Police chief under fire for retaliating against her men
February 2, 2012
By KAREN VELIE and DANIEL BLACKBURN
(UPDATE: Officer Jon Tatro filed a lawsuit Friday in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.)
A Paso Robles police officer, who says his numerous attempts to force the chief to run the department in a legal and productive manner were rebuffed, filed a claim against the city in December and plans to follow up with a lawsuit.
Officer Jon Tatro, an officer and union steward, had complained to Chief Lisa Solomon and city management that command staff had mandated that each officer write at least 10 tickets a month, and preferably 14 or more, in order to avoid disciplinary action, according to the lawsuit and interviews with several officers.
“A ticket a day will keep the sergeant away,” several officers said was a common phrase used in the department.
In addition to the quota system, officers were told the tickets they wrote had to be for hazardous moving violations, such as speeding, running a red light, or stop sign or right of way issues — offenses that could result in high ticket revenues.
In March, after city officials took no action on Tatro’s complaints, he went to the Paso Robles branch of the San Luis Obispo County Superior Court in full uniform with his gun. He informed court personnel about the illegal ticket quotas and asked to talk to a judge.
Paso Robles court personnel forwarded his request to Susan Matherly, the court executive officer.
“I called him back and did not believe he was a police office,” Matherly said. “I thought he was someone impersonating an officer.”
Matherly then called Captain Robert Burtin to inform the police department about the imposter, she said.
Shortly afterwards, department command staff allegedly retaliated against Tatro by initiating an internal affairs investigation into his attempt to talk to a judge, the claim says.
The suit also criticizes command staff for retaliating against the officer by removing him from job responsibilities that would further his career and giving the officer unwarranted reprimanding.
CalCoastNews interviewed more than a half dozen current and former officers and department employees, many of whom have asked to remain unnamed to protect them from retaliation or because of pending lawsuits. All of the officers told similar stories of alleged illegal quotas, dangerous police policies and command staff retaliation.
The officers contend Solomon has enacted new department policies that promote writing traffic tickets while serving the public in “safe mode.”
Her policies include only allowing one officer to respond to an incident in code three, speeding with sirens and lights. At the same time, if an officer responds to an incident such as a rape or an assault they are not permitted, according to policy, to engage the suspect until backup arrives, officers said.
In one instance last year, an officer responded to a call that a man had been bitten by his pit bull and was trying to break down his sister’s bedroom door so that the dog could attack her also, former officer Dave Hernandez said.
The officer permitted to use code three arrived first, heard screams from the house and stepped out of his car. The dog bolted from the house and attempted to attack the officer, who responded by shooting and killing the dog.
Department command staff questioned the officer for approaching the house before backup arrived, Hernandez said. The incident resulted in new polices being put into action prohibiting single officer responses, Hernandez said.
“So if I go to a house and see someone being attacked, I do not go in until backup arrives,” Hernandez said. “We signed up to put our lives on the line for others and now we have to wait, even if we hear shots and screaming.”
Hernandez said he asked supervisors if they were sued for failing to respond, would the department protect them, and was told yes.
In a strange twist, the department has also awarded officers for not risking injury by allowing fleeing suspects to get away.
For example, an officer recently received an accommodation for not chasing a suspect.
“I just read and approved this case,” the commendation written by Sgt. Dave Bouffard says. “It is the case where you stopped a suspicious subject riding a bike at night without a light.
“During your contact with him the subject pulled a meth pipe out of his pocket by accident. Once he realized this, he took off running. You weighed all of the factors, severity of the crime, time of night, available cover units, and quickly decided not to chase the subject.
“This was an excellent decision on your part and I want to commend you for that decision not to chase the subject. Any pursuit has inherit (sic) dangers to the officers who are involved in them. During foot chases, especially at night, there is the risk of an injury incurred while involved in a foot chase in the dark for relatively low level crimes.
On the bottom of the commendation, Solomon wrote in pen, “Good judgment and decision making in a rapidly evolving situation, thanks.”
City council members and the mayor did not respond or refused to answer questions about the claim.
City Attorney Iris Lang said that Paso Robles staff does not inform city council members of claims against the city. City officials in San Luis Obispo County’s other six cities said they inform the city council of major credible lawsuits that could be substantial.