A Long Beach police officer was fired last year after prosecutors accused him of dodging subpoenas and trying to sabotage a Los Angeles drunk driving case in which he was a witness.
Officer Michael Torres’ behavior was “disgraceful,” according to prosecutors at the L.A. City Attorney’s office who handled the case. One deputy city attorney called Torres “her worst witness ever, civilian or police officer,” according to LBPD documents recently released under a new police transparency law.
During internal affairs interviews, Torres disputed allegations that he tried to avoid testifying, saying he never got multiple voicemails and more than half a dozen subpoenas addressed to him.
He also denied trying to sabotage the case, arguing he had legitimate concerns about police reports not matching what he told LAPD officers at the scene of the crash.
Nevertheless, in early 2019, the LBPD fired Torres, whom it described as a respected member of the department.
“If citizens refused subpoena service and were as difficult as Officer Michael Torres was throughout the process, the criminal justice system would grind to a halt,” an LBPD commander wrote in a summary of the case. “If the facts of this case became public they would be embarrassing to the organization.”
Torres appealed his firing to Long Beach’s Civil Service Commission, which overturned some of the allegations against him but ultimately upheld the decision to fire him, according to Long Beach’s police union. Following that ruling, the LBPD released details of Torres’ case on Jan. 15 this year.
His is the first case of its kind released by the LBPD under a new transparency law, SB 1421, which went into effect last year.
The law requires departments to release previously private records about sustained cases of dishonesty or sexual assault by officers. It also requires departments to release details about police shootings and other serious uses of force.
Long Beach police have previously released details on dozens of use-of-force cases, but Torres’ was the first involving a police officer found to have been dishonest.
In Torres’ case, the LBPD published almost 700 pages documenting the complaints against him, the internal affairs investigation and city officials’ decision to fire him.
“We will not accept unethical behavior or actions that could tarnish the great work the men and women of our department do every day to provide excellent service to our community,” the LBPD said in a statement Wednesday.
Facts of the case
Torres’ case stems from a DUI crash he witnessed while off duty near LAX around 2 a.m. on March 1, 2017.
LAPD officers wrote that Torres saw the driver, who had previous DUI convictions, narrowly miss hitting a motorcyclist before crashing.
Torres gave officers his phone number and driver’s license, but when prosecutors from the L.A. City Attorney’s office tried to contact him in preparation for trial, they got no response.
One of several subpoenas they sent was returned with the phrase “Return to sender. Does not live here,” written on the envelope. A handwriting analysis later showed there was a “strong likelihood” Torres wrote that message even though it couldn’t be proved definitively, according to the LBPD.
In internal affairs interviews, Torres said the address listed on his driver’s license was actually his parents’ home where he sometimes got mail, but when prosecutors found another address listed for him and tried to subpoena him there as well, they also failed.
Eventually, Torres called prosecutors back after they contacted the LBPD directly and left another voicemail on Torres’ cell phone saying they didn’t want to get his chain of command involved.
In that conversation, Torres was hostile, rude and belligerent, according to the deputy city attorney handling the case.
She alleged Torres refused to come to the next court date, saying he didn’t think he was needed because an LAPD sergeant at the scene had also witnessed everything. When the deputy city attorney disagreed, Torres allegedly started to undercut police reports, saying he’d never identified the suspected DUI driver or told LAPD officers that the driver ran a red light.
Torres then demanded the phone number for the DUI driver’s defense attorney so he could warn them about the inaccuracies, according to the deputy city attorney’s account of the conversation.
L.A. city officials later said they suspect Torres made up his concerns as “gamesmanship to avoid having to be involved.”
When Torres did eventually come to one pretrial court date, prosecutors took the extraordinary step of having Torres confirm his contact information under oath in front of a judge, according to the LBPD’s files.
Prosecutors ultimately revealed Torres’ complaints to defense attorneys on their own accord and decided against calling him as a witness. They still won a conviction against the driver, according to the LBPD.
However, the city attorney’s office did complain about Torres to his supervisors. One deputy city attorney called him “the worst witness that I have interacted with,” the LBPD reports show.
Internal affairs investigators noted this wasn’t the first time Torres appeared to avoid being subpoenaed.
After trying to serve him with court papers three times in a 2016 paternity case, the San Bernardino Count Sheriff’s Department concluded Torres was evading them.
Eventually, an LBPD sergeant had to hand him a subpoena at work, prompting a “defiant” response from Torres, who said, “Are you willing to testify to this?” according to the internal affairs case summary.
Torres is fired and appeals
On Feb. 20, 2019, Long Beach sent Torres a letter notifying him he’d been fired for seven different violations of LBPD policy including being discourteous, dishonest and neglecting his duty.
“All LBPD employees have a duty to cooperate with lawful investigations and must remain honest while doing so,” the LBPD said in its statement Wednesday. “When an allegation of employee misconduct surfaces, the Department takes immediate action to address the allegation and determine the best course of action based on the totality of circumstances.”
Some of the allegations against Torres were overturned when he appealed the decision to Long Beach’s Civil Service Commission, according to the Long Beach Police Officers Association, the union that represents officers.
Nevertheless, the commission upheld the decision to fire Torres.
The commission couldn’t immediately release details on which allegations were overturned.
When contacted through a representative of the Police Officers Association on Wednesday, Torres did not respond. The attorney representing Torres also declined to comment through the union.
Editor’s note: This story is part of the California Reporting Project, a statewide collaboration among dozens of newsrooms to report on police use-of-force and misconduct.