Grover Beach hit with $2.3 million defamation claim

June 1, 2015
Grover Beach Police Chief James Copsey

Grover Beach Police Chief James Copsey

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.

John Peters

Commander John Peters

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.


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23 Comments

  1. CentralcoastRN says:

    If there was indeed an abuse of power, then the officer has a case.

    It is just sad that the residents of Grover Beach are going to be forced to pay.

    (6) 8 Total Votes - 7 up - 1 down
  2. Rash Spindy says:

    Based on some of the comments thus far who have referred to Lopez as a “bad” or “high strung” cop, it’s important to remember a few things before making incredibly unfair conclusions based on very limited information. For info, I am not Sonny Lopez. It’s important to remember the initial civil claim is only the first, generic stage of litigation. Sure more details will be coming out.

    Without apparent notification to Lopez, and done allegedly behind his back, the chief attempted to label him as being a Brady cop (a cop with honesty/integrity issues). The judge in that matter apparently ruled against the chief. If accurate, and if the city persisted with the Brady theory during the unemployment matter after the judge had made a prior ruling, buckle up your seatbelts folks.

    Regarding the original taser incident, the chief first put Lopez on administrative leave, then returned him to full active duty, and then put him back on administrative leave again?? If your allegation was that Lopez was dishonest, how in the heck can you justify/explain returning him to full duty patrolling our streets, only to put him on leave again later for the exact same thing? If accurate, this is one of the most unbelievable things I have ever heard of.

    Regarding Lopez’s first time being fired. The city was the one who picked Gardiner to be the hearing officer, and then Gardiner mostly sided with Lopez and not the city. One of the officers from the Agpd was apparently a witness to the majority of what happened regarding the taser incident, and apparently his version of events supported Lopez’s. If accurate, it wasn’t just Lopez’s made up version of events. The matter goes to court, and a different judge goes even further than Gardiner’s ruling, and orders that Lopez be reinstated. That is now three rulings in Lopez’s favor, two by judges and one by a former police chief.

    Instead of the chief and the city taking their lumps (which they never seem to do), which then costs a major amount of money in owed back pay, attorney costs, and adverse impacts to their city and their insurance carrier, the city then decides to move right into a mental evaluation of Lopez. If this evaluation was legitimate, and I’m not saying whether it was or wasn’t, why wasn’t it addressed the first time around?

    Didn’t Copsey apparently just attempt to spike his pension at the end of his career, which if I understand it correctly, may not have been successful due to a change in pension laws? So after it cost the city $190k in owed back pay to Lopez the first time around, the city’s response was to first give Copsey a pay raise for being an “acting” city manager (didn’t realize grover was such a big city, also why didn’t Peters’ new chief contract reflect the same additional job responsibility), and then let him double dip and earn both a retirement check and an acting chief salary while in his exact same position? Man, if this is accurate, how do I get signed up for that end of my career management perk? Funny how some bloggers criticize the street level firefighters and cops for the pension problems, instead of remembering things like this which involve management personnel.

    As much as I hate to say it, and separate from this matter, it appears an independent oversight board is long overdue to oversee some of the law enforcement agencies in this county. These are your taxpayer dollars being used like a no-limit credit card, which the individuals using them never themselves have to pay back, and never seem to be held accountable if/when they make a mistake or if they potentially misuse it. And if these decisions are potentially being made due to unchecked egos, if it is in fact occurring like many bloggers feel might be the case, at what point is enough going to be enough?

    (20) 26 Total Votes - 23 up - 3 down
    • kayaknut says:

      “Instead of the chief and the city taking their lumps”, why should they, it’s not their money, they can always try and scare the taxpayers in giving more when they need their raises, or fake “back-up” city manager titles. Unless any payout actually comes from their budgets or even better their own pockets this type of management will never change.

      (16) 20 Total Votes - 18 up - 2 down
      • choprzrul says:

        Seems to me that Lopez should pursue 1983 action against Copsey and then go after Copsey’s pension.

        If it were easier to go after officer’s pensions, Civil Rights violations would go WAY down QUICK….

        I’m just tired of taxpayers bearing the burden of someone else’s actions.

        (4) 6 Total Votes - 5 up - 1 down
      • BeReasonable says:

        This is a sound proposal. If you want to terminate prideful actions and improper dictates, make the individuals liable for them, don’t allow them to hide behind deep coffers that have no personal impact to them. Why NOT try to find workarounds (undermining the law of the land) when the downside is that someone ELSE pays for your improper decision making? Thanks for being reasonable, with more people thinking reasonably like you, maybe there could be some positive change.

        (0) 0 Total Votes - 0 up - 0 down
    • Stunned says:

      Sounds like a great insiders viewpoint Rash, thanks. I thought long and hard on that kidnap case and IF they were there on a kidnap investigation and it appeared at all that the bad guy could injure the child I could sure see getting an antsy trigger finger. The other side is the risk he took of blowing that shot and potentially shooting his partner but, he felt it was worth it given the potential for serious injury to a baby.

      This one will be one to watch!

      (4) 6 Total Votes - 5 up - 1 down
  3. slosheepdog says:

    This type of thing happens more than the general public can imagine, police managers abuse the disciplinary process and also the fitness for duty exams to eliminate employees who are not on their team. Once they fire the line level officer they use every resource of the city they work for to drag out the appeal process to bleed the officer out of resources available to keep fighting. The Chiefs are not spending their own money and in many cases will not let the truth get in the way of process. Look at this case in particular, how many people from the outside including Gardiner as the arbiter and a local judge does it take to vindicate the officer and restore their job and good name. The cities in these cases will never admit the were wrong or that they have police management who are vindictive and retaliatory against the employees. They will simply drag the process out for years and use the unlimited taxpayer funded resources to keep fighting.

    I hope that Lopez wins the amount he seeks and is awarded ten times the amount in punitive damages to be paid monthly from the pensions of the police managers and city officials(in this case one in the same with Copsey double donging the taxpayer to spike his pension) responsible. Most importantly I hope he is returned to his job serving the public and vindicated from the years he has spent to clear his good name.

    (12) 20 Total Votes - 16 up - 4 down
    • OnTheOtherHand says:

      I agree that they handled the firing of Lopez poorly but he truly should have been fired. There was a video of the incident at the time and he used extremely poor judgment in handling the situation at best. I suspect that he let the idea of this being a “child kidnapping” override any sense of what his actual duty was and reacted as judge and jury instead of investigating officer. Such people do NOT belong on a police force.

      Now, Copsey & Perrault probably used poor judgment of their own in initially firing him for “lying on a police report” but the “excessive force” reason was legitimate. I wonder how much of their mistake was due to a concern that the GB Police Union would go to the mat for a former union president no matter how badly he screwed up. It looks like they did exactly that and that kind of BS is exactly why people feel that there is no accountability for abuse of power by police and distrust them as a result.

      Cops should be held to a higher standard in terms of the law than the average Joe — not a lower one. It is one of the reasons they get paid 4 times as much as a security guard (such as Lopez is now.) If they can’t meet that standard of self-discipline and emotional control, they should find an occupation that they can handle even if it means coming back to reality in terms of blue collar pay scales.

      (-1) 21 Total Votes - 10 up - 11 down
      • TacomaRose says:

        If the excessive force issue was legitimate then the arbitrator or Judge Labarbara would have in essense sustained the firing.

        This was a case of an egotistical chief and his underling who were upset that an arbitrator and judge would dare find their management actions wrong. After that they threw bad money after more bad money, only the money wasnt their own … it was Grover Beach tax payers money.

        They let there egos get in the way of sound and principled management decisions and they should probably be the ones who are fired, but instead, Copsey get brought back to double dip his retirement and Peters gets promoted to Chief to spikes his retirement

        Remember that Copsey came from the King City Police Dept. a department that was in essence disbanded by the feds for corruption.

        Yes its true we have some bad apples in the law enforcement profession and most of them occupy the ranks of management.

        (11) 17 Total Votes - 14 up - 3 down
  4. markslo70 says:

    I don’t think any of us have all of the facts, but for a chief to go to such great lengths to cross the blue line and remove an officer, he must have had a lot of reason — professional, personal, or a mix of both. I would like to believe that the chief was putting duty and the community first (at great risk to his own reputation) by removing what he felt was a bad cop from his ranks. If that is in fact the case, he did his job and deserves the community’s respect and thanks.

    (-8) 34 Total Votes - 13 up - 21 down
    • kayaknut says:

      By all means lets give Copsey and Peters a pass for lying because they feel they are doing it for a good reason. Why expect our poice officals to tell the truth? I’ll try that the next time I have to answer a police officials question, and if caught I’ll just tell him I was pulling a “Copsey”

      (15) 23 Total Votes - 19 up - 4 down
      • markslo70 says:

        sorry, i didn’t know they lied. I just thought the threshold of reasonable doubt hadn’t been crossed, exonerating lopez. Lying in any form is not justifiable. The way i read into the story was that the chief thought lopez was too high strung and his official report and the report to the psychologist stated so (you have to admit, while it is possible to justify tazing an old man in that situation, it is very hard — especially one holding a baby and allegedly cooperating).
        Does anyone know how lopez’s coworkers felt about him? Was he known around the station as being somewhat of an Officer Farva? How about the chief? Does anyone know if he was too high strung?

        (-6) 12 Total Votes - 3 up - 9 down
        • kayaknut says:

          Not sure what you call “made statements that were knowingly false”, just a truth stretch?

          (1) 5 Total Votes - 3 up - 2 down
          • markslo70 says:

            well that’s what the guy who is suing them for $2.3 million says :”in his defamation claim, Sonny Lopez, 42, says Copsey and Peters “made statements that were knowingly false, reckless, malicious…”

            However, what does make me wonder is the fact that Lopez was once given officer of the year recognition. Not that bad cops can’t receive such recognition, but it is usually less likely. I still have trouble believing his version of the taser story, but it’s not what you know, its what you can prove. Criminals get off all the time for lack of evidence. It’ll be interesting to see what facts are introduced and how things turn out.

            (2) 6 Total Votes - 4 up - 2 down
  5. achillesheal says:

    Can someone please calculate the cost of government to our society including all of these personnel matters. It’s disgusting.

    (33) 43 Total Votes - 38 up - 5 down
  6. Rich in MB says:

    Taxes payers get your check book out….Lopez will be getting a nice big fat payout for the bad actions of the City of Grover Beach.

    (15) 39 Total Votes - 27 up - 12 down
    • Cindy says:

      If they were trying to get rid of Lopez, it’s because they knew they had a bad cop on the force. Since when do you tase an old man for no good reason? Since when do you tase anybody for no good reason and it happens way too often. In this case, the attempt to cause the elderly man undue pain failed as the tazer bounced off his jacket and we’re lucky it didn’t hit the baby that he was passing to another officer.

      We complain when we can’t get rid of gov employees and we complain when the management tries to do their jobs and actually get these hot heads off our payroll and off the streets. Lopez doesn’t deserve a dime.

      (3) 43 Total Votes - 23 up - 20 down
      • kayaknut says:

        Lopez may have been a bad cop but that doesn’t change the fact the Copsey and Grover Beach officials went about getting rid if him in way as to not limit the exposure to Grover Beach taxpayers wallets. Maybe Copsey wasn’t able to do both jobs properly, (everyone knows that back up city manger fiasco was nothing more than pension and salary robbery), as since he was(and still is) being paid perhaps he should return some of that money to help pay back for his failures.

        (10) 20 Total Votes - 15 up - 5 down
        • Rich in MB says:

          Easy solution….make public employee unions Illegal….ban them…..

          (-7) 9 Total Votes - 1 up - 8 down
          • BeReasonable says:

            Public employee unions (yes they do have flaws, but what system is perfect) are the only defense against prideful administrators, violations of rights and improper acts taken by higher ups. Ban them? No. Regulate them? Of course. But the blanket proposition is equal to saying “bad defense attorneys”….if YOU were being abused or oppressed, you would want help defending yourself.

            (0) 0 Total Votes - 0 up - 0 down
      • BeReasonable says:

        Cindy how would you know “if they were trying to get rid of Lopez, it’s because….”? It’s righteous opinions like that which lead to administrators making these self-serving dictatorial actions that cost tax payers millions. Officers that are “hot heads” do not routinely get selected as “officer of the year”. Based on the information we know, Lopez received a decision both from an arbitrator (aka a neutral party) AND a court Justice (also a neutral party provided with ALL the facts) to be reinstated. Pride is the only following act on the part of Copsey and administrators. If a judge makes a ruling, that ruling is to be respected and we move on because we trust in our court system to evaluate the FACTS that not everyone is privy to and make an intelligent and just ruling. That ruling is to be respected and not undermined by ANYone, regardless of the person’s perceived relevance or power. Undermining a ruling by trying to create a “workaround” by conducting a fitness for duty examination….especially in which the originating decision maker that decided to terminate (that was overturned by a court justice) is providing biasing information to the exam conductor….is neither fair, legal or professional. Essentially Copsey is saying “I don’t care what you think Judge, I don’t want this guy here”…and that is completely unacceptable. What if you were the employee and even after the facts were presented and you were exonerated, a prideful superior continued to find workarounds to achieve a personal goal to cause harm to you professionally or personally? You would spend all of the time and money to seek justice, receive justice and then still be oppressed and you wouldn’t feel entitled to some form of justice? I strongly doubt that. You need to leave your personal bias and opinions at home because if it had happened to you I’m sure you would be hoping that a court ruling would clear your good name and you would expect that to stand in the face of all those opinionated people and administrators that “don’t like it”. It’s the law and it should be respected, otherwise why the hell have the system to begin with.

        (0) 0 Total Votes - 0 up - 0 down
  7. abigchocoholic says:

    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.
    —————–
    How does this make any sense? If Lopez kicked in the door to find the man sitting in his vehicle holding the baby, how did another officer get in there to have the man handing off the baby to the other officer?

    Ya think you might have skipped a few details? Like all of them?

    (18) 36 Total Votes - 27 up - 9 down
  8. FLAHERTINI says:

    good luck

    (7) 11 Total Votes - 9 up - 2 down

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