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Riverside Force Rife With Racism, Black Officer Says : Police: Complaint to state says he is on leave because of post-traumatic stress. Chief avows 'no tolerance' for bigotry.

September 02, 1999|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A black Riverside police officer, who arrived on the scene after the shooting of black teenager Tyisha Miller by four other officers in December, has filed a blistering account of what he alleges is pervasive racism on the force that he says results in the victimization of the community and a work environment so hostile that he left in fear of his life.

Officer Rene Rodriguez made the allegations in a civil rights complaint filed with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and in an accompanying 39-page account of his experiences that has already been submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. The account contains detailed allegations of racial profiling of citizens, reports of officers with racist tattoos and descriptions of officers giving each other high-fives at the scene of the Miller shooting and referring to the victim's grieving relatives as "animals" having a Kwanzaa celebration.

Rodriguez, who has been on unpaid leave since March saying he has post-traumatic stress disorder and lacks assurance of a safe workplace, says his civil rights and those of other officers and members of the community have been violated. Rodriguez further detailed his allegations, which are being investigated by federal authorities, in a recent interview with reporters.

He is demanding that his pay and benefits be reinstated, and that the alleged hostile environment, discriminatory behavior and racial harassment of the community cease, said his lawyer, Constance Rice, who filed the civil rights complaint along with attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Riverside Police Chief Jerry Carroll said that he could not discuss Rodriguez's case because it is a personnel issue but that he has "absolutely zero tolerance for racism and discrimination in the Police Department. Just because somebody makes a statement doesn't mean that it's true. Those allegations need to be investigated, and we need the opportunity to do that."

The department also issued a statement saying it has "strong policies that prohibit inappropriate racial speech or behavior on the part of all employees. The [department] is made up of outstanding individuals who are professional in their speech and conduct. They treat fellow employees and members of the public with equality and with respect."

The statement added that complaints are thoroughly investigated and that the department takes appropriate corrective steps, including disciplinary action.

Official Denies Racist Pattern on the Force

Det. Jeffrey Joseph, president of the Riverside Police Officers Assn., who served 15 years on the city force, acknowledged that he has heard "inappropriate [racist] comments, and when they have occurred, the officers have been punished." But he added that "I have not seen a pattern and practice of racism" such as that described by Rodriguez.

City Atty. Stan Yamamoto criticized Rodriguez for "playing this out in the press. Just about everybody knows that we're under investigation by the Department of Justice, the county grand jury, the attorney general's office. There are official means to take complaints to the department."

Rodriguez, however, said he tried to resolve his issues through official channels for months, even when his co-workers became increasingly hostile. His pay and benefits were cut off and he faced the loss of his family's home, cars and livelihood, he said. Eventually, he added, he was threatened with an investigation that he considers a trumped-up reprisal for his role as whistle-blower.

He said the department is "starving me out, sending a message to people who want to break that code of silence and speak up against officer misconduct. And it's working. They're doing everything they can to cover up for these people instead of just disciplining them and weeding them out."

The Miller shooting triggered a wave of outrage and protests led by members of Riverside's black community and drew widespread attention to the issue of officer-involved shootings. A sergeant who was at the scene and the four officers who shot Miller have been dismissed, and federal prosecutors have launched a civil rights probe of the department.

"We're doing a full-fledged investigation into the Police Department to determine whether an investigation shows a pattern and practice of civil rights violations," said Michael Gennaco, head of the U.S. attorney's civil rights division in Los Angeles.

Rodriguez said the Miller incident heightened racial tensions within the department and made him, the only nonwhite officer at the scene, a target of hostility.

Miller was shot 12 times by the four officers, who were responding to a 911 call reporting a woman unconscious in her car. Officers said they found her unresponsive in the driver's seat with a gun in her lap. One of the officers broke a window of the car in an attempt to take the gun and fired on Miller when she allegedly reached for the weapon.

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