Grover Beach chief’s dishonesty claims rejected again

September 8, 2015

Grover Beach PoliceCORRECTION: The attorney hired to assist on the case against Sonny Lopez does not work for Grover Beach City attorney Martin Koczanowicz’ personal law firm as Lopez and his  had previously asserted. 

By KAREN VELIE

For the fourth time, an outside body has looked into the termination of a police officer by Grover Beach’s current and former chief of police and found the actions to be unfounded. The latest determination is slated to cost taxpayers well over $500,000.

In 2010, officer Santino “Sonny” Lopez was dispatched to a kidnapping in progress. On arriving at the scene, the mother of the six-month-old baby told Lopez a deranged man had locked himself in a cramped, dark garage with her baby.

Lopez utilized his Taser as a flashlight and a recording device. During the incident, Lopez fired his Taser, though it did not make contact with the suspect.

Following the incident, Lopez wrote a report based on his partially blocked angle of sight, according to court records. However, the recording from the Tazer contradicted Lopez’ report which he wrote before being permitted to view the tape.

Police department officials then determined Lopez had intentionally misrepresented the facts and placed him on paid administrative leave while they worked to terminate his employment. At the time, as president of the Grover Beach Police Officer’s Association, Lopez was involved in contentious negotiations with his superiors.

While Lopez was on administrative leave, city attorney Martin Koczanowicz, former chief Jim Copsey and then commander and current Chief John Peters began labeling Lopez a Brady cop based on the kidnapping incident. A Brady cop designation means an officer’s testimony is of little value in a court due to a history of dishonesty.

Nevertheless, during a 2010 hearing in which Lopez was to testify, a judge ruled that Lopez was not a Brady cop and ordered him to testify, court documents show. Even though the judge ruled Lopez was not a Brady cop, Grover Beach officials continued to make that claim and the judge’s determination was unknown to Lopez because city officials asked that the record be sealed.

Lopez then appealed his termination and the city appointed former San Luis Obispo Police Chief James Gardiner to preside over the appeal. Gardiner concluded that there was no merit to the dishonesty allegations and recommended Lopez be rehired.

Nevertheless, Koczanowicz, Copsey and Peters disagreed with the finding and the case went before San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Dodie A. Harman who also found Lopez’ use of a Tazer justified. Harman ordered Lopez reinstated with full back pay and benefits.

The department then required Lopez to get a psychological exam from a doctor selected by the city before he could return to work. Based partially on reports from Copsey, Dr. Gordon Wolf determined Lopez was not fit for duty.

On Sept. 3, 2013, the Grover Beach Police Officers’ association sent a letter to City Manager Bob Perault asking him to reinstate Lopez while noting the allegations appeared to be motivated by personal disputes.

“It is evident the chief is trying every avenue possible not to reinstate officer Lopez,” GPOA President Juan Leon wrote in the letter. “The chief’s questionable actions and your continued support of these actions are putting the city at risk for increased liability.

“Officer Lopez is a decorated and respected law enforcement officer. We urge the city to rethink the handling of this matter and have officer Lopez brought back to full duty without further delay.”

On Oct. 31, 2013, the city terminated Lopez a second time.

In the latest arbitration that concluded Aug. 26, Hugo Rossitter determined that Lopez was and is fit for duty. The city has again been ordered to reinstate Lopez to his former position and to provide him full back pay and benefits.

“They have really wasted a lot of public resources and time,” said Lopez’ attorney Alison Berry Wilkinson, with the Berry Wilkinson Law Group. “All of their allegations have been completely baseless, this time and last time.”

Lopez has not served the city as a police officer since Nov. 2010. In just back pay and paid administrative leave, the city’s cost is more than $400,000. This does not include court fees and attorney costs. The final cost to tax payers for the multiple attempts to terminate Lopez are not yet known.

At the Sept. 8 Grover Beach City Council meeting, city officials will discuss Lopez’ latest arbitration ruling in closed session.

In June, Lopez filed a $2.3 million defamation claim against the city, Copsey and Peters. The city denied the claim, giving Lopez six months to file a civil suit.


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Rash Spindy

In response to “OnTheOtherHand.” Your postings have a different perspective than most of the viewership here, and that’s certainly your right to a certain extent, but please be mindful about posting things for which you do not have all the facts. Specifically where you say “The other officers present from Arroyo Grande PD did not back him up on his claims (kudos to them).” Are you sure about that? Have you read their actual testimony regarding their observations and involvement? Have you personally discussed this matter with them? Please make sure your facts are straight when you make a statement like that.


What I want to know is did this situation either occur, escalate, or become prolonged due to personality conflicts, protection of management style, or ego on the part of the decision makers? Or, conversely, was the employee treated fairly?


Think about it. Sometimes the amount of money the decision makers of our little cities toss at these situations is massive and absurd, and it never comes out of their own pockets. It’s a bottomless check book with seemingly little if any accountability. Whether you realize it or not it’s your money, TAXPAYER MONEY, whether it comes from the city directly or from their insurance carrier, who then recoups their losses by later hitting the city with costly increases to their policy contributions. Who’s money do you think pays for those annual contributions, and costly potential increases?


Let’s assume this entire matter involving both of Lopez’s cases, does have the collective cost so far to grover beach of $500,000. That’s a hefty price tag which could have been spent on covering the salary and benefits for 4-5 patrol officers for an entire year, or replenishing the patrol vehicle fleet and freeing up funds dedicated for that purpose, or the hot button issue of paving one of our streets that’s in terrible disrepair, etc, etc, etc. Perspectives change when you look at the other things the money could have been spent on.


It’s our civic responsibility to be asking whether pride, ego, or stubbornness has anything to do with some of these huge expenditures of public funds. In our area unfortunately, we’ve seen several examples where many people feel it has, and we should be asking that question about every decision being made. The public is finally paying much closer attention in some of our local communities however, and that’s in all of our best interests.


OnTheOtherHand

To all of you buying Lopez’s version of events, please read the original reports of the incident.

http://calcoastnews.com/2013/04/judge-reinstates-grover-beach-officer-fired-over-taser-use/


I actually read a report in another publication that was even less flattering of Lopez’s conduct during the events that day.


For CCRN and others unfamiliar with the story. The mother made a FALSE accusation of child kidnapping when the elderly man who was allowing them to stay with him had enough of her BS while taking her shopping and went home with the child without her. Granted, no one else knew this (including Lopez). But that is why police are supposed to just deal with the situation without administering judgment and punishment — which is what Lopez appears to have done. The other officers present from Arroyo Grande PD did not back him up on his claims (kudos to them.) If the guy can’t withhold judgment about the reason for the act and just do the minimum needed for a safe intervention, he shouldn’t be a cop. If he used his tazer accidentally, he should be demoted and retrained.


Copsey’s failings aside, the City of Grover Beach was trying to do the right thing in firing him. They have apparently failed and should cut their losses and move on. Lopez should also move on — to another occupation (or retirement) and location.


JB Bronson

To Central Coast RN: I agree with you. The sad reality is the “good ole boy” culture that has permeated local government and the “powers that be” protects those willing to “play the game” of power and corruption.


Fresh case in point? The last CRLA Director (Micheal Blank) was allowed to resign after finding “discrepancies in his billing”. Allowed to resign? Why wasn’t he fired? Why didn’t he go to jail? Why didn’t he pay back what he did not rightfully earn? Why is this story not being told?


The local culture isn’t set up that way.


Pelican1

The chief doesn’t have to come back, soon enough, he’ll be able to buy Grover City. Perhaps

he’ll rename it….Sonnyville.


lizdoukas

It is the Cartel of Power in Grover Beach that thinks it’s above the law and can keep ignoring the orders of our judicial system!! there are many other incidences just like the Sonny Lopez incident that is draining this city of resources and right into the pockets of the City Attorney and his firm…our City Council needs to flesh out what is right and what is wrong and make those accountable answer for their actions.


justbeware

While you’re flushing, have Shoals direct some attention to the Sanitation District.

Lots to be flushed there.


kayaknut

Shoals is too busy making sure the LLC he created to funnel his “special” money is protected and difficult for anyone to track back to him.


lizdoukas

Public, please don’t be mislead, we are dealing with polished, practiced and seasoned politicians in which power, money and influence are the commodities which are most coveted by those with the decision-making authority–and they wield it at times with disastrous results for the health, safety and wlfare of their citizens whom they were sworn to protect, the laws which they swore to uphold, sometimes changing people’s lives forever…they could also use this same power for the good and altruistically, but they choose not to…


CentralcoastRN

I think you guys are looking at this all wrong. This officer is just the type of officer who SHOULD be getting paid, out of ALL of the people the taxpayers have had to pay out. Don’t you see this?????????


In SLO county in the past few years, we have had a City manager having sex in the City Hall with an employee at Christmas time while the wifey was at home, caught by AGPD. We had to pay him out. We had SLO county chief of Police get a Golden parachute. We have had who else? David edge the BOARD OF SUPERVISOR and what’s her face sexting. This rank and file police officer was responding to a call that some deranged man had a SIX MONTH OLD BABY locked away from it’s mother in a dark garage. He does his JOB and gets FIRED.


Why?????


Instead of standing behind this guy, people want to be like, “oh well.” ?!??!!


Um. No. That is not fair. Not just. No happening. This man was doing his job, and that day, he was retrieving a baby from a crazy person.


WHY IS THIS EVEN A DEBATE???


Not only should he have his job back, HE SHOULD BE GROVER BEACH CHIEF OF POLICE!!! Yes, picture me exasperated and yelling at my monitor. I’m so tough right now. Please give this man his job back. And a raise. I would say I cannot believe it, but then again, it IS south county, and math and critical thinking do not seem to be a strong suit for our elected officials.


agag1

CCRN,

The private tea party at AG City Hall was held on July 3.


kayaknut

Didn’t Councilman Brown inform us of at least one other “tea” party that was covered up from before July 3rd? Plus you have to think there were many other “tea” parties hosted by Steve Adams.


justbeware

Stand back. The mountainous piles of legal docs are about to hit Grover.

Too bad, could have used that money for streets.


CentralcoastRN

I am just going to start fiilling the potholes in with flowers and dog poop if they dont fill them.


abigchocoholic

It’s pretty pathetic how these public employees can make major mistakes (and this looks more intentional than a mistake) with no ramifications.


You know what happens in private business when you make a $500,000 mistake? You’re gone. Fired. Retired. Unemployed. Out of business.


And that $500,0000 doesn’t even count the lawyer fees or the 2 million dollar lawsuit this guy is going to win. This police chief just cost his taxpayers easily over a million dollars.


So city council what are you going to do about it?


kayaknut

They already did it, they appointed the former chief as Assistant City Manager so he could pad his pension and then they accepted his retirement. No big concern it’s only tax money and they can always claim they are going to have to cut services if we don’t give them more money.


dogeatdog

Does Lopez really want to go back to work for Grover after all of this? And mostly with Peters as chief it is just a matter of time before they find some other reason to fire him.


I think he should continue his lawsuit against the city for defamation, and hope to get hired some where else.


Good job wasting tax payer dollars on a personal matter of not liking someone. Copsey walked away with one hell of a bank roll after all of that bull crap.


Vagabond

Why in the world would he want to work anywhere at all after this? Looks to me like Grover Beach just set this guy up for life.


CentralcoastRN

Well, you figure they are paying his salary, then 40-50% for lawyer. That is all of it. That isn’t setting him up for life. He is probably pretty jaded. He got fired for doing his job.


Vagabond

No it looks to me like he will get all his back pay $400k PLUS win the defamation suit $2.3M the attorney fees are on top of that. Now, if you can’t retire on 2.7 million dollars you need to stop shredding hundred dollar bills for fun.

I know I sure could retire quite comfortably on that.