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Hearing Officer Recommends Inglewood Sergeant’s Demotion Be Overturned

Posted on Tuesday, August 10, 2010 at 12:00PM
Posted by Michael D. Schwartz, Esq.

Before his demotion, Pete Friesen had accrued a nearly flawless record during his 18-year tenure with the Inglewood Police Department. He started that career as a small boy coming to the Inglewood Police Department to visit his father, then-Officer and future-Lieutenant Les Friesen. As the senior Friesen’s career developed, so did Pete’s interest in following in his father’s footsteps. From cadet to probationary officer, officer and finally sergeant, that small boy — now a grown man — enjoyed a great history with the Department he had grown up in, until one poor decision sent that career reeling. No theft was committed. No parties injured. No laws were broken. Yet Pete Friesen was demoted.

No guidelines were in place putting Pete on notice regarding the type of misconduct that would lead to demotion. In fact, it would be curious to see if Sergeant Friesen would have been demoted had he been convicted for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI), a violation of law and an act that could potentially kill or seriously injure others. Such an act of misconduct, a sergeant suffering a misdemeanor conviction for DUI, would more than likely smudge the reputation of the Department yet not result in demotion, even though it would be a violation of law, demonstrate poor judgment and, again, be potentially deadly conduct.

No evidence was presented that the grievant had suffered any prior discipline in his 18-year career, nor again was there any evidence that the City or Department had any guidelines in place outlining the kind of conduct that would warrant demotion. In fact, both the captain and the chief testified at the hearing that the only demotion of a sergeant that either could remember in over 20 years was a temporary one-year demotion for that sergeant’s involvement in illegal gambling. But then again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Sometime between January and April of 2006, while assigned to the Office of Internal Affairs, Sergeant Friesen was tasked with the ancillary duty of “officer in charge,” i.e., office manager, which included going through personnel files and purging files of disciplines that were over five years old. He was also tasked with organizing and preparing the Internal Affairs files for civil litigation, as well as acting as a liaison to the in-house attorneys and outside counsel involved in litigation with the Department. While organizing the “shoot book” of an Inglewood police officer, “Officer J,” Sergeant Friesen came across a memorandum from the then-chief of police which found Officer J’s shooting to be outside of policy and warranting discipline. What caught Sergeant Friesen’s eye was the chief’s position in the memo that a “10-year” officer would not have discharged his firearm. Sergeant Friesen felt that such a rationale was illogical and outside the past practice of the Department in assessing the justification of an officer-involved shooting. Sergeant Friesen mentioned the memorandum to the other two Internal Affairs investigators in the room, the lieutenant and another sergeant. After a brief discussion, the matter was dropped.

A year and a half later, in October of 2007, when Officer J’s disciplinary appeal hearing was about to begin, Sergeant Friesen was again going through the “shoot book” in J’s case when he noticed that the original memorandum he had seen a year and a half earlier was missing. In its place was a nearduplicate memorandum without the curious rationale Sergeant Friesen had noticed earlier. Wondering if Officer J had ever seen the original memorandum, Sergeant Friesen called J to inquire. When he learned that Officer J had not seen such a memorandum, Sergeant Friesen then offered J to have his attorney call Sergeant Friesen to discuss it. The attorney did. J’s attorney stated that he had not seen the memorandum either and that he felt he had a strong case and, most likely, would not have used that information in the hearing anyway. Based on this conversation, Sergeant Friesen no longer felt the information was significant. The next day, on the first day of the arbitration hearing, Sergeant Friesen had occasion to speak briefly to Officer J’s attorney in person at the station. The attorney reiterated he had not seen the memorandum. J’s attorney also stated, again, that he did not feel the information was that relevant and that he probably would not use it in the hearing. To Sergeant Friesen, the information now seemed to be barely relevant. The conversation did not go further.

The following week, Sergeant Friesen’s name appeared on the witness list that J’s attorney submitted to the City. When this was raised in the Internal Affairs office, during a conversation between the lieutenant, the assigned case sergeant and Sergeant Friesen, Sergeant Friesen told the lieutenant about the missing document and his conversation with J’s attorney. The lieutenant reported the series of events to the chief. An Internal Affairs investigation was initiated.

Pete was found to have violated the chain of command. The recommendation was termination. The Skelly hearing with the chief was emotional. Pete described to the chief how he had begun his career with the City of Inglewood Police Department, literally growing up there on his father’s lap; had devoted most of his life to the City and the Department; and would never intentionally bring disrepute to it. In fact, by contacting J and his attorney, Sergeant Friesen felt he was demonstrating a sense of fairness and objectivity. After having months to scrutinize his actions and thought process, however, he realized that original assessment was flawed, and he should have also contacted his lieutenant right away, if for no other reason than to let her know that the integrity of the unit’s recordkeeping may have been breached. He also expressed embarrassment and remorse for his actions and the bruised egos of his coworkers.

The chief chose not to terminate Sergeant Friesen, but demoted him instead, stating that although she commended Pete on his honesty and acceptance of responsibility, in her eyes the conduct was egregious enough to warrant demotion.

After an evidentiary hearing, the hearing officer disagreed. In recommending that Sergeant Friesen be reinstated back to his position of sergeant, the hearing officer noted that Pete’s previous record of service with the Department was longstanding and stellar; that he had and still enjoyed a good reputation at the Department; that Sergeant Friesen’s demotion was disparate treatment in that the Department had only demoted one other sergeant in nearly 30 years and that was for the crime of illegal gambling; and that the Department had not proven that the conduct was, in fact, so egregious as to warrant demotion. Moreover, it was Sergeant Friesen’s assignment to act as a liaison with outside attorneys, and to oversee the organization of the Internal Affairs office, including its files. His mistake was one of the heart. The hearing officer wrote that Sergeant Friesen could and should still contribute as a sergeant, albeit in a different assignment.

Unfortunately, in Inglewood, the city manager has the final determination. And, consistent with most city managers, he did not follow the reasoned recommendation of the hearing officer, which would have meant not only reinstating Sergeant Friesen to his position as sergeant, but also awarding him any back pay and benefits lost as a result of the demotion. Sergeant Friesen filed a petition in the Superior Court for a writ of mandate. That case is currently pending. Stay tuned.

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