Last month after Anaheim police shot to death an unarmed man in one of the city’s poor barrios — an event that shattered a tenuous trust between the Latino community and the Police Department — Mayor Tom Tait immediately called for state and federal investigations of the incident.
Tait insisted that the scrutiny is an essential first step in healing the pain of a disenfranchised community. If it is found that the shooting was unjustified, then the officer could face disciplinary action and even criminal prosecution, thus giving residents some measure of justice.
So far, the district attorney, the U.S. attorney’s office, the FBI and the Office of Independent Review have agreed to review the killing of 25-year-old Manuel Diaz, who witnesses said was fleeing from police when he was chased down and shot from behind, then in the head.
But rooting out the truth in these incidents is no easy task, said Steve Nolan, a former Anaheim officer who won a whistle-blower lawsuit against the city in 1997.
Nolan was fired after making allegations of officer brutality against Latinos. He said the current probes of Anaheim police behavior will be hampered by the “code of silence” among officers when one of their own is being investigated.
The officers Nolan accused were cleared of any wrongdoing by an internal review and an FBI investigation, the city asserted in court documents.
Nonetheless, Gregory D. Lee, a former supervisory special agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and a criminal justice consultant, said he would not be surprised if investigators encounter the code of silence in their probe.
“I would not doubt there is a code of silence,” Lee said. “No officer wants to be in the situation giving testimony that would result in discipline for another officer. That’s been going on for years.”
And Nolan, now a Corona city councilman, said he is certain that the department hasn’t changed, because Craig Hunter has been promoted to deputy police chief. Nolan said Hunter, then a sergeant, led the cover-up of brutality in the early 1990s.
“The Latino community in Anaheim is going, 'We don’t trust you [police], we don’t believe you,' ” Nolan said. “As long as Craig Hunter is there, [Latinos] shouldn’t trust them.”
Hunter declined to comment for this article, saying only that court documents would reveal that Nolan has ulterior motives for his accusations. “He [Nolan] has his agenda,” said Hunter, who has run for Orange County sheriff.
While Hunter’s reference to Nolan’s agenda is unclear, the Los Angeles Times reported that Nolan’s whistle-blower suit had revealed strained relationships between Nolan and other officers as well as Nolan's personal problems.
Also, Nolan has well-documented financial problems. He filed for bankruptcy last year and was forced to close a restaurant he owned, the Riverside Press-Enterprise reported.
Nolan also unsuccessfully sued Anaheim twice in recent years for disability payments, arguing that the department owed him more money because he was unable to work there and suffered ongoing emotional stress.
And though Lee agrees with Nolan that department secrecy may be an obstacle to investigating the incident, Lee says there are other investigative methods, such as gathering physical evidence, that will aide investigators as they seek to determine what exactly happened.
The Diaz family has ordered an independent autopsy to show in their lawsuit whether Diaz was shot from behind while fleeing, as witnesses attest, or whether he turned around and reached into his waistband, as the city’s police union asserts.
Lee said it will be difficult for officers to refute eyewitness accounts.
“Plus there’s video cameras on police cars, on city streets and everywhere else,” Lee said. “Those are certain, sure-fire ways you can get around [the code of silence].”
Nolan points to another way to ensure that the truth comes out: media attention. “If the people call for justice and the story gets legs, then you’ll probably get a chance with the DOJ [Department of Justice],” Nolan said.
Prosecutions of officer-involved shootings, however, are “extremely rare,” Lee said.
The Nolan Case
In 1991, according to memorandum of points Nolan included in his 2000 lawsuit against the city for disability retirement that followed his whistleblower action, he arrested a 16-year-old robbery suspect named Jorge Alvarado. He then handed Alvarado off to officers Mike Bustamante and John Kelley for the ride downtown, Nolan says.
When Alvarado left the scene with Bustamante and Kelley, Alvarado's face was clean, but by the time Alvarado got downtown, he “had an injury to his face,” Nolan asserted in the suit. Nolan's argued that Bustamante, who today is a patrol sergeant, and Kelley, who is retired, had beaten Alvarado en route to the station.
Nolan’s suit goes on to allege that Hunter told Nolan he would handle the situation. But Hunter and another officer who met with Nolan “never conducted any official investigation of the incident, nor did they document any of it, as required by Anaheim Police Department policy,” the suit said.
Soon after the Alvarado incident, Nolan’s suit claims, he saw Hunter and Kelley “unnecessarily hit and kick Jerry Sanchez, another alleged youth gang member.”
Nolan told then Chief Joseph Malloy about what happened, according to the documents. But the chief concluded that the officers involved in the Sanchez incident had done nothing wrong. On Oct. 20, 1992, Malloy issued a memo to all police department employees saying that a complaint made by a member of the department was unsubstantiated, a notice that everybody in the department knew meant Nolan, he argued.
Nolan received his termination notice on Feb. 22, 1993.
Nolan said he received threatening phone calls at his and his father’s home. His wife’s car window was shot through while she was on a drive through Anaheim, he said.
The city argued in court documents that Nolan was fired after a pattern of reprimands, including behavior unbecoming an officer and destroying evidence.
And while the city argued in a 1997 trial brief that internal and FBI investigations found that Nolan’s claims about the officers were unsubstantiated, a county grand jury in 1997 agreed that Nolan’s termination was retaliation for breaking the “code of silence.” Nolan was awarded $340,000, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The Department Today
Nolan and Anaheim Police Chief John Welter have a sharp disagreement over whether the code of silence still exists within the police department.
Nolan said that as long as Hunter is there, he has no doubt the department is the same. “Things that happened in the '90s will continue to happen until [Hunter] is gone,” Nolan said during a recent interview.
But Welter, who came on board as police chief in 2004 and was unaware of the Nolan case, argued that departments and officers change and that the Anaheim Police Department today is not the same organization it was in the 1990s.
Back then, reports of police brutality were common and the department kept dossiers on Latino leaders that linked them to suspected criminals.
Latino leaders have credited Welter with implementing a community policing approach and opening dialogue with neighborhoods.
“If you think I’m going to start investigating the culture of the '90s, … I’m not going to,” Welter said. “Cultures change.”
Nolan pointed to the department’s handling of a crowd that gathered after the Diaz shooting to illustrate his contention that the culture hasn’t changed. Police officers confronted by the crowd fired pepper spray balls and bean bags and unleashed a police dog into the crowd, which included women and children.
Welter quickly apologized for the unleashing of the dog, saying it was an accident.
The incident was captured on video and added fuel to many protesters’ rage during a downtown riot that broke out after protesters were denied entrance to an Anaheim City Council meeting.
However, while Welter was apologizing for the dog attack, Anaheim officers were intimidating residents, according to an article in The Orange County Register.
Officers approached residents of Anna Drive, the neighborhood where Diaz was shot, and attempted to persuade them to change their eyewitness accounts of the events, according to the article.
One officer pounded his fist on a table while questioning a resident, according to the article. There were also many reports that officers attempted to buy cell phone video from residents, according to another Register article.
“It appears you’ve got the same police department, the same mentality, the same disrespect for Latinos as back in the day,” Nolan said.
City Manager Bob Wingenroth, the city’s chief bureaucrat in charge of overseeing all city departments, would not comment on the culture of Anaheim police and said he wasn’t familiar with the Nolan case. He would say only that if Nolan has useful information, he should report it to the proper authorities.