years later, though, Garcia was a cop again — this time as a sworn officer with the Fontana Unified School District Police Department.

What transpired from that point on, critics of the decision to hire Garcia say, illustrates a need for improved and independent oversight of school police officers and their conduct.

“There are multiple issues that have huge public implications for policing,” said Brian Hannemann, an attorney in San Bernardino County.

Hannemann represents four current or former female school police employees who worked as dispatchers or as security aides and who have filed civil lawsuits against Garcia and the Fontana School district. Two of the women have already won jury awards totaling more than $1.8 million against the school district. That doesn’t count the nearly $2 million in attorneys’ fees that a judge awarded Hannemann and other plaintiffs’ attorneys in November.

The school district plans appeals. The other two women’s cases are still pending.

The women allege that after Garcia joined the school police, he raped or otherwise sexually assaulted or harassed them. The women also allege that some supervisors in the school district police retaliated — firing one of them — after they began to complain in 2011.

“It is an insular, crony set-up,” said Hannemann of the Fontana school police.

After joining the department, Garcia was appointed to lead a burgeoning school-police mentoring program for “at-risk” teenage students called the Fontana Leadership Intervention Program, or FLIP. By 2011, troubling allegations also emerged behind the scenes about Garcia’s behavior in that role.

Hannemann used a special court procedure called a “Pitchess motion” to convince a judge to grant partial access to police personnel records, which in California are by law specifically protected from public inspection or disclosure. Documents Hannemann obtained led him to the cadet, whose story had never been disclosed, and to other police personnel.

The Fontana school district and Garcia broadly deny the female police dispatch workers’ allegations in court documents. The school district cast doubt on the women’s accounts and the timing of their complaints, suggesting that some of the sex acts were consensual.

Garcia was fired in 2012 and has never been charged. He has refused to speak to media and has not testified in any court proceedings, invoking his 5th Amendment right not to self-incriminate. On a social media site, he’s listed as an “investigator.”

Speaking on Garcia’s behalf, Michael Marlatt, one of his attorneys, alleged that sex that took place between Fontana school police employees was “part of a workplace where there was give and take, so to speak, of a sexual nature.”

”You can debate whether that give and take in a school district police environment is appropriate or not,” Marlatt said, “but that’s a different issue than whether or not my client and/or the district are liable for the allegations set forth in the cases.”

Garcia was hired to work for the school district police in 2008 by then-chief Robert Ratcliffe. When he was a hiring sergeant at the Fontana city PD, Ratcliffe had previously hired Garcia for the city police in 2005. Garcia had earlier been a city cop in nearby Riverside.

Ratcliffe later testified that he was aware of the incident with the police cadet, but nevertheless defended hiring Garcia for the school police, contending that he successfully completed a background check performed by independent investigators employed by the school district.

Documents Hannemann unearthed in litigation show that by 2011, the school police department was in private turmoil due to allegations surfacing about Garcia.

Cpl. Sean Shanen wrote in an interoffice memo in 2011 that Garcia allegedly showed him cell phone photos of nude women and boasted of sexual exploits with “FLIP moms” whom he had met through the program for at-risk students. The FLIP program, which puts kids through exercise drills and lectures by cops, also assigned cops to make home visits to check on kids and home life.

District officials declined to discuss the allegations about FLIP mothers, the women’s lawsuits or hiring practices, but did send some written responses.

“The Fontana Unified School District does not comment upon current litigation matters or personnel decisions,” one response said, “but wishes to re-iterate that it is committed to ensuring the quality of its staff and a positive workplace environment for all employees.”

Garcia’s troubles are not the only controversy that has beset the Fontana Unified School District Police Department. The department also garnered national headlines in 2013 when its then-chief bought 14 high-powered Colt LE6940 rifles at $1,000 apiece without consent of the school board.

The purchase outraged some parents, who complained that the 40,000-student district was so impoverished it had gutted its student counseling program.

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