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‘Bunch of trogs.’ Review of Northern California police squad ‘toxic culture’ is expanding

The sergeant and officers compared people living on the streets to pigeons.

They likened them to troglodytes who could be organized like bowling pins or corralled into a burning building.

They joked about decapitating them with helicopter blades while they slept downtown.

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After 11 weeks of interviews and a trickle of new details, the outside investigation into dehumanizing and violent text messages at a Northern California police department is at most only halfway completed, with yet another supervisor sidelined indefinitely and unease apparent through the ranks.

Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson put one of his top-ranking officers, Capt. Patrick O’Neill, on paid administrative leave May 17. In a written statement over the weekend, city officials declined to say what prompted the move or whether it was connected to the ongoing third-party review of the text messages among subordinates.

But O’Neill oversaw day-to-day field operations of the department, including supervision of Sgt. Rodrigo Reyna-Sanchez and Officer Mark Meftah, both of whom have been on paid leave since a Sacramento Bee investigation in March revealed they sent a series of degrading text messages about women, people with mental illness and those experiencing homelessness.

With at least three people on leave, four existing vacancies and four more officers who’ve announced plans to retire or take jobs elsewhere, according to the city, Watson has tried to reassure his small team of fewer than four-dozen officers that they can and should come to him directly with questions.

“Some employees have expressed concern that they will suffer retaliation for participating in the investigation,” Watson wrote in a May 24 memo. “The Department has zero tolerance for retaliation.”

He tried to strike a hopeful tone, acknowledging the department’s troubled past and recent controversies that have overshadowed progress he and others have worked on for years.

“I know this has been a difficult and uncertain time, following a particularly tough and challenging year in 2020, but we will get through this together (just as we did 2020) and be the better and stronger for it,” Watson wrote.

“Sometimes this can be hard to see in the midst of the moment, but there is also a real opportunity for growth and another big, positive step forward here.”

The Bay Area law firm Sacks, Ricketts & Case LLP has interviewed “several witnesses” and their review will take “at least another two months,” Watson wrote and reiterated Thursday in a prepared statement sent to a Humboldt County citizens group.

It’s unclear what the review has turned up thus far. Many believe it will reach far beyond the text messages and scrutinize how the department handles complaints and whether a toxic “old guard” culture has detracted from otherwise solid, community-centered police work.

Heavily redacted invoices The Bee obtained through a Public Records Act request show the firm charged the city for more than $17,000 by the end of April at an hourly rate of $350. Details about what exactly those charges were for — interviews, travel, or research, for example — were blacked out.

Investigator with long experience in law enforcement

Other records offer a behind-the-scenes look at how the early weeks of the review unfolded.

Almost immediately after The Bee’s March investigation was published, the city hired Todd Simonson to investigate. City officials billed it as a third-party, outside review that would be free of police department interference.

Simonson also has a long history in law enforcement, himself a former Oakland police officer, according to his LinkedIn profile. He spent eight years as a patrol officer before joining law offices where, among other things, he took cases defending officers who shot and killed people on the job.

According to a list of his publications, Simonson wrote a 2014 article for the National Law Review about the city of San Jose prevailing in a case that prevented city employees from being subjected to open-records laws when they were on their personal phones. The California Supreme Court ultimately struck down the decision.

Simonson did not return requests for comment. In a community meeting last month, City Manager Miles Slattery said the investigation remained in the “capable hands” of the firm. He said there was no specific timeline but said he hoped it could be done as quickly as possible. He reiterated that sentiment in a Saturday email to The Bee, adding that “we have to respect the confidentiality of that process.”

Photos of the Eureka Police Department’s group message thread show vulgar comments about women and homeless people. The Bee has obscured the name of the woman discussed in the thread at right.

Watson did not provide comments for this story.

The city attorney’s office in March served each officer on Reyna-Sanchez’s squad with a letter asking them to indicate, under penalty of perjury, whether they had records responsive to a Bee request seeking text messages related to on-duty assignments.

Reyna-Sanchez and Meftah — the two officers named in The Bee’s investigation — said they did not. Neither did nine other officers served with the request, which contained enough leeway that they could have deleted any potentially problematic messages prior to receiving the paperwork.

More vulgar, demeaning texts between officers

But one officer said he did have messages. He turned over 123 pages of text messages that corroborated photos of leaked texts that The Bee reported on previously. They also include additional, previously unreported messages from Reyna-Sanchez that are particularly crude.

In one, Reyna-Sanchez told his squad that a man had filed a complaint to the department and that a captain might ask them whether they heard the sergeant call the man “retarded.”

“I’ve already corrected him and told him that my actual words were, you’re real close to going to jail for being f------ retarded!!”

In another, Meftah posted a photo of a man feeding pigeons and apparently likened them to the homelessness crisis in Eureka.

“This picture sums up what’s wrong with Eka,” he wrote. “Note more birds flying in because they heard there was free handouts.”

Reyna-Sanchez wrote back: “Yes… one of my write ups involved comparing the homeless to pigeons and how if we feed them they won’t ever leave!!!”

And in one of several messages about harming people experiencing homelessness, the squad joked about decapitating them while they slept.

“You think if we ask nicely we could get the helicopter crew to do a really low pass over old town and decapitate a bunch of trogs?” Meftah wrote. Reyna Sanchez replied: “It would have to be a really low pass… they’re all still sleeping!!!”

The ongoing investigation and demands for accountability were detailed in the most recent cover story of the North Coast Journal, an alternative weekly newspaper that covers Eureka.

Accompanying the article is an editorial with the headline “Enough.”

“We’ve seen enough — enough to know that Eureka Police Department Sgt. Rodrigo Reyna-Sanchez and officer Mark Meftah have no business wearing a badge and holstering a gun; enough to know there’s a cancerously toxic culture in at least one of EPD’s units; enough to know the trust has been irrevocably broken.”

‘I wanted to make sure you had a heads up’

Other records provide a glimpse into the close ties throughout the department reminiscent of an “old guard” that has long been a source of controversy.

For example, Eureka Police Officers Association President Terry Liles was quick to publicly criticize the officers’ “extremely egregious behavior.” In a rare public rebuke of fellow cops, the union in a statement on the department’s Facebook page hours after The Bee’s story was published called the comments “abhorrent.”

Organizer Emily Mossman Smiley, right, protests wiht Pat Kanzler at the Humboldt County Courthouse on Friday, March 26, 2021, to demand accountability for Eureka Police Department officers involved in offensive group text messages. Mark McKenna Special to The Bee

But privately Liles was sympathetic to Reyna-Sanchez and his wife, a dispatcher with the Eureka Police Department, according to emails the department released in response to a records request. In a note to a personal email address minutes after sending a department-wide rebuke, Liles offered his condolences to the couple.

“I am so so sorry for all that you are going through,” he wrote. “I hate that this is happening and I recognize how the timing sucks. I wanted to make sure you had a heads up. Please let me know if you need anything.”

Liles did not return a request to comment for this article and previously said he could not comment due to the ongoing investigation.

Close ties among cops are not unusual. But the past two months have shown just how close many of the officers on staff remain — and how many were apparently brought closer after especially violent interactions.

Capt. Brian Stephens, with more than two decades in the department, worked alongside O’Neill, the captain recently put on leave. Together, it was on them to oversee operations and address complaints that officers and the members of the public made. Stephens joined the department about the same time as Reyna-Sanchez, and the two have a bond that has led some rank-and-file officers to doubt the point of making complaints at all, according to interviews and documents.

Some of that bond dates back more than a decade to a chaotic and deadly fight in a carport, detailed in an exhaustive report The Bee obtained through another Public Records Act request.

Stephens was standing only a few feet away in 2010 when Reyna-Sanchez shot an armed man at point-blank range, records show. Reyna-Sanchez twice pressed his handgun behind David Sequoia’s left ear, the pressure so intense that it prevented the gun from firing.

His gun went off on the third attempt as Sequoia continued to point a gun of his own at another officer, according to the reports. Reyna-Sanchez then tossed his gun to the side.

It was Stephens who picked it up and put the gun back in Reyna-Sanchez’s holster.

“They’re my good friends,” Stephens said of Reyna-Sanchez and Patrick Bishop, another officer who shot Sequoia that day — Bishop, who was working as a reserve officer, recently left the department.

The California Department of Justice investigated that shooting and Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos said it was justified.

Yet the point-blank shooting has long been a flashpoint among advocates who’ve called for the officers’ firing. It was considered anew after The Bee reported on the text messages in March.

Sergeant sends text: ‘Face shoot the f-----!!!’

Ten years after that shooting, on April 20, 2020, a suspect Reyna-Sanchez was familiar with posted bail and walked out of jail. The man had been arrested with an arsenal of loaded guns, a silencer and other equipment, including body armor that had belonged to the sergeant.

He exploded in the chat.

“He also had one of my tac vests that I had loaned to code enforcement!! Face shoot the f-----!!!”

After The Bee’s report about these messages, defense attorneys and prosecutors in Humboldt County reviewed case files to determine whether the type of conduct in the messages translated to the criminal investigations.

Marek Reavis, the Humboldt County public defender, on Friday said his team’s review didn’t turn up anything “that exhibited any of the questionable behavior or comments along the lines of the reported text messaging.”

Maggie Fleming, the district attorney, did not immediately return a request for comment but in April told The Bee her department’s review was ongoing.

“Society holds law enforcement officers to a high standard of conduct, regardless (of) the challenges presented by the situations officers face,” Fleming said. “Officers who commit misconduct damage trust in law enforcement agencies, reduce the respect given to officers who deserve it, and harm the ability to prosecute cases they have been involved in.

“In turn, harm to the prosecution of those cases damages public safety and can eliminate the possibility that the specific victims of those crimes can gain any measure of justice.”

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