Former Riverside Police Chief Russ Leach, 61, resigned last week after… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
When Russ Leach became Riverside's police chief in 2000, he inherited a department drowning in accusations of unprofessional behavior and racism. The controversial shooting death of a 19-year-old black woman by white officers led to angry protests and an order by federal and state justice officials to reform the department's "dysfunctional relationship" with the black community.
"That's a death blow," Leach said of that time. "If you're an alcoholic, you've got to be all the way down before you can start up again. That investigation said, 'You guys are at rock bottom.' "
Leach is widely credited with leading Riverside's police force to respectability by fulfilling court-ordered reforms and reaching out to community leaders. Now, his legacy -- and the reputation of the department -- are under scrutiny two weeks after Leach crashed his city-owned car after drinking at a strip club.
Leach, 61, resigned, citing medical reasons, and said he was on prescription pain medicine and "disoriented" at the time of the crash. City officials launched an investigation into the Police Department's handling of the crash, including why Leach apparently wasn't given sobriety tests by officers even though their written report indicated he showed evidence of having been drinking. Leach could not be reached for comment.
"The message should be loud and clear: that special treatment is not acceptable," said Riverside Mayor Ronald Loveridge. "We should all be treated fairly and equally before the law, including the police chief. But I don't want to judge what might come out of an internal investigation."
Police watchdogs said they fear the incident threatens to undermine public confidence and the hard work that went into ridding the department of a bigoted culture in which transgressions by officers were swept under a thick blue rug of silence.
"It's a far different organization than it was 10 years ago," said Chani Beeman, a member of the Riverside Community Police Review Commission, which formed during the scandal to investigate complaints against police and officer-involved shootings. "A great deal of that had to do with the leadership of Russ Leach. . . . A lot of progress has been made. Is something like this going to be harmful? No doubt."
Leach, a former police chief in El Paso and a veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, was hired to replace Chief Jerry Carroll, who was at the helm in 1998 when Tyisha Miller was killed by officers who found her passed out in a locked car with a gun in her lap. The officers said she reached for the gun, but the shooting ignited passions in Riverside's black community and was condemned by leaders nationally.
After investigations found a history of widespread civil rights violations, the California attorney general placed the Police Department under state oversight for five years. Leach walked into the tense situation and got rid of problem cops, boosted training and supervision, hired new officers and reached out to community leaders.
"The African American community has enjoyed a much more transparent and good relationship with the Police Department since he came," said Woodie Rucker-Hughes, 61, who has lived in Riverside since 1969 and is president of the local chapter of the NAACP. "That's not to say there haven't been incidents of concern. But it only took a phone call [to Leach] to have someone get on it and look into it. . . . Before, we would've said it's business as usual -- the fox guarding the henhouse."
Rucker-Hughes served on the chief's community advisory committee and said she got to know him as a person.
"I was quite impressed. He didn't want 'yes' people to agree with him. He placed people on the committee who didn't mind telling him when they thought something was wrong," she said. "For as much as he did for the community, for one incident to color all that . . . it's unfortunate. I'm not condoning what he did. But the man is a good man."
In March 2006, then-state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer announced that the Police Department had fulfilled the court-ordered reforms. It was a significant achievement. But although the end of state oversight was welcomed by rank-and-file officers and city officials, it was met with nervous optimism by others in the community -- a sign that there remains a deep mistrust.
The department "was effective in accomplishing things as long as there was a mandate from the attorney general's office to do so," said Michael Dunn, co-chairman of the Riverside Coalition for Police Accountability, which formed after Miller's killing. "Since then, what we've seen is a loss of will on the part of the city to continue the work toward making this a more progressive Police Department."