Will the controversies at the Petaluma Police Department never end? Last week's questionable firing of widely-respected Police Lt. Dave Sears, once considered a strong candidate to become police chief, is just the latest in a long string of troubles that have plagued the department, and the city, for the last several years.
Last summer, as Petaluma City Manager John Brown prepared to select a new chief to lead the city's 80-member police force, it was hoped that a fresh chapter would emerge to stabilize and strengthen the department, and rebuild morale among the city's single largest employee contingent.
At the time, the department had been limping along for more than three years under the uneven leadership of interim chief and former police captain Dan Fish. Although it was believed that Fish would win eventual appointment to the post, that possibility was erased when it was learned that he had concealed an extra marital affair with a police department employee who was also married at the time. Brown, who shortly after appointing Fish to the job in 2009 began receiving numerous complaints about the alleged affair from members of the public, confronted Fish who denied having any personal relationship with the woman whom, it turned out, he later married. Fish's actions and statements were clearly not appropriate for a police chief who is held to a higher moral and ethical standard than the public he serves.
Hoping to find a more suitable candidate to lead the department, Brown turned to an outside recruitment firm to attract and screen alternative candidates. In a process that included an online poll soliciting citizen feedback, local residents said the most important qualities they desire in their next police chief were honesty, integrity and a strong ethical background.
With that mandate, Brown ultimately selected Patrick Williams, the former police chief of Desert Hot Springs. Immediately after Williams' selection was announced, however, news reports revealed that he'd been named in a $5 million lawsuit alleging that he condoned the harassment and demotion of a female Desert Hot Springs police department detective in retaliation for her reporting alleged departmental abuses to the FBI.
According to the lawsuit, the police detective reported physical abuse of prisoners by fellow police officers and, as a result, suffered harassment, humiliation and eventual termination for her whistle-blowing.
The allegations against Williams, though unproven, were very serious. Former police detective Andrea Heath stated that about the same time she was demoted from detective to patrol officer, Williams promoted Sergeant Anthony Sclafani, an officer he knew was the target of an FBI investigation for civil rights violations. Sclafani was later charged and convicted on two felony counts of using excessive force against two suspects in custody. Heath also alleged that Williams tried to intimidate her into not testifying for the FBI against Sclafani.
Rather than reconsider his decision based on the new information before him, Brown concluded Williams was innocent of the charges and decided to hire him anyway. But public doubts about Williams' suitability for the post has continued to fester.
Earlier this year, the department faced yet additional controversy and public scrutiny over its failure to arrest and take a blood alcohol sample from fellow officer Ryan McGreevy, who crashed a motor scooter at the Rooster Run golf course during a police fundraising event last October.
Despite the fact that numerous police officers were present and obviously aware that the crash was caused by excessive alcohol consumption, McGreevy was never arrested and no blood alcohol tests were administered. Following an extensive CHP investigation, the Sonoma County District Attorney formally charged McGreevy with DUI, but its case was severely weakened by the Petaluma Department's failure to follow standard protocol to take prompt action in alcohol-related vehicle accidents.