From: The Press-Enterprise
By: Alicia Robinson, 2/07/2011
A year ago this morning, Riverside’s then-police Chief Russ Leach was stopped at 3 a.m. while driving his city-owned Chrysler 300, which was heavily damaged and down to its rims on one side. Though he smelled of alcohol and couldn’t tell his officers what had happened, he got nothing more than a ride home.
No sobriety check. No arrest.
Today, Leach is retired and so are three other officers involved with the traffic stop. The new police chief, Sergio Diaz, has a fresh command staff in place and is winning the community’s praise.
Some people — particularly city and police officials — say the past is past and don’t care to talk about how the aftermath of the traffic stop was handled, and whether everyone was held accountable who should have been.
“I’m not sure what could have been done any differently than it was done,” Mayor Ron Loveridge said. “People who were here last year are no longer here. That’s my answer.”
But some in the community still question the special treatment given Leach and continue to wonder whether city officials were notified that night. They say full information about what happened may never come out.
City officials protected themselves throughout the investigation of the traffic stop rather than trying to answer the public’s questions, said Katie Greene, a member of The Group, a Riverside community-issues forum.
“I think they have just allowed it to die away,” she said. “I think that wound is still open with us.”
The incident began Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 7, 2010. Leach drank four beers at home, then had seven scotches at a Colton strip club, according to a California Highway Patrol investigation. He also told investigators he had taken five different prescription drugs that day.
About an hour after leaving the strip club, Leach was pulled over at Arlington and Rutland avenues, but no sobriety test was given. Lt. Leon Phillips, the highest-ranking officer on scene that night, drove Leach home. Assistant Chief John De La Rosa was notified by phone about the stop but deferred to officers there and did not go to the scene.
Elected and appointed officials at City Hall have said they weren’t notified until six hours later, when an anonymous call came in to the mayor’s office. City cell phone records appear to back up that claim, though critics found it hard to believe no one on the council or in city management was told when the chief was pulled over.
Last March, Leach pleaded guilty to misdemeanor driving under the influence. The city, citing legal protections of personnel information, has never disclosed any discipline of anyone related to the traffic stop.
In June, City Manager Brad Hudson vowed to hold responsible anyone involved in what he called “management failures and inappropriate handling” of the incident. Today, not everyone agrees on whether the right people faced consequences.
Leach, who did not return a call for comment for this story, retired last April after a decade as Riverside’s chief and now collects about $10,000 a month in pension benefits. About half of his pension is tax-free because he cited work-related disability as the cause of his retirement.
Then-Assistant Chief John De La Rosa was named interim chief after Leach stepped down. The CHP investigation showed he spoke with officers at the scene by phone about how to handle the traffic stop. He retired in July.
In a phone interview Monday, De La Rosa said he now wishes he had gone to the scene, but said there was no attempt to cover up what happened and he didn’t leave the department because of the incident.
De La Rosa said he had been thinking about retirement since a 2008 bout of viral meningitis that put him in the hospital.
“I know a lot of people felt that I left because of what happened, and that’s just not true,” he said.
Also retiring in 2010 were Sgt. Frank Orta, who supervised the two patrol officers who pulled Leach over, and Deputy Chief Pete Esquivel, who signed off on a written report on the incident that city officials later said “didn’t reflect what really happened.”
Orta could not be reached for comment for this story.
Esquivel retired in May. Three months later, he filed a claim alleging he was forced out because he raised questions about how the Leach incident was handled. He did not return a call for comment for this story.
According to Police Department sources, the city first planned to fire Phillips, then to demote him, but Diaz confirmed last month that Phillips is still a lieutenant and watch commander, and “As far as I’m concerned, he enjoys my confidence.”
Phillips did not return a call for comment. His attorney, Ken Yuwiler, said that while what happened was unfortunate, “Leon has moved on from that incident and really isn’t interested in revisiting the past.”
Diaz disputed the characterization that “nothing happened” after the traffic stop.
“Even if you could look at this as, ‘Everybody’s getting a fat pension,’ there are a lot of people who are retired … who I believe had no plans to leave the Police Department when they did,” Diaz said.
Former Assistant City Manager Tom De Santis, who directly supervised the Police Department, also left the city suddenly.
In September officials said he would be on “special assignment” before leaving his job around the end of the year, but no one has publicly explained why.
Some community observers still say the buck should have stopped with Hudson, who was Leach’s boss.
“Poor judgment was demonstrated from the top all the way to the bottom,” said Alex Tortes, a community activist and retired Riverside police officer. “The person at the top has not been held accountable and it ended up ending the careers of several law enforcement people.”
Greene, of the watchdog group, said city leaders have brushed off community questions since appointing a new chief.
“I think there’s a vacuum in them addressing how they handled the routine for that evening and how they plan to improve it, prevent it from occurring again,” Greene said.
Loveridge disagreed, saying the Leach incident won’t be forgotten “for the foreseeable future.”
“People are on notice of what are the rules and that they should be followed,” he said. “The incident made it very clear what city policy is and how it should be carried out.”
Police and city officials say they’ve made changes to ensure protocol is clear in incidents involving high-ranking officials.