Grover Beach hit with $2.3 million defamation claim
June 1, 2015
By JOSH FRIEDMAN
A former Grover Beach police officer filed a $2.3 million defamation claim last week against the city, Chief Jim Copsey and Commander John Peters. Peters is slated to replace Copsey as chief during a swearing in ceremony Monday evening.
In his defamation claim, Sonny Lopez, 42, says Copsey and Peters “made statements that were knowingly false, reckless, malicious, and in total disregard for the truth.” These statement were allegedly used to convince a psychologist to find Lopez unfit for duty.
Lopez was once a decorated cop, but Chief Jim Copsey twice fired him from the force following an alleged kidnapping arrest that resulted in charges being dropped against the suspect.
In 2010, Lopez was dispatched to the report of a man kidnapping a baby from a store parking lot. When Lopez arrived at the man’s home, the suspect was locked in a detached garage. Lopez kicked in the door and entered the dark garage to find the man sitting in his vehicle holding the baby.
Lopez said from his view he thought the man was not complying with his order to release the baby and was pulling away from another officer. He pulled his taser, which included a light and a recorder, and fired at the suspect. The shot bounced off the suspect’s jacket.
A video of the incident shows the man was handing the baby to the other officer when Lopez fired the shot. In addition, the woman who reported the suspect had kidnapped her baby failed to mention that she was living in the elderly man’s home.
Lopez wrote his report the night of the incident and before he viewed the taser video. Lopez would later say that his line of sight was higher than the taser which he was also using to shine a light on the suspect.
A month after the Feb. 2, 2010 incident, Peters accused Lopez of using excessive force and of lying in his report. Copsey then placed Lopez on paid administrative leave before bringing him back to work in May 2010.
In Sept. 2010, Copsey and Peters again placed Lopez on paid administrative over the kidnapping incident. The department alleged four charges: poor report writing, lying, excessive force and misuse of a taser.
While Lopez was on administrative leave, he was slated to testify in a separate court case. In response, his former bosses contacted the judge claiming Lopez was a Brady cop and as such he could not testify, according to court documents. A Brady cop designation means an officer’s testimony is of little value in a court due to a history of dishonesty.
The judge looked into Peters and Copsey’s claims that Lopez had lied about the alleged kidnapping and held a hearing to determine if Lopez was a Brady cop. The judge ruled that Lopez was not a Brady cop and ordered him to testify, court documents show.
However, because the record of the hearing was sealed Lopez was not aware of the judge’s ruling.
Even though the judge ruled Lopez was not a Brady cop, Grover Beach officials continued to make that claim. In Nov. 2010, Copsey fired Lopez for poor report writing, lying, excessive force and misuse of a taser.
During his 2010 termination, the California Employment Development Department (EDD) asked Grover Beach why Lopez was being fired. The city’s human resources manager initially responded by stating the police department had conducted an internal investigation into Lopez’s “Brady Issues,” an EDD document shows.
Lopez then appealed his termination. Arbitrator Jim Gardiner ruled in favor of Lopez saying the city did not prove he was being dishonest. Gardiner is a former police chief of San Luis Obispo and a former interim chief of Grover Beach.
City Manager Bob Perrault then overruled Gardiner and upheld Copsey’s decision to fire Lopez. But, Lopez took the city to court, and in Dec. 2012, Judge Dodie Harmon ruled the evidence did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Lopez used excessive force, misused a taser or was dishonest in his report.
Harmon awarded Lopez back-pay and ordered the city to reinstate him. The city had to pay him more than $190,000 to cover the compensation he lost between November 2010 and February 2013.
Nevertheless, rather than giving Lopez his job back, Copsey placed him on administrative leave and ordered him to take a psychological evaluation.
On Oct 31, 2013, Copsey fired Lopez for the second time, stating in a termination notice that he was not fit to perform the duties of a police officer. The termination notice cites a medical evaluation performed by Gordon Wolf, a doctor who determined that Lopez no longer displayed the physical and or psychological capacities that are required of a police officer.
“It is further my opinion that there are no accommodations that would ameliorate this situation and allow Officer Lopez to return to work,” Copsey quotes Wolf as stating in the medical report.
The city paid Wolf for his evaluation. Lopez also names Wolf in the defamation claim he filed with the city. Lopez contends Wolf based his determination partly on false information he received from Copsey and Peters.
A doctor on Lopez’s side refuted Wolf’s report and argued that the former officer is fit for duty.
Lopez previously won Grover Beach’s officer of the year award and was nominated several times for city employee of the year. In the past, command staff had praised him for his efforts in fighting crime.
Between 2005 and 2010, Lopez served as president of the Grover Beach police union. Often, tensions mount between police command staff and union leaders.
The Grover Beach union has supported Lopez amid his troubles with the city, arguing Copsey has taken personal interest in firing him.
“It is evident the chief is trying every avenue possible not to reinstate Officer Lopez,” the police union stated in a September 2013 letter to Perrault. “The chief’s questionable actions and your continued support of these actions are putting the city at risk for increased liability — which could run well after the chief is no longer officially associated with the city.”
Lopez is currently working as security guard and making about one quarter of the pay he received as a Grover Beach officer. He is seeking $2.3 million in damages, the claim states.
For the past six months, Copsey has been eligible to collect both a salary and pension from the city. Copsey retired late last year, but the city re-hired him as interim chief at $11,071 a month.
Peters will take over as chief at a base salary of $124,800. His contract includes a clause that would grant Peters nine months severance pay if the council fires him without cause, and he does not find another job.
Lopez is currently awaiting an arbitration ruling on his second firing.
Last week’s defamation claim asserts both libel and slander by Copsey and Peters. Claims lodged against a city are required precursors to the filing of a lawsuit.