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'Accountability' and the chief

Police Chief Steve Annibali addresses questions over past litigation in Colorado and an alleged pattern of discrimination and retaliation within the AGPD

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A stack of lawsuits, departmental policy guides, office memorandums, staff rosters, and hand-scribbled notes sat conspicuously between Arroyo Grande Police Chief Steve Annibali and two New Times reporters.

‘I’M AN OPEN BOOK’:  He wasn’t specifically named as the bad guy, but three decade-old complaints from AGPD Chief Steve Annibali’s past tenure at a small Colorado department has him defending his record as a department reformer. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • ‘I’M AN OPEN BOOK’: He wasn’t specifically named as the bad guy, but three decade-old complaints from AGPD Chief Steve Annibali’s past tenure at a small Colorado department has him defending his record as a department reformer.

Annibali, who’s headed the department since 2007, had returned just days before from a training session in Sacramento, where he represented the city as a member of the California Police Chiefs Association.

Discussed during the three-day symposium was a bounty of topics relevant to police chiefs, some painfully relevant to Annibali’s current situation: expectations of the police chief, contemporary legal issues for the police chief, ethics of the police chief, and “surviving as a police chief, professionally and emotionally.” In fact, eight of the 11 workshops dealt with employee-litigation issues.

Though the Arroyo Grande Police Department and its chief are currently on the defensive end of three lawsuits containing allegations ranging from sexual harassment to retaliation to wrongful termination, the topics of the workshops he attended just days prior to the interview seemed one hell of an odd coincidence.

Neither City Manager Steve Adams nor Annibali can comment on the ongoing lawsuits, in part because the suits deal with confidential personnel information, which is exempt from disclosure per the California Peace Officers Bill of Rights.

Annibali did, however, agree to sit down to an interview about why similar suits were filed against another department under his watch and how the current litigation is impacting the department as it prepares to ask voters for a new police station as it continues to mull a consolidation with law enforcement in neighboring Grover Beach.

Troubles in Breckenridge

Annibali was hired as Arroyo Grande’s chief of police in August 2007, following a law-enforcement career spanning three states and more than 35 years, 14 of those in a chief’s seat.

He began his career with the Los Angeles Police Department in 1978, serving as a patrol officer for two years, before joining the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. He worked there until 1992, rising to the rank of lieutenant.

Next, he moved to the Sheriff’s Department in Arapahoe County, Colo., and then to the nearby town of Breckenridge, where he was hired as police chief in 1997. In 2000, he moved across the country to serve as police chief in Ephrata, a borough of roughly 14,000 people in Lancaster County, Pa., before taking the reins in Arroyo Grande.

During and shortly after his time in Breckenridge, the town faced two lawsuits and one complaint of sexual harassment and unequal treatment. Annibali was chief at the time, though he wasn’t specifically named in any of the three suits.

“I came into a department in a small ski area, and it was somewhat of a boys club. There’s no doubt,” Annibali told New Times. “On my résumé, it says I reformed a stagnated department, and that’s a nice way of saying there was definitely some need for change.”

The first incident during his tenure was a 1998 complaint to Colorado’s Equal Opportunity Commission—not a lawsuit—filed by Sheila North, a civilian parking enforcement officer. Annibali said North filed a complaint of inappropriate comments by coworkers and was later denied a vacation request. He said the complaint wasn’t entertained by the commission, and the employee soon left the department.

In November 1999, patrol officer Rosie Trindle filed a lawsuit alleging she was sexually harassed by a fellow officer. According to the lawsuit, Trindle reported the incident to her supervisor, then-Sgt. John Hough (who was later brought on to work in Arroyo Grande, too), who allegedly failed to involve all of the proper channels, and allegedly didn’t take appropriate action against the offending officer.

Following the complaint, Trindle’s lawsuit alleged she was passed up for an appropriate pay raise and was denied a requested shift change when she became pregnant and was placed on light duty.

The lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount in October 2000. Trindle couldn’t be reached for comment for this article, but Annibali said the original offending officer in question was disciplined.

By 2001, Annibali had moved on to Pennsylvania. However, another female officer in Breckenridge, Rebecca Johnson, filed a lawsuit against the department alleging unequal treatment. According to Annibali, Johnson brought her complaint to him in October 1999. The disparaging treatment allegedly returned once Annibali took the post in another department and another state.

“Sadly enough, in my short tenure [in Breckenridge], I didn’t effect the change necessary to have the whole culture change,” Annibali said.

New Times contacted the Human Resources Department in the town of Breckenridge for this article and was unable to speak to anyone who specifically remembered Annibali’s tenure there.

The Johnson case was later settled out of court.

- MORE TO COME:  Keep an eye on New Times for more coverage of the Arroyo Grande Police Department saga. -
  • MORE TO COME: Keep an eye on New Times for more coverage of the Arroyo Grande Police Department saga.

Asked whether the city was aware of the Breckenridge problems when Annibali was being vetted as chief, Arroyo Grande City Manager Steve Adams admitted staffers were not aware, but said it would have made little difference.

“It is our understanding that there were three complaints that occurred over 10 years ago, none of which named Chief Annibali or directly involved him,” Adams wrote in an e-mail to New Times. “Therefore, there is no way we would have known about them and we do not see any relevance in them.”

That city officials would be unaware of the problems in Breckenridge may come as surprising, given that Arroyo Grande contracted with former San Luis Obispo police chief and trained investigator Jim Gardiner to look into Annibali before his hiring. Adams said he also conducted an “extensive” parallel investigation.

“Both investigations included extensive interviews, which confirmed that Chief Annibali has had a dynamic and distinguished career,” Adams said. “No issues of concern were identified, and what emerged was the portrait of a skilled, fair, and honest man.”

Local litigation

During New Times’ research for this article, reporters received frequent anonymous phone calls and e-mail messages claiming to “have dirt” on either the police chief or on the litigants, indicating a nasty behind-the-scenes feud one can only speculate on without any names.

What is known is this: Since Annibali took over the Arroyo Grande department, three lawsuits related to either sexual harassment or wrongful termination have been filed against the city. Each of these suits specifically names the chief, including one that also names John Hough—Annibali’s former sergeant in Breckenridge—who was hired by Arroyo Grande for a three-year contract as commander in 2009.

Of the three suits—two of which were filed by female officers alleging retaliation following complaints of sexual harassment, and the third by a male officer alleging wrongful termination and unlawful disclosure of confidential medical information—only one has so far been decided; the wrongful termination lawsuit was dismissed in federal court on March 15.

The others are still ongoing.

In September 2010, Senior Officer Kimberley Martin, a decorated officer with the department, filed a case against Arroyo Grande and Annibali. In December 2011, a second senior officer, Michelle Cota, also a decorated officer, did the same, adding Cmdr. Hough to the list of defendants.

Both women describe a department that gave preferential treatment to male officers, that passed female officers over for advancement opportunities.

Annibali made it clear he couldn’t discuss the Arroyo Grande lawsuits because they concern confidential personnel information and are ongoing. Both cases are scheduled for case management conferences in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court in April.

City Manager Adams previously told New Times that both lawsuits came about only after investigations were conducted through the District Attorney’s Office, though no charges were ever filed.

Adams said that though the city is prohibited from disclosing personnel information, disclosure of the existence of an investigation—as long as it’s conducted by another agency—doesn’t constitute disclosure of confidential personnel information.

Cota declined to talk specifics about her lawsuit, citing advice from her attorney. But like Annibali, Cota said she wished she could tell the whole story.

Neither Martin nor her Calabasas-based attorney could be reached for comment.

Former Cmdr. Hough’s last day with the department was October 27, 2011, roughly two months before he was served with the Cota lawsuit. Both Annibali and Adams said Hough’s departure had no relation to the lawsuit.

Hough and another commander had been hired roughly three years ago, they said, following the budget-related early retirement of two previous commanders. The decision was made, Annibali said, to hire Hough and the other commander for a three-year contract to mentor and train in-house staff to eventually take over the positions on a permanent basis.

Since their departure, a sergeant has been promoted to the commander spot. Annibali said he expects to fill the other spot soon, but “is enjoying saving the money at this moment.”

Hough has since left the Central Coast and couldn’t be found for comment.

In July 2010, in what Annibali calls “a sad case,” former officer Albert Beattie filed a federal lawsuit against Arroyo Grande, Annibali, and a private medical examiner who contracted with the city. Beattie alleged he was wrongfully terminated for his political speech as a representative for the Arroyo Grande Police Officers Association. He also alleged improper disclosure of medical records.

According to his lawsuit, Beattie filed a safety-related complaint with the department prior to Annibali’s hire in 2007. As part of the union, Beattie took part in the selection process for Annibali. He was outspoken against Annibali as a candidate, according to court documents.

Beattie alleged that in November 2008, he was ordered to undergo a psychological fitness-for-duty evaluation after instructing officers to force entry into
a home during a domestic disturbance.

But according to court documents filed on behalf of the Encino-based medical contractor, Susan Saxe-Clifford, Beattie was uncooperative during the examination for fitness for duty. According to the document, Beattie was ordered to undergo the evaluation for “unstable and troubling behavior” following a March 2006 on-the-job shooting.

According to multiple news reports from the time, Beattie shot and killed a carjacker and kidnapping suspect after the suspect attempted to run down Beattie and a fellow officer, who were reportedly assisting a motorist on the side of Highway 101 near Goleta. The officers had just returned from assisting in a Narcotics Task Force operation in Santa Barbara when they were approached at a high rate of speed by a suspect in a minivan, who reportedly shot at the officers.

Beattie’s use of lethal force was later deemed justified, and he returned to full duty.

Beattie didn’t return New Times’ requests for comment. However, former Santa Barbara County Deputy District Attorney Josh Lynn, now in private practice and representing Beattie, told New Times that despite the dismissal, Beattie will pursue getting his job back at the administrative level, a process that was interupted by the lawsuit.

“All [Beattie] wants is to be a police officer again,” Lynn said.

The chief speaks

So how does Annibali respond to these allegations? He doesn’t. Because he can’t. However, he said litigation against police departments tends to follow certain trends.

“There’s a template that’s happening across California right now. And we’re not the only agency that’s dealing with it, by far,” Annibali explained.

He said lawsuits tend to be filed against departments to “blunt” investigations or disciplinary measures stemming from an officer’s alleged conduct or performance. This practice, he said, makes it possible to argue that every administrative move following the lawsuit can be perceived as retaliation.

Second, he argued, is that a lawsuit triggers the department’s insurance carrier, in this case the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority.

“The city doesn’t have deep pockets. But CALJPIA, the group which insures all these departments, it has money. And they like to settle lawsuits, because the cost of litigating is expensive,” Annibali said.

He added that a lawsuit is typically followed by a worker’s compensation claim.

“This pattern is being replicated all across the state of California,” he said. “That’s why this stuff happens. It isn’t because Steve Annibali is a mean guy who doesn’t like ladies. This is a template.”

Annibali also questioned why the current plaintiffs haven’t spoken on the record to the press, pointing out that while city administration is barred by law from discussing a personnel issue, the employees are allowed to do so: “It’s in the Officer’s Bill of Rights. Plain and simple. But here’s the question: They can talk. They can talk about me, they can talk about the department, and they can show documentation to back up their claims. There’s nothing that prohibits them from talking.

“So my question is, why don’t they?” he said. “Can you tell me what the allegations are against you? They’re not going to. Because if you saw what the allegations were, there would be light shed on the whole story.”

The chief pointed to a survey conducted by his own department of SLO County law enforcement agencies dated Jan. 30 of this year. The survey found that Arroyo Grande actually had the highest percentage of female sworn officers—five officers, or 18.5 percent of its roster—when compared to other agencies as of that date.

According to Annibali, AGPD’s female officer ratio is twice the national average for cities of similar populations. The city’s gender diversity also fared better than the national average for cities with populations of more than 250,000—11.8 percent—Annibali said.

He also argued that all the females on his staff—including sworn officers and non-sworn employees, such as dispatchers and administrators—make up 40 percent of his staff, which is twice the national average for cities of like populations of 10,000 to 24,999 residents. The national average is 20.6 percent, according to the FBI.

“This is a female-friendly outfit,” Annibali said. “They do a great job; I have fantastic female officers and dispatchers who go to work every day, do their jobs, and don’t complain.”

New Times couldn’t verify the survey’s findings for all SLO County agencies as of press time. However, the Arroyo Grande figures don’t present a completely accurate and up-to-date picture. Tierza Foster, who spent three years in training with the department as a cadet before being hired on full-time in November 2011, resigned in February.

Foster said she left the department for personal reasons, but did so on good terms and said she’d be happy to return in the future if possible.

Also, the department is counting both Martin and Cota on its roster of current employees. Though still employed, both officers remain on leave with pending worker’s compensation claims. Whether they’ll ever return to the department remains far from certain.

Still, Annibali maintains that his experience and accomplishments show a record of professional conduct. He currently serves on the Professional Standards, Image, and Ethics Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and is a guest lecturer and instructor on the topic of ethics.

Annibali said he finds the female-specific allegations against him ironic given his wife’s profession: a 20-year veteran of the Vail, Colo., police department, who is now an instructor at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria. One course she teaches is titled “Women in Public Safety.”

“All this time with my wife—15-plus years now—every day I hear about the plight of women in law enforcement. If I don’t understand it, nobody will,” he said. “I know what the issues are for women in the workplace.”

Small-town department, big-city problems

The rapid succession of a trio of lawsuits has hit the department at a particularly crucial time. In addition to attempting to maintain adequate staffing levels during a period of dire budget constraints, the city is also dealing with two major projects.

First, the city is neck-deep in talks with Grover Beach regarding consolidating police forces and facilities. The idea has been floated for decades, and the city is hoping to release a formal proposal for the consolidation sometime in April, Annibali said.

A $6.7 million bond measure to build a new police station has also just been approved to go before voters in June, a measure Annibali called “extremely important.” A similar bond measure narrowly failed to pass with a super majority in 2010.

Annibali said the department has outgrown the current station, which was formerly a telephone switching station before it was taken over by the city in the early 1970s.

“We’re still moving toward those big goals, and we’re very optimistic,” Annibali said. “But I would be disingenuous if I were to say that [the lawsuits] are not a distraction.”

Annibali also said having two senior officers—Martin and Cota—out on indefinite leave has placed a burden on the department, which has been compounded by a third work-related injury in recent months. The staff shortage has required the temporary reassignment of a detective, increased the workload on patrol officers, affected vacation schedules, and required adjusted overtime.

Despite the ongoing lawsuits, the city remains steadfast in its support for its chief.

“It is unfortunate that these unique cases overshadow the fact that the city of Arroyo Grande has a police department that demonstrates a tremendous level of service, dedication, and morale,” said City Manager Adams. “[Annibali] has and continues to provide an extraordinary level of leadership through a very challenging time.”

Annibali said that as far as he’s concerned, “the truth” will come out in court. Until then, he said, he will continue to maintain the department’s “high standards.”

“People need to realize that, as chief of police, one of my jobs is to hold people accountable. And I’m going to do that,” Annibali said.

“Sometimes it takes administrative courage, because many times you go into this knowing—given the current climate in California—what is going to happen. But you can’t shy away from that responsibility, because the people don’t want you to.

“In spite of the fact that it’s challenging,” he added, “we’re not going to change.”

News Editor Colin Rigley contributed to this article. He can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com. Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at mfountain@newtimesslo.com.

 

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