> Cover Story
Dismantling the boys club
Can SAPD fix a problem it won’t document?
“I JUST SAW JENNIFER1”
“NO WAY WHERE?...U KNOCKED IT OUT?2”
“NO I WAS DRIVING BY, AND SHE CAME OUT…SHE’S CUTE.”
“YA. SHE’S REALLY SHORT…IF THAT WAS HER…SISTER LIVES WITH HER BUT I THINK SISTER IS A LITTLE TALLER.”
“SHE TOOK OFF IN THAT TRUCK YOU SAID WAS HERS.”
“THAT WAS HER THEN I’M SURE…WAS SHE IN SCRUBS?...I THINK SHE WORKS AT A DR OR DENTIST OFFICE OR SOMETHING”
“NOPE, TIGHT JEANS.”
It almost sounds like teen boys checking out the hot girl in the neighborhood, but sadly this is a conversation between two on-duty San Antonio police officers, conducted through the police-issued computers in their cruisers (called MDTs, or Mobile Data Terminals.) Jennifer later told a SAPD sergeant investigating the chatty officers that her sister “fairly recently … had an experience with an officer parking in front of her house and watching her. At the time, she thought it was strange but did not make an issue.”
This conversation is tamer than the other 10 such communications over a stretch of three-and-a-half months between Gabriel Villarreal and four fellow officers included in the Internal Affairs report. Other conversations, conducted between on-duty officers through the MDT software that allows them to instant message each other, included phrases too crude even for the pages of the Current. There’s joking about oral sex, choosing breakfast restaurants based on the waitresses “chonseets,”3 pondering ways to surreptitiously photograph a female SAPD officer’s breasts, suggesting extending an invitation to another female officer to play clothing-optional Twister at a shift party, posing for photos with an employee at a Beer N All, and judging the breast implants of a random patron at a Cracker Barrel.
Many readers might not bat an eye at this kind of on-duty chatter. Who hasn’t checked out a co-worker, or talked with them about some random cutie? If only it stopped there, we may never have heard this hornball nonsense. Unfortunately these conversations were but part of the hundreds of damning pages included in the Internal Affairs report on Villarreal that led to his indefinite suspension last month, and 30-day suspensions for the other officers involved in the bawdy conversations. When not admiring the female sex and various parts of their anatomy, MDT records show that Villarreal spent even more time on the clock using police resources to dig up private personal information on a variety of women he encountered on- and off-duty, uncovering vehicle registration, home addresses, previous arrests or calls for police service, names of family members, and cell-phone numbers. Most of these women were also discussed by Villarreal and his buddy cops assigned to the Northwest substation. Many of these women either had no idea who Villarreal was, or could remember an uneasy interaction with him, such as when he asked the manager of an apartment building he frequently patrolled how to spell the word “vagina.” Finally, on December 12, 2009, Villarreal got even creepier, and suffered the consequences.
The previous evening, Villarreal, 43, his wife, and their daughter visited the La Cantera branch of the Art of Shaving, an inexplicably recession-proof chain store specializing in fancy men’s razors. There they met an attractive saleswoman who rang them up for more than $300 worth of products. “I thought they were a very Christian couple,” the saleswoman later told an Internal Affairs officer. “A very nice family.” She gave them a business card with their purchase, and maybe hugged the wife and daughter. She did not know Villarreal worked for SAPD.
The next morning, Villarreal logged into work around 6:40 a.m. Five minutes later he was digging up the Art of Shaving employee’s municipal-court record using her business card, discovering her date of birth and using that to find her driver’s license. Less than two hours later, after responding to a police call, he found her license-plate number and the registered owner of her car (her father), her cell-phone number, and her cell-phone call records. A call to investigate a passed-out partier in front of Martini’s bar near North Star Mall provided Villarreal the perfect opportunity to drop by the saleswoman’s house, even though her condo was 5 miles away from the lounge. At least Villarreal conducted official business first, rousting the man from his sports-car slumber, running his driver’s license, and leaving the scene. But Villarreal intentionally left the call open on his MDT unit.
Twenty minutes later, at 9:24 a.m., the pajama-clad saleswoman opened her door to Villarreal, who claimed to be responding to a 911 hang-up call. She said she didn’t call 911 and let him inside to investigate while she and her 6-year old son stood by. She noticed he wore a retainer on his top teeth as he suggested perhaps her husband had made the call. She told him that she didn’t have a husband. He then asked where she worked and when she replied Art of Shaving he excitedly brought up the fact that he was there the night before, and that this was his patrol area. He then indicated he had completed investigating the 911 call and explained the weather could have set it off, and “kind of hung around looking around the hallway.” After what both Villarreal and the woman described as an awkward few minutes, he left without leaving contact information.
Still leaving the call open on his MDT unit, he drove a few blocks away and continued to research the woman for another half-hour before closing out the Martini’s call. Three days after the incident, the woman decided to file a complaint with SAPD.
SAPD took immediate action. Internal Affairs officer Sgt. Javier Salazar began his own research into how Villarreal managed to visit the woman and discovered the multitude of information Villarreal dug up while on duty. He then looked for similar violations for a period stretching back to September 1, though he could have investigated as many as 180 days. The next day Villarreal received an administrative desk assignment and a direct order to cease contact with the woman. For the next two months, Sgt. Salazar contacted the other women Villarreal looked up through his MDT, all of whom said they were profoundly bothered by these revelations. In April, Villarreal was suspended indefinitely from his 14-year career with SAPD. The punishment exemplified the Department’s assertion that it “takes all allegations seriously and takes swift, appropriate action when a member of this department has been found to have engaged in an act of misconduct.”
And yet, if officers are aware of such serious consequences, why did five officers in the same shift and unit so flagrantly misbehave? Judging from the sincere shame shown in their interviews with Sgt. Salazar, the four other officers who engaged in lewd conversations or complicity in Villarreal’s on-duty hottie hunts recognized their unprofessional behavior, but none except Villarreal expressed an inkling that they would be reprimanded for it.
As of very recently, the explanation appeared to be twofold. Civil-rights advocates have complained for years about an intimidating complaint process for citizens who wish to report officers. Moreover, when the Current asked several times whether the Department specifically tracked inappropriate sexual behavior toward civilians (including Villarreal’s behavior, which, taken with his overtly sexual discussions with fellow officers, indicate his interest in the women he researched went well beyond platonic), we were told decisively by the public-information department that no such tracking exists apart from what’s folded into “conduct and behavior violations.”
Interviews with community members revealed a perception that the citizen complaint process is difficult and intimidating,” declared the Police Executive Research Forum review of SAPD’s Policy, Practice and Training Review, released in May 2008. The other main areas the PERF delved into in detail included use of force and officer-involved shootings. Ed Piña, a lawyer and past president of the San Antonio chapter of the ACLU, sat on the PERF citizen committee and its community focus group. Piña can discuss filing complaints against SAPD officers for hours; he’s one of few lawyers in town experienced with such cases, and “unfortunately,” he said in his comfortable office, “I can be very selective.” He rattles off the allegations he’s pursued, many involving attractive women singled out by officers, and opines that in his experience, “A complaint proceeds through a system that is designed to clear a police officer.” Mario Salas, an organizer of the PERF community focus group and former city council member for District 2, echoes those concerns: “A bad police officer has so many ways that he’s being protected. It does send a message that he can act with impunity.”
Two types of complaints can be levied against an officer: a line complaint, handled by a direct supervisor and defined by SAPD as a “minor variance,” such as Villarreal asking the apartment manager to spell “vagina” (the woman never complained to the SAPD, but told Internal Affairs officers later she felt uncomfortable and subsequently avoided Villarreal), or a formal complaint, “a significant variance from normal behavior,” such as the Art of Shaving employee’s experience, which leads to an Internal Affairs investigation.
Obstacles highlighted by the PERF report dealt almost exclusively with formal complaints. First, one must travel to the Internal Affairs office or police substation to file a complaint. The complainant describes the complaint under oath to an Internal Affairs investigator, who transcribes it onto a form bearing a warning that, should the statement be determined to be false, the complainant can be charged with aggravated perjury, a third-degree felony. The complainant does not receive a copy of the complaint, which is notarized and kept by the investigating officer as evidence.
Until last week, an advisory action board largely composed of Police Officer Association-recommended officers and vetted citizens reviewed the investigated complaints and recommended disciplinary action for the Chief of Police to pursue. Accused officers have a contractual right to a lawyer provided through their Officers Association. Both Piña and his colleague, present ACLU president Patrick Filyk, described instances where complainants were unaware of their right to consult with a lawyer. Until last week, should a citizen choose to attend their complaint hearing in front of the advisory action board, they were barred from bringing anyone else with them, due to contractually mandated rules to protect the officer’s privacy. According to the PERF, in 2007 the chief implemented a lesser discipline than recommended by the advisory board 53 percent of the time. If a complainant ceases to be cooperative with the Department, or SAPD discovers its investigation has focused on the wrong officer, the investigation is halted. In 2009, 144 of 318 formal complaint cases were deactivated. “If that’s not a chilling climate, I don’t know what is,” sighed Salas.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement between the City and the Police Officers Association ensured many of the above provisions for officers. However, last week the City Council approved a new contract expanding the number of citizens on the advisory action board and placing the process for recommending members in the City Manager’s and City Council’s hands, with input, not oversight, by the Police Officers Association. Also in the new contract is a provision allowing the complainant to bring one observer to the advisory action board hearing.
Mike Helle, president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, said he considered the decision to give a complainant a copy of their complaint and the removal of the aggravated perjury warning to be procedural issues better handled by the Chief of Police. Helle expressed no strong opinion about the complaint copy. As far as the aggravated perjury language, without it, he said, “you’ll have a flood of people who bog down the complaint process. This weeds out people with legitimate complaints.” When informed of the PERF recommendation to include a notice of perjury, which unlike aggravated perjury carries a misdemeanor punishment, he said, “I’m fine with that.” To effect such a change in accordance with state law, the complaint form may need to be treated as a police report rather than a sworn statement.
Assistant City Attorney Erik Walsh, who oversees the police and fire departments, indicated further PERF recommendations could be implemented at SAPD soon. “We’ll need to revisit the recommendations that were not implemented now that the contract issues have been taken care of ... those have been our main focus,” he said via email. For instance, according to the PERF matrix provided by SAPD to show the status of the recommendations, the recommendation to give complainants a copy of the complaint form had been forwarded to a committee dealing with Internal Affairs to create an implementation plan. “I do believe we can make further improvements to make the complaint process more transparent to the public,” wrote Walsh. “The City Manager, Police Chief and I are committed to that end.”
Another area the City and the Chief of Police recognize could use further improvement is the conduct and behavior of its officers — especially those in patrol units. According to a recent Internal Affairs report, in 2009 complaints regarding officers’ conduct and behavior, which includes sexual misconduct, were among the top three complaint categories in all patrol units. In the East and South patrol, conduct and behavior complaints were the top category. Internal Affairs charged Villarreal with violating the conduct and behavior rule for the Art of Shaving incident and researching the apartment manager’s personal information.
Despite required training materials for patrol in-service that state “During the 2009 in-service [sexual misconduct] was presented and is again being addressed due to an alarming number of allegations made to the San Antonio Police Department regarding its members,” these supposedly shocking statistics are not available in the Internal Affairs complaint report, though other areas of citizen concern, such as racial profiling and use of force, have their own statistics. Since SAPD’s conduct and behavior rule covers anything considered “good conduct and behavior,” and could be violated by “any act tending to bring reproach or discredit,” it’s difficult to determine what portion of those complaints refer to gender slurs, inappropriate conversations, or sexual harassment of citizens while on-duty (sexual harassment against other officers is well covered in training materials and the Internal Affairs complaint report).
Moreover the existing statistics only account for complaints that are actually made; Piña and Filyk both believe targets of this kind of misconduct are often women in “disreputable” professions (one of Villarreal’s research subjects was a dancer at Sugar’s Gentlemen’s Club) or those already facing criminal charges, who are unlikely to come forward with complaints for fear of what an investigation might uncover. The response from SAPD public information about specifically tracking sexual misconduct was, “These complaints are an administrative violation of ‘conduct and behavior’ and, therefore, are reflected in this category.”
If the public doesn’t know specifically how many sexual-misconduct complaints are filed against the SAPD, how can they know that the Department is effectively addressing the issue going forward? Currently, McManus addresses all SAPD cadets twice, very firmly at the start and the end of their training, about proper conduct and behavior. There is also the in-service lesson that touches on sexual misconduct specifically, which has been taught in 2009 and 2010. Even so, Walsh, the assistant city manager, acknowledged that the department still received an uncomfortably high number of sexual-misconduct complaints in 2009. Both say strategies recommended by a recent independent review of the SAPD will help ensure sergeants better manage their officers’ roving eyes and wagging tongues. Walsh and McManus briefed City Council about the review’s findings last week, the day before presenting them with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Until such strategies are implemented, until citizens feel more comfortable making complaints against officers, and until the public can see through objective data whether the Department’s strategies successfully deter on-duty lotharios, consider how the women now aware of Villarreal’s on-duty information-gathering feel. “The fact that he checked my personal information does make me nervous,” one woman involved in Villarreal’s investigation testified. “He knows where I live and what I drive. I don’t know what he intended to do with the information, and I would hope it is nothing bad. I am also afraid of being retaliated against for having made this statement. The whole thing is very invasive, and I am offended by it. Not only am I concerned about what may have been said on the computer, but also what may have been said to his friends or coworkers, after the fact, by phone or in person. My husband is a police officer, and I know what officers are supposed to be doing. My husband is equally concerned about the situation, and even more so, because he is worried about our daughter. She looks a lot like me and could be mistaken for me. She is only 15 years old. … I believe actions like this reflect poorly on all officers. … Incidents like this are what undermines the public’s trust in officers.” •
This is the first in a two-part series; the second will detail the recently released independent study of the SAPD, and the changes the City and Chief McManus hope to implement to address officer misconduct, sexual and otherwise.
1 Not her real name
2 slang for “have sex.”
3 slang for breasts
Booty on Duty
excerpts from the Villarreal variances
(September 1-December 15, 2009)
Sep. 1: Villarreal and another officer discuss on their MDT a female officer Villarreal refers to as “booty on duty.”
Oct. 19: Villarreal suggests to another officer that they “go knock” on a woman’s door in their patrol unit.
Oct. 28: Villarreal performs a background check through the Texas Crime Information Center on a dancer at Sugar’s.
Oct. 31: Villarreal visits Beer N All and has an employee dressed as a “Kitty Kat” pose with him for a photo he forwards to Officer Benjamin Flores.
Nov. 17: Villarreal and Flores fantasize about “knocking it out” with two sisters who live in their patrol district, and discuss in detail the type of car one of them drove and where she works.
Nov. 25: Villarreal runs the license plates of a vehicle owned by the woman he wanted to “go knock” on; he also searches calls for police service made from her address.
Nov. 25: Villarreal and Officer Michelle Ramos discuss a woman at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. They talk about her breast implants and Villarreal runs the woman’s vehicle registration, which he sends to Ramos.
Nov. 30: Villarreal and Flores discuss inviting a female officer to a “clothing optional” game of Twister during a shift party.
Dec. 7: Villarreal and Flores run a background check on an apartment manager after responding to a disturbance call in her complex.
Dec. 11: Villarreal, his wife and their daughter shop at La Cantera’s Art of Shaving store, where they meet a friendly employee and discuss Christianity.
Dec. 12: While on duty, Villarreal looks up the saleswoman’s information and visits her house on the false pretext of a 911 hang-up call.
Dec. 12: Villarreal and Officer Keith Floyd have a 27-minute long insult fest that culminates with “feast your face on this tube-steak delight.” “Is it covered with cream of Sum Yung Guy?”
Dec. 14: Villarreal and another officer discuss where to get breakfast based on which restaurant has the waitresses with the biggest breasts.
Dec. 15: Villarreal and Flores discuss eating four female officers for lunch and dessert.
Dec. 15: The saleswoman files a complaint against Villarreal, and Sgt. Javier Salazar begins an investigation, ultimately contacting numerous other women Villarreal has researched.