By NICHOLAS IOVINO
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A Bay Area police department falsifies reports to make the city’s crime rate seem lower and orders officers not to document the use of force on suspects, two former officers claim in federal court.
Michael Sibbitt, Jr. and Elisabeth Terwilliger filed two separate complaints against the City of Pittsburg, Calif., on Aug. 3, claiming they were forced out of their jobs for refusing to lie about the department’s directives to fudge crime reports.
Pittsburg, a city of 66,000 about 40 miles east of San Francisco, reported a significant reduction in violent crime between 2007 and 2012, the most recent year for which FBI crime data is available. The number of violent crimes dropped from 250 per year to 152 in five years, according to the statistics.
The two former officers, both hired in September 2012, say they were ordered to downgrade felonies to misdemeanors whenever possible.
During training, officers were instructed not to report crimes as felonies unless someone was arrested, and, preferably, witnesses were available to testify, according to the lawsuits.
“Defendant, by mandating these lesser crime classifications and instructing officers to redact incident reports, artificially spiked its department’s crime solving rate, misrepresented the City of Pittsburg’s safety, and fraudulently received federal funds,” Sibbitt stated in his 18-page complaint.
Pittsburg City Manager Joe Sbranti and the city’s Police Chief Brian Addington did not respond to phone calls seeking comment on the allegations Friday afternoon.
A report released last month by the Contra Costa County District Attorney and Sheriff’s Department confirmed the Pittsburg Police Department has underreported crimes. Of 204 police reports reviewed, the department misclassified 103 incidents as “suspicious circumstances” that should have been recorded as crimes, according to the July 15 report.
In his Aug. 3 complaint, Sibbitt recalled a number of instances in which his superiors ordered him to alter police reports after he wrote them.
In late 2013, Sibbitt investigated a shooting by an unknown suspect into a house where a girl was sleeping. Sibbitt reported the incident as a felony shooting into an occupied dwelling, but his supervisor, Sgt. Brian Matthews, ordered him to redact the report and write it up as a non-felony “negligent discharge of a firearm,” according to the complaint.
Sibbitt also recalled an April 2014 incident in which he hit a suspect who was resisting arrest in the knee with his flashlight. A few minutes later, Sibbitt says, a second officer came along and smashed the suspect’s face into a car door while the suspect was restrained on the ground shouting at officers.
After Sibbitt wrote the report, his supervisor, Sgt. William Hatcher, told him to remove the part about hitting the suspect with his flashlight and instead say he “wrestled the suspect to the ground.” Hatcher also ordered Sibbitt to “omit any mention of the suspect’s facial injuries caused by the second officer,” according to the complaint.
Sibbitt’s complaint also detailed the department’s questionable use of resources in assigning two officers to stake out a pest control business where vandals were suspected of siphoning gas from vehicles overnight, a misdemeanor crime. Sibbitt said he learned officers were stationed there because a police captain owned property in the area and had a “vested interest” in it.
“Plaintiff complained to Sergeant Hatcher about this use of resources and said he did not agree that using the [Street Crimes Unit] for a full week on the pest control business was justified when other business [sic] within the City of Pittsburg suffered frequent crimes but did not receive the same level of police service and attention,” Sibbitt stated in his lawsuit.
On June 18, 2014, the department placed Sibbitt and Terwilliger on administrative leave and told both officers they were being investigated by Internal Affairs. Days later, Terwilliger was interviewed about an April 2014 incident in which Sibbitt hit another suspect with his flashlight. Terwilliger had taken the suspect down after she thought she saw a gun in the suspect’s car, and Sibbitt said he hit the suspect’s arm fearing he might reach for the weapon, which turned out to be a BB gun.
Sibbitt and Terwilliger say Sgt. William Hatcher ordered them not to arrest any suspects that day and not to document Sibbitt’s use of force. That incident became the focus of an internal investigation into both officers, and Terwilliger was pressured to blame Sibbitt for not reporting what happened.
“Plaintiff Terwilliger explained that she had refused to fabricate the report because she knew that Sergeant Hatcher had specifically ordered both of them not to document the use of flashlight or force in their reports,” Terwiliger stated in her 11-page complaint.
Terwilliger and Sibbitt say they were both given two choices — either fight the allegations of misconduct and face termination and criminal charges or resign.
The two former officers say they were forced to resign and have since had trouble finding jobs because the Pittsburg Police Department gives prospective employers “inaccurate information” about them.
Both officers accuse the department of violating their due process rights, and Sibbitt also claims the department engaged in unlawful retaliation under the False Claims Act.
The two plaintiffs seek compensatory damages for back pay, front pay and emotional pain and suffering along with punitive damages for malicious, reckless or callous indifference to their rights.
The former officers are represented by Scott Brown of Brown Poore in Walnut Creek.