City of Woodland Police Officer Gina Bell will return to work after the city’s Personnel Board cleared her of alleged failure to properly investigate a traffic accident and dishonesty. In a 25-page decision issued November 8, 2004, the board determined “none of the charges are well-founded” and recommended the city manager drop all charges and reinstate Officer Bell.
The allegations against Gina Bell arose when the mother of an accident victim complained to the police department that the other driver had not been arrested even though he was “obviously” intoxicated. Bell, a new officer, had written a report erroneously describing her efforts to determine whether the driver was under the influence as “a series of field sobriety tests.” She had based her determination the driver was not impaired on observations and a PAS test, but not on other “standard” FSTs. She cited, but did not arrest, the driver.
Choosing to attack Bell’s credibility and reputation without any evidence, the chief of police accused Bell of dishonesty for using the phrase, “ a series of field sobriety tests,” in her report, as well as for stating in her administrative interview that she had used the phrase in previous traffic collision reports.
The department ignored the usual requirement that it must prove “intent to deceive” to sustain dishonesty. The Personnel Board dismissed the charge because the department offered no evidence that Bell had the intent necessary to support a dishonesty charge. Both the chief of police and the lieutenant who proposed the discipline admitted that without evidence of deception, any errors in the report were not a matter for discipline. In a scathing comment on the city’s lack of evidence, the board wrote, “The city has failed to provide even a scintilla of evidence explaining why it believes that an officer with an excellent record and no prior discipline would lie in a minor traffic collision investigation regarding a matter in which she had absolutely no financial, familial, or other interest or motive to do so.”
The sergeant who had approved Bell’s traffic report without requesting any correction or clarification testified an officer can determine whether a motorist is under the influence without administering FSTs. Another sergeant testified she would conduct an investigation in precisely the same manner Bell had done. She testified it was appropriate for Bell to conclude the driver was not impaired based solely on the PAS test and the officer’s observations. As the board noted, “Witness after witness concluded that, even if a driver were drinking and had somewhat of an odor of alcohol, if there was no evidence of impairment, there was no reason for FSTs to be performed and no [reason for an] arrest to be made.”
The board also found the police department’s own General Orders contradicted the city’s argument that Bell failed to follow proper investigation procedures. The General Orders specifically permit officers to use the PAS device and other observations instead of standard FSTs. The board also determined the city had failed to establish which of the General Orders was even in effect at the time of the accident report.
The board criticized severely the city’s failure to conduct a proper administrative investigation. The investigator had failed to interview all the involved parties, including the driver of the other vehicle, and had not even recorded the interviews of key witnesses. The investigator did not re-interview Bell once he had reviewed her prior reports, provided only summaries of interviews, and failed to provide tapes or transcripts of recorded interviews. “The Board is left to speculate what witnesses might have actually said during the IA investigation and just how accurate the summaries might be.”
The Personnel Board decision and recommendation now goes to the Woodland city manager for a final determination. Officer Bell is grateful to the PORAC Legal Defense Fund and her many supporters in the Woodland Professional Police Employees Association for assisting with her defense.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David J. Garcia is an associate labor attorney at Mastagni, Holstedt & Amick and represents law enforcement officers throughout California. He represented Gina Bell in her administrative appeal.
PORAC Legal Defense Administrator Ed Fishman Testimony: Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras.
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The LDF responded immediately upon my request for counsel. LDF provided the best representative I could receive! When I called LDF for advice, I was given advice again immediately. Thank you LDF for your concern.
- Adam Laird Eureka POA
Dear PORAC Legal Defense Fund, This email has been weighing on my heart and should have been sent a long time ago. However, time seems to move fast even though your life has been put on hold. I have been on administrative leave since December of 2012. In April of 2013, I was arrested for the performance of my duties. Since the administrative side this case has not been resolved, I won't be getting into specific details regarding my case. However, I will say that I never thought that my life would turned upside down by doing the job that I love, and doing it in a way that I had been trained. I have been in Law Enforcement for 10 years, and I have been paying my monthly dues all along. I never really understood how important paying dues might be for me, I just thought it was the "cost of business". After being arrested, I understood the real worth of that investment. Because of politics, my case was given the "full court press". On January 3rd of 2014, the case against me was dismissed. It took no less than 5 experts to convince the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office to request dismissal. The time, effort, and money that this case cost couldn't have been endured by me as the sole provider of a family of four. LDF was there, big time. The panel attorney's under LDF were the best in the business. In the uncertain time during the criminal process, I couldn't have imagined how much help they could be. What a relief to know that LDF had my back. I am used to defending those who can't defend themselves. That's my job. When I was defenseless, LDF and the attorneys assigned to my case were my advocates and defenders. I thank you. My criminal attorney said it best at the conclusion of my criminal case: "Adam and his family are thankful that they can now move forward. The evidence showing Sgt. Laird was innocent was overwhelming. The expert EPD hired said that the suspect was rising up when Sgt. Laird pushed him back to the ground. The two experts that the DA’s office hired said that the force was reasonable and appropriate. The defensive tactics instructor who trained Adam said he acted consistent with his training in apprehending a high risk suspect in a dangerous situation. In total, five separate police practices experts reviewed the case and unanimously said Sgt. Laird acted appropriately". "It is hard to imagine what it must be like to risk your life apprehending a known gang member only to be charged with using excessive force when the suspect stated that he did not even feel the contact at issue. It is simply bizarre that Sgt. Laird was ever charged with a crime". Thank you. My family and I will forever be grateful for your service, Sergeant Adam Laird
- Carl Miller Clearlake POA
- Kevin Hullquist Siskiyou Co. Correctional POA
[My representative] did a good job representing me. Kept me informed.
- Christopher Connally Assn of LEA
To whom it may concern: Let me start by saying how much I appreciate the opportunity to join the PORAC Legal Defense Fund. This is a great benefit for our membership. During the past twelve months I was fortunate to have access to the Legal Defense Fund through MPCA. Earlier this year I was both surprise, and disappointed, when realized that I needed to provide counsel to mediate pending litigation. In accessing the Legal Defense Fund I found your staff to be very professional and reassuring. The staff felt that [my representative]., would be the best ft for the situation. I would like to take the opportunity to express my appreciation for being represented by [Rick Barry]. Not only was he a good fit for the circumstances, at times it seemed as if he was the only attorney out of several involved that really had a grasp on the issues. Again, I would like to thank the PORAC staff, and know that I could not have been better served than by what was provided by [my representative].
- Chris Moore Palo Alto POA
No Complaints. Great Resource.
- Korey Lankow Assn Highway Patrol of Arizona
Outstanding service from bottom-to-top.
- Kip RIngen Lake Co DSA
My LDF rep kept me well informed concerning the progress of my case. I was extremely satisfied with the service I received. Thanks.
- James Beckman Miracosta College POA
Highly recommend this program for any LEO!
- Eric White Emeryville POA
Very satisfied with the LDF services provided. Thank you.
- Eric Olson Escondido POA
You guys did an amazing job! Thank you L.D.F. !
- Jaime Kim Oakland POA
My rep did a good job. First we met and he explained that there might be culpability on my part but not nothing close to the allegations. I appreciated his honesty as we have all done things that can be taken out of context so it was important he told me to realize that.
- Aaron Delgado Monterey POA
My representative called me back promptly and kept me informed. I had the impression she cared and was there to help.
- Marshall Henderson Vancouver Police Officers Guild
I have used LDF in 3 OIS's. Each time I have been very well taken care of. I highly recommend [ representative ] and the PORAC system. Well done and thank you.
- Jeff Griffin Downey POA
My experience with the LDF, and in particular my attorney, was extremely positive. [ My attorney ] worked very hard and kept me informed along the way.
- Robert Glock Oakland POA
I am always satisfied with LDF and all their representatives.
- Jeff Stanley Upland POA
Excellent program, no one should be without this coverage.
- Rick Stephens Alpine CO DSA
My representative was very good. I highly recommend my lawyer to anyone.
- Erik Kusmerz Lyon Co SEA
Amazing job, Thank you.
- Malcolm Norrington LA School PA
I am very pleased with LDF and would use and recommend them again and again and again.
- Kenneth S. Blonski East Bay Regional Parks PMA
I was very pleased with my representative.
- Heather Fontes San Joaquin Co POA
I appreciated the thorough follow up by LDF staff. Many thanks and blessings for the work by LDF.
- Stephen Woodward Palm Springs POA
Great job by my LDF lawyer. I have had to use them several times over my 20 year career and their service is invaluable.
- Greg Harman Kensington POA
[My representative] is the best!!
- Anthony Russo Clark Co School District
The members of my Association are very pleased with the level of representation that PORAC has given to us. As the President I can not thank you all enough.
- Keith Stiver Hayward POA
[My representative] brings a superlative reputation, a comforting and confidence building demeanor and a clear expertise to the table. In particular I appreciate her philosophy that she gives her total undivided attention to her clients during their appointments.
- John M. Laser Oceanside POA
[My representative] always took my calls or returned them within hours. Put my mind at ease and kept me well informed. LDF is well served by this law firm!
- Andrea Salas Sonoma County DSA
[My Representative] was great! Thank you.
- Paul Spencer Santa Paula POA
[My Representative] was great!
- Chad Sakamoto National City POA
Although this incident was unfounded, it's still stressful. My LDF rep kept me informed and kept "work" at work.
- Tyler Robins Pasadena City College POA
At a time when no one cares about you it's nice to have someone on your side who does. (My attorney ) made a stressful six months a lot more tolerable.
- Dwayne Sue Oakland POA
[My representative was] great! She kept me informed and was very professional. She would be my choice if I should need her services in the future! (But I hope I won't) Thanks!
- Gary Silva East Bay Region Parks POA
Thank you for providing this service. My experience with LDF was very much to my satisfaction.
- Albert Contreas Imperial Co. DSA
Thank you for your services.
- Keith Braden Los Angeles School Police Mgmt Assn
Great work, no complaints.
- Ricky L. Hemphill Los Angeles School PA
[My representative] was an excellent lawyer.
- James Stephenson Petaluma POA
Outstanding service. Thanks.
- Melvarene Hayes LA Airport POA
They were there when I needed them and my whole case was handled on the phone. I met my representative after my case closed and he was at our union meeting when I had the pleasure to meet him and thank him in person.