In 1999, Thomas Gonzalez, a former investigator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, expressed interest in working for the City of Long Beach, and he seemed to land the perfect gig: investigator for the Citizen Police Compliant Commission (CPCC), which was voted into creation by Long Beach residents in 1990 to investigate allegations of police misconduct.
But it turned out to be anything but a match made in heaven. For years, the signs were more subtle. By 2004 Gonzalez claims that the systemic racism of the City of Long Beach and the CPCC’s lack of independence from the police force it was charged with investigating could not be ignored—and that he was fired 18 months later for not ignoring them.
Beginning Monday, after six years, a court is finally going to hear this wrongful-termination case that may be about so much more.
Gonzalez says he clearly recalls what then-City Manager Jerry Miller said during Gonzalez’s first job interview: “I expect you to be as straight as an arrow. […] We don’t want to nail cops, but if there’s a bad one here, we want to make sure that we find him.”
That suited Gonzalez just fine. He says he didn’t come into the position with any negative preconceptions about the Long Beach Police Department or police in general; he simply wanted to do the job.
“For the first few years I enjoyed my job,” Gonzalez says. “It was a good place to work. […] The [executive] director [of the CPCC] was a very good director. You could come to him and discuss [issues,] and very often he would see your point and make changes and recommendations.”
But that changed in 2004, Gonzalez says, when fellow investigator and officemate William Ward—a former police officer—was promoted to executive director. Gonzalez says one of the first changes Ward implemented was to remove the Spanish-language version of the CPCC’s voicemail greeting.
“When I said, ‘Hey, what’s going on here? Why did you do that?'” Gonzalez relates, noting that Latinos comprise the city’s largest ethnic group (41 percent of the population). “He said, ‘Well, there’s a hundred-odd languages or whatever, and Spanish speakers shouldn’t be privileged to have their own message.'”
Many additional instances of what Gonzalez considers to be Ward and the CPCC’s bias against the Latino community were to come, but the more immediate alarm bells that sounded for Gonzalez concerned Ward’s apparent favoritism toward the police, beginning with a plaque from the police thanking the CPCC for the good job it was doing, a plaque Ward displayed prominently at the CPCC’s front desk.
“You’re supposed to be not for the police and not for the community, so it doesn’t sit right to have this big plaque [from the police] sitting there,” Gonzalez says. “And in his office [Ward] put up a very large picture of his [police] graduating class. Community people come in, and they’re going to see: police department. We have to be more neutral; we’ve got to show that. [Moreover,] a lot of police [officers] started coming in, having carte blanche to come right into the office and close the door or whatever.”
Gonzalez says Ward’s pro-police bias was nothing new. As officemates, the two often disagreed about Ward’s slant, a slant Gonzalez says Ward took so far that on multiple occasions it led him to rewrite Gonzalez’s reports so that they read more favorably toward police.
“In a couple of those, Ward got involved in my work, ostensibly as an assistant,” Gonzalez says. “But he tried to change the thrust of what I was doing by explaining to me, ‘Oh, this is the way it happens with police’—because he’s a former police officer. […] And I did talk to him about it. […] He didn’t justify it, he just did it. […] We were supposed to walk the line. The job was not to be for the police, and not to be for the citizens; we were supposed to look at the information [in an unbiased manner]. And I criticized him that he needed to come back to the middle.”
Gonzalez says be believes the pro-police culture at the CPCC may have always been present, but that it flowered under Ward—and so it was during Ward’s tenure that Gonzalez’s unwillingness to play the pro-police game became intolerable for the CPCC.
“When I was there, I was not someone they were happy with,” Gonzalez says. “There were cases where I intervened and were found to be…These were egregious-type situations, where anybody with half a brain if they looked would have seen there was something problematic with what [the police] were doing. So I went back and investigated and found officers with problems. They never did like it under the former director, but he kind of protected me, in the sense that he didn’t allow any of them to directly confront me. He expected me to do the job; that’s what he wanted me to do. […] My personal opinion is that they wanted someone to do what [Ward] was doing.”
Citing pending litigation, the City was unable to comment on anything relating to the case. Gonzalez, however, provides a long list of cases where the CPCC failed to properly investigate serious allegations of police misconduct. Some examples:
- The case of an African-American female who wrote a three-page letter to the chief of police alleging that seven officers entered her home without a warrant and held guns to the heads of her two minor children, ransacked the home, and impounded her car for 30 days even though no explanation for why was ever provided was “watered down” by the investigating detective to be only a complaint about a warrantless search and subsequently marked “NFA” (“no further action”), despite Gonzalez’s pressuring the CPCC to investigate further.
- A 16-year-old Hispanic male spotted in the vicinity of an auto burglary was found bleeding from the head after a short foot-chase. The doctor who examined the suspect wanted to file a complaint, as the suspect’s head injury was not consistent with the apprehending officers’ explanation—that the suspect fell off a fence during the chase—and was consistent with being struck by a handgun, but police discouraged the doctor from doing so, falsely claiming that Internal Affairs had already begun an investigation. A complaint was eventually filed, but without further investigation the CPCC marked the complaint “NFA.” Gonzalez finally succeed in compelling the CPCC to revisit the case, and eventually Internal Affairs found that the officers had pistol-whipped the suspect.
One insider who supports Gonzalez’s take the CPCC’s biases in favor of the police and against Gonzalez for his unwillingness to play along is former CPCC Commissioner Coqueece King. King was so “outrage[d]” by the pro-police/anti-Gonzalez bias at the CPCC that she saved notes she took at a November 2005 closed-session meeting of the CPCC in order to file a formal complaint.
In those notes, which she supplied to Gonzalez in 2010 for use at his upcoming trial, King documents a CPCC discussion of a citizen complaint concerning an incident directly witnessed by Gonzalez. She writes that although Gonzalez was not only the investigator of the complaint but an “independent witness” to the incident in question, the CPCC ruled Gonzalez a “complainant” and thus barred his presence from the discussion. She notes with incredulity that one CPCC commissioner went as far as to express his “disappoint[ment]” with Gonzalez and his hope that Gonzalez “never does this again.” “What does this statement mean?” King writes: “Do not report misconduct when you are a witness to it?”
According to King’s notes, the discussion that followed contained various “attack[s] on [Gonzalez’s] credibility,” as well as castigation of the complainants (“‘They were only gang members with felony records no one knows how long[,] anyway'”) and a good deal of pro-police hypothesizing. “[T]he discussion centered around excusing the officer’s behavior,” she writes, along with the following:
The Commissioners, in my opinion, failed to base their discussion on the facts, [and] instead they used their own biased opinions. […] Bill Ward the Executive Director even stood up […] and demonstrated how the officer “spit on the ground” behind the seated (on the curb) detainee. Bill was not present when the incident occurred (T[h]omas Gonzalez was). Bill Ward, in my opinion, should have guided the discussion back to the facts instead of joining a discussion based on conjecture and supposition. […] I called [Ward] and told him of my concerns and made a formal complaint for the record. He told me the “unfounded” finding could not be reversed. […] I feel a “miscarriage of justice” occurred when the Commission voted the complaint (allegation #1—CPCC 05-297) was [ruled] “unfounded.”
King goes on to write that legally such a finding is tantamount to an assertion that Gonzalez was lying, which she viewed as an unwarranted attack on Gonzalez’s credibility. She also notes that she brought her concerns to City Manager Jerry Miller, who assured her he would talk to Ward about the issues she raised.
Eventually King resigned from the CPCC. “This incident was just one of several biased (‘unfounded’) rulings I witnessed,” King wrote in her 2010 cover letter to Gonzalez.
In putting together his case, Gonzalez put together a 28-page “narrative” documenting aspects of the founding and history of the CPCC. That narrative speaks of a CPCC whose power was “surreptitiously” consolidated into the hands of the executive director. Gonzalez says that a December 2000 change to the CPCC removed the oversight powers from the Commission—powers mandated by the City Charter—and placed them with the executive director, a position the City Charter does not name, let alone invest with power.
Among other actions Gonzalez alleges as dubious:
- Current 8th District Councilmember Al Austin, in his capacity of CPCC chair, signed the CPCC’s 2002 Annual Report, even though he was not appointed to the CPCC until 2003. (Austin did not reply to the Long Beach Post‘s request for comment.)
- The 2003, 2004, and 2005 Annual Reports are mostly “cut-and-paste” jobs, 95 percent identical—including in their analysis of each respective year’s activities—with changes only to the statistics.
- All Annual Reports between 2002 and 2007 “intentionally mislabel reports that were received as having been investigated,” thus “greatly augment[ing] the number of complaints [reported as] investigated each year.”
Gonzalez also alleges that, at least during his tenure with the CPCC, the City was systemically racist. Gonzalez points out that while over 40 percent of Long Beach residents are Latino, the CPCC reports that typically less than 20 percent of the complaints against the LBPD are filed by Latinos. A related disproportional variance occurs with African-Americans, Gonzalez says (and the statistics bear out): although African-Americans make up only about 15 percent of Long Beach’s populous, they typically account for roughly 40 percent of the complaints filed.
“It’s not that Hispanics weren’t filing proportionately,” Gonzalez says. “[It’s that] they [i.e., the City] create the statistics that they want.” Why does Gonzalez believe the City wants statistics like this? “You know the impact that blacks have had in Long Beach,” he says. “They were very responsible, through the NAACP, for establishing the CPCC. […] Blacks have a lot more political power [than Hispanics], despite less numbers. […] They [i.e., the City] are not able to cover up the black complaints.”
Citing Gonzalez’s pending litigation, the City of Long Beach declined to comment not only on any details related to Gonzalez’s time at the CPCC, but also on current CPCC practices, such as why the CPCC currently offers no Spanish-language voicemail or Website content (a Spanish-language complaint form is available at the CPCC itself, which is located within the City Manager’s Office on the 13th floor of City Hall. A Spanish-language version of the CPCC brochure is also available) and why the CPCC currently has only nine commissioners and not the 11 mandated by its bylaws (Council Distrists 1—the City’s most heavily Laitno, at 64.5%—and 8 (a Latino majority of 43.8%) do not have CPCC representatives).
CPCC bylaws also mandate that “the membership of the Commission shall be broadly representative of the population of the City in terms of race, ethnicity, age, gender, [etc.].” However, only one of the Committee’s nine commissioners is Latino.
CPCC Executive Director Anitra Dempsey highlighted this bylaw at a 2009 CPCC meeting, as she touted the work of the CPCC.
“This body has always wanted to make sure that the different characteristics of the Commission, as identified in the Charter and bylaws, are represented,” she said after reading from the bylaws. “[…] Our values are transparency, integrity, and accountability. […] Our primary obligation is to the community […] We see continuous improvement in the effectiveness of how we do our work.”
But Gonzalez and his attorney, Kimberly Olsen, say it’s just not so—and hasn’t been for a very long time.
“The number of complaints that are actually investigated is decreasing—but that is not because less people are filing complaints,” says Olsen. “There are still problems out there—it’s just that every year less and less are addressed. […] There’s a nice, rosy picture being painted for the public by the CPCC. But it’s not the way things are.”
Olsen notes that although in legal terms Gonzalez’s in a wrongful-termination case, it “address[es] civil-rights issues within the context of employment, and […] it also has serious public-policy implications.”
Ultimately a court will decide whether the City had cause to terminate Gonzalez—but in so doing it may have something to say about the operations of Long Beach’s Citizen Police Complaint Commission. Thomas Gonzalez certainly will. He’s been waiting a long time for his day in court.
“This is six years,” he says, sounding both tired and determined. “So I’m a long-distance runner.”
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