From: The Press-Enterprise
By: Special to the Press-Enterprise, 6/05/2010
The Riverside police lieutenant who drove his drunken chief home without arrest has received notice from the city that it plans to fire him, sources said.
Leon Phillips, a 28-year department veteran, already had been transferred from field commander to a desk job in the personnel and training division. He did not return a voice-mail message Friday but has said he is bound by a written order not to discuss his role in the Russ Leach case.
Under state personnel procedure, a notice to terminate must be followed by a disciplinary hearing within two weeks. There, the subject has the opportunity to present mitigating evidence for a police superior to consider.
After a review, the superior can uphold the original intent, dismiss it or institute a lesser punishment that can include a written reprimand, demotion or suspension.
Sources in the matter requested anonymity because of laws prohibiting the release of police personnel records. City officials said they could not discuss any pending discipline cases, pursuant to state laws.
“Because that pertains to this specific situation,” said Assistant City Manager Tom DeSantis, referring to the penal code on confidentiality, “I’m unable to provide confirmation.”
Phillips’ attorney, Ken Yuwiler, said he was unable to confirm any action against his client.
“If any discipline is proposed against Mr. Phillips, it would be for political reasons only, and we’ll take appropriate steps to address any such actions by the city,” he said.
Lieutenant Takes Over
Leach was stopped by his own patrol officers just before 3 a.m. Feb. 8 as he drove in his heavily damaged city car. The officers noted that he appeared intoxicated — he smelled of alcohol, stumbled and didn’t appear to know where he was — and called their sergeant.
Sgt. Frank Orta noted some of the same signs and called for Phillips, the watch commander, he told the CHP. By that time, Leach had called Phillips’ superior, Assistant Chief John De La Rosa, at home and had him speak to Orta.
Orta told the CHP that he mentioned DUI and directly asked De La Rosa if he should arrest the chief. De La Rosa had a different recollection, telling investigators that he quizzed Orta on whether he would treat Leach like anyone else, causing the sergeant to balk.
“He said, ‘John, I got eight months left, I don’t want any trouble,’ and I said, ‘OK, get your lieutenant there,’ ” De La Rosa said in the CHP report.
Phillips arrived on the scene as De La Rosa was phoning him. According to the California Highway Patrol, which later took over the Leach probe at the city’s request, De La Rosa did not drive out and told Phillips he trusted his judgment.
After sending the lower-ranking officers to search for objects Leach may have hit while driving, wearing his tires down to the rims, Phillips secured two guns the chief had in his car and took him home.
It wasn’t until they were in the car together that Phillips said he suspected Leach may have been drunk.
“If you thought that, why wasn’t he arrest(ed)…given field sobriety tests? Or a chemical test?” CHP Officer Paul Wester asked Phillips during his interview.
“Just given the totality of the circumstances,” he said, “I … I thought interest was best served in properly documenting the thing … I was in concert with … uh …with the Assistant Chief, and he concurred with that and that was just the decision we made.”
Support for De La Rosa
De La Rosa later became acting chief — with a temporary 5 percent salary increase he now makes $224,721. As of late Friday afternoon, he had yet to receive any notice of discipline.
“Everyone makes mistakes. He acknowledged them,” City Manager Brad Hudson said in a meeting Friday with The Press-Enterprise editorial board. He added that De La Rosa was bound not to discuss his actions, although he wants to.
Hudson previously has called the actions of police management the night of Leach’s stop clear preferential treatment and a failure. He said “individuals responsible for these failures are being held accountable,” but added that he could not detail specific punishment.
Phillips’ statements to internal affairs were not detailed, but Hudson said De La Rosa was consistent in his accounts to both them and the CHP. De La Rosa told the CHP that no one at the scene specifically mentioned alcohol to him before Leach was driven home.
In a second interview with the CHP, Phillips said he concluded “after the fact” that Leach was drunk, based mostly on the smell of alcohol in his car and his inability to provide a clear account of what he was doing.
“But by that point, Assistant Chief De La Rosa and I had already, had already discussed the thing, made the decision that, we handle it the way we handled it,” he said.
‘by the Book Person’
At the conclusion of a 500-page report, the CHP estimated that Leach was driving with a blood-alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit. He had consumed 11 drinks, including seven at a topless bar, and five prescription drugs before he crashed.
He later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor DUI and received a fine, probation and court-ordered alcohol education classes.
On Friday, Leach said he was “shocked and dismayed” at the reported penalty against Phillips. He said he felt it was unsustainable.
“It’s not like he brought me home, tucked me into bed and nothing happened,” Leach said.
It was Leach who promoted Phillips from sergeant to lieutenant. Despite Phillips’ actions during Leach’s traffic stop, the ex-chief called him “actually a very by-the-book person.”
The same day of Leach’s stop, Phillips removed his name from consideration in an upcoming captain’s promotion, not wanting anyone to believe he was seeking favor from the chief. He had become a lieutenant roughly 20 months earlier.
“Very thorough, very organized,” Leach said. “He worked on the strategic plan and in a number of really good assignments, performed them all in very outstanding fashion.”
Reach Paul LaRocco at 951-368-9468 or plarocco@PE.com
This is the status of the Riverside police officers involved in the Feb. 8 traffic stop of Chief Russ Leach.
Officers Grant Linhart and Jeremy Miller: Stopped Leach just before 3 a.m. and immediately suspected intoxication. Acted appropriately, city officials said.
Sgt. Frank Orta: Direct supervisor of Linhart and Miller, whom they called first. Filed a police report on the stop without noting Leach’s level of impairment. Recently retired.
Lt. Leon Phillips: Watch commander in charge that night. Called to the scene by Orta. Drove Leach home without arrest or sobriety test after speaking with the assistant police chief. Reassigned, then served with a notice to terminate, sources said.
Deputy Chief Pete Esquivel: Not involved in the stop but later signed Orta’s police report. Retired last month.
Assistant Chief John De La Rosa: Called by Leach after the stop. Spoke to Orta and Phillips on the phone but did not go to the scene. Later named acting chief. No known discipline.