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Civil Service Commission Overturns Santa Barbara Deputy Sheriff’s Suspension

Posted on Thursday, July 13, 2006 at 12:00PM
Posted by Ken Yuwiler

Deputy Tom Mathews is a member of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department. He was given a two-day suspension as a result of his alleged conduct during a briefing. Mathews appealed the suspension.

Mathews has a reputation of being a dedicated and hard working deputy who speaks his mind. In an evaluation received shortly before this incident, Mathews was commended for standing “firmly for what he believes in and expects others to hold their own”, for speaking “his mind openly no matter the cost”, and for taking “every call for service and every assignment” he is given “without question or complaint”.

On the date of this incident, a lieutenant, who apparently told the on-duty sergeant that he was having a bad day, came into briefing and asked the deputies if they had any questions or concerns. Mathews mentioned some of his concerns. After a discussion, the lieutenant responded to Mathews’ concerns with profanity saying that he did not give a “f___” about one of the issues raised by Mathews. The lieutenant then went to leave and “slapped” Mathews on the leg.

Immediately after the briefing, Mathews was told by his sergeant that when the lieutenant left the briefing room he told the sergeant that he was very upset at Mathews. Mathews knew that the lieutenant’s use of profanity was improper and that the lieutenant had recently taught a class in which he said that the touching of other employees was improper. However, Mathews was struck with the sudden realization that if the lieutenant was that upset with him then the “slap”, which the lieutenant sought to portray as friendly, must have been done in anger. Under the circumstances, Mathews contacted his supervisor and a commander and was told to put his concerns in writing. He did so. An internal affairs investigation was then undertaken against the lieutenant. During that investigation, Mathews, the sergeant, and all of the deputies in attendance at the briefing were interviewed by internal affairs. When Mathews was interviewed he was told by an investigating lieutenant that he (Mathews) was not being investigated for any violations. Mathews was also told by one of the investigating lieutenants that there would be no retaliation against Mathews for filing the complaint. As he was a complainant, Mathews was later notified that the investigation had concluded and a violation against the lieutenant was sustained.

Later, Mathews was surprised to be notified by internal affairs that he was now the subject of an internal affairs investigation regarding the same briefing for which he filed his original complaint. After the investigation against Mathews concluded, he learned that the lieutenant had written the sheriff claiming that since the complaint against the lieutenant was “unfounded” the lieutenant wanted to make a complaint against Mathews for “insubordination and false allegations against a superior officer.” Despite the fact that Mathews was assured that he would not be the subject of retaliation for his complaint, for some inexplicable reason, the complaint by the lieutenant against Mathews was nonetheless investigated. Mathews believed that this new investigation was retaliation. Additionally, in its first investigation the department apparently had appropriately decided that discipline was not warranted against Mathews because it did not seek to discipline Mathews.

In this new investigation all of the same people were again interviewed. Upon its conclusion, Mathews was notified that the department proposed a 40 hour suspension. In reviewing the investigative materials, we learned that within days of being notified of the pending investigation, the lieutenant had initiated his own clandestine “investigation” against Mathews,and even ordered subordinate employees to prepare memorandums regarding past (and in some cases long past) interactions with Mathews. The lieutenant sought to disguise his investigation as a performance review and claimed that Mathews was unfit for duty and had been for some time. Ironically, the lieutenant must have forgotten that he had approved an “above standard” evaluation for Mathews just a year earlier.

At Mathews’ Skelly meeting, the sheriff appropriately concluded that the materials generated and obtained by the lieutenant were improper. Nonetheless, Mathews was given a two-day suspension. Mathews appealed the suspension to the Santa Barbara County Civil Service Commission. The final notice of discipline claimed that Mathews violated policies regarding harmony and cooperation, relations with other law enforcement officers, bearing, general behavior, and conformity to rules and regulations. The crux of the allegations were that Mathews was determined to have been unprofessional in demeanor and to have displayed an aggressive and confrontational attitude when addressing a superior officer. Worse, the department also disciplined Mathews because it determined that he “overemphasized an allegation of assault committed against you by the superior officer, which after an in-depth administrative investigation, was found to be magnified well beyond the action and intent of the superior officer”. Amazingly, the department reached its conclusion despite the fact that there was no dispute that the lieutenant admitted that he had “slapped” Mathews on the leg.

Deputy Mathews is grateful for having LDF coverage so that he could appeal the discipline he received. Mathews’ appeal was heard by the County’s Civil Service Commission. During the evidentiary hearing the lieutenant testified, in substance, that Mathews was out of control. However, the sergeant and deputies present at the briefing testified that it appeared that Mathews was addressing valid issues; that until the lieutenant used profanity Mathews and the lieutenant looked like two beat partners just talking; that they did not believe that Mathews was trying to be disrespectful, and that Mathews was responding to the lieutenant’s question.

After hearing all of the testimony, the commission deliberated and shortly thereafter determined that it did not believe that the department retaliated against Mathews. However, the commission set aside the suspension imposed upon Mathews determining that the department did not have good cause for a suspension.

PORAC Legal Defense Administrator Ed Fishman Testimony: Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras.