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Woodland Police Officer Wins Reinstatement After Personnel Board Dismisses All Charges

Posted on Saturday, January 01, 2005 at 12:00PM
Posted by David J. Garcia 

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.

Board Finds No Evidence of Dishonesty

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.”

Sergeants Testify Bell Did Proper Investigation

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.

Board Criticizes IA Investigation

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.

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