Sheriff Scott Jones speaks to Board of Supervisors about oversight
Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones released his office’s first disciplinary records under a new transparency law Friday, a 10-year-old case involving the firing of a deputy for dishonesty.
The case involved the termination of Deputy Steve Al Vasquez over a June 18, 2008, traffic stop in which sheriff’s investigators concluded Vasquez was “either deliberately untruthful or woefully lacking in accuracy” in reports he filed on an arrest he made that day.
“The ultimate question remains, however, of whether Deputy Vasquez was dishonest or merely negligent, as he would have us believe,” an Oct. 1, 2009, memo from then-Undersheriff Mark Iwasa that is included in the newly released file states. “In the final analysis, I think it is a distinction without a difference, because he was either deliberately dishonest, or he was so extremely negligent as to forever cast doubt on his ability to recall, relate and testify to events to a degree required of any peace officer.
“Either way, he has once again proven that he is unable to satisfactorily carry out his duties as a peace officer.”
Reached Friday, Vasquez expressed surprise at the release of the 108 pages in disciplinary documents, and asked for a copy to be emailed to him before commenting.
The documents were released under SB 1421, a law that took effect Jan. 1 and requires law enforcement agencies to release documents, videos and other materials associated with use-of-force or disciplinary cases.
Sheriff Scott Jones initially had balked at releasing such materials and The Sacramento Bee sued to force release. But once an appellate court upheld the validity of the law Jones told The Bee in April that he would begin releasing such records as quickly as possible.
The Bee initially sought five years’ worth of such files, but the release Friday dates back to a case 10 years ago and paints the department in a favorable light as investigators probed into a traffic stop that eventually cost Vasquez his career.
The internal affairs files say investigators determined Vasquez “made dishonest statements” in both his crime report and his probable cause statement for why he stopped the motorist, whose name and identifying information is redacted.
According to the documents, Vasquez claimed he saw the suspect car “swerving between lanes,” but a review of his in-car camera video “shows the suspect’s vehicle remaining well centered within his lane the entire time.”
Vasquez also reported that the suspect “attempted to run head on into my vehicle,” the documents say, but investigators reviewing the video said that “at no time does Deputy Vasquez’s in-car camera show the suspect attempting to run ‘head on’ into his vehicle.”
Other discrepancies included Vasquez’ claims that the suspect rammed other deputy’s cars and that the suspect “was taken into custody without incident.”
Investigators determined the suspect backed into Vasquez’ car while trying to escape but that the other collisions occurred as deputies struck the suspect’s vehicle as they tried to stop the car. They also found that Vasquez was not truthful when he reported the suspect was detained without incident.
“In actuality a Taser was deployed and the suspect was inadvertently bitten by a K9,” a report found. “The fire department was requested to provide aid at the scene.”
“The evidence is clear that Deputy Vasquez entered false information in his reports related to this incident.”
The report from Capt. Trang To noted that Vasquez was the primary officer on scene and was “responsible for the entire narrative of the incident, to include other officers’ actions.”
Despite that, investigators said Vasquez “blamed his peers during his Internal Affairs interview for the inaccuracy of his report,’ including the failure to note that the suspect was bitten by a K9 officer.
“I just figured everybody else would cover their part,” the report quotes Vasquez as saying. “It was his dog, he would cover it and some won’t.”
“This is beyond reprehensible,” To wrote.
The documents indicate that the incident was the second in which Vasquez was not forthright, and that the 2008 incident “has remarkable similarities” to another case in which the deputy’s reports “were not accurate representations of events that transpired.”
In both instances, Vasquez denied “being untruthful,” the report concluded, with him blaming “sleep deprivation” because of time he was spending off-duty starting a business.
The reports note that because of Vasquez’ actions prosecutors reduced the charges they had planned to file against the suspect, and that Vasquez was placed on the District Attorney’s “Brady List” of officers who cannot be relied upon to testify in court without jeopardizing a case because of past dishonesty or other issues.
John McGinness, who was sheriff at the time Vasquez was fired, said the case illustrates how important honesty is to law enforcement officials.
“If you ask any sheriff’s deputy, ‘If you lie, you what?’ the answer’s going to be, ‘You die, you die professionally.’ ”
But McGinness said he still had qualms about aspects of the new law, particularly his concern that information may be released in use-of-force cases that will reveal personal details about victims.
“What I find troublesome about 1421 is that the word ‘victim’ never appears in the language and victims will be compromised and specific information about them will be subject to public disclosure,” he said.
Friday’s release of documents is the first from the sheriff’s office, and many more are expected as sheriffs’ officials continue poring through files to prepare them for release.
Passage of the measure last year to require release of such documents and videos sparked pitched battles between police unions and news organizations statewide, with some departments refusing to release materials before courts had upheld the law and others reportedly destroying some materials rather than release them.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra has been among them balking at complying, arguing that he wanted direction from the courts on whether the law can be applied retroactively to records created before the law took effect Jan. 1. On Friday, a judge in San Francisco did just that, issuing a tentative ruling that he must turn over records regardless of their age.
But with the release of such documents expected to continue regularly, advocates for officers had little response Friday.
Attorney David Mastagni, who represents officers and whose firm represented Vasquez, did not respond to a request for comment, and the president of the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association declined to say anything.
“I’m not going to start getting in the habit of commenting on discipline cases as the sheriff’s department releases them,” Kevin Mickelson said. “I’m just not going to make a practice of it.”