UPDATE 5pm 12/5/14 - The following story has been updated to include comments from Marina Police Chief Edmundo Rodriguez.
At a time when police departments nationwide are under fire for excessive use of force, a police officer at CSU Monterey Bay has been threatened with termination for not using enough of it.
And just this evening, attorneys representing the officer (whose name is not being disclosed) learned the university has denied a public entity claim they filed Nov. 12 on the officer's behalf. Attorneys received CSUMB's response, dated Dec. 2, in today's mail.
"They could’ve said 'Let's have a discussion," says Kathleen Mastagni-Storm, whose firm is representing the officer. "We're always open to a resolution."
Instead, Mastagni-Storm says they will now pursue the matter in court.
The officer's termination stems from an incident that occurred Feb. 22, one that has produced two very different versions of events.
The officer, a 20-year veteran who’s spent eight years at the department, responded to a scene at a CSUMB dormitory where a student was allegedly threatening to commit suicide. Being alone, he called the Marina Police Department for backup.
According to Jeff Solomon, president of the Statewide University Police Association, the union which represents CSU police officers, the officer had calmed down the student, who was unarmed, before the Marina PD arrived.
“We go through extensive training in crisis prevention intervention,” Solomon says. “This guy had special training and a great demeanor, he really talked [the student] down.”
Solomon says things quickly changed when three Marina police officers arrived, a claim disputed by Marina Police Chief Edmundo Rodriguez, who says a Marina sergeant was already on the scene and had entered the apartment with the CSUMB officer.
The other two Marina officers arrived shortly after, Rodriguez says, and also emphasizes his officers were concerned about trails of blood in the room and bloody t-shirts wrapped around the wrists of the student. They also noted part of the student's sweatshirt had been burned. He says his officers were concerned about getting the student into an ambulance as quickly as possible.
Solomon says after all the Marina officers had arrived, "The victim stood up and asked for a glass of water and the Marina guys started yelling at [the student]. Our officer thought they aggravated the situation.”
But Rodriguez says the CSUMB officer wasn't even in the apartment at the time, and had left two Marina officers in charge of the scene. He says he was outside on the phone. The other Marina officer was also outside waiting for paramedics, but ran back to the apartment after hearing yelling.
Solomon maintains the CSUMB officer never lost line of sight of the student, to which Rodriguez says: "That's simply not true."
In both sides of the story, after the yelling occurred is when the situation took a turn for the worse.
Rodriguez says that after the student tried to walk past the officers (despite their commands to stay put), two of his officers tried to control the student's arms and took him down on the bed. The other Marina officer then tried to control his legs.
Both sides agree the student weighed about 150 pounds, but despite having three officers attempting to control him, Rodriguez says "he resisted very strongly."
Rodriguez adds his officers were not under the impression the student was under the influence of any type of drug.
At that point, one of the Marina officers used a Taser on the student, and Rodriguez says the officer trying to control the legs asked the CSUMB officer help.
Rodriguez says the CSUMB officer did nothing but hand his Taser to the Marina officer, who used it to "dry stun" the student's legs.
"He froze. He just didn’t know what to do."
That telling contradicts what Solomon says, who claims the CSUMB officer was asked for his Taser when a Marina officer's Taser cartridge ran out, but refused to hand it over.
Rodriguez says his officers used the Tasers because they were trying to subdue the student enough to handcuff him so that medical personnel could enter the scene.
"Medical personnel will not enter an area until it is deemed safe," he says.
Rodriguez was unable to specify how many times the Tasers were deployed on the student, or how long the incident took to play out before medical personnel arrived.
Solomon says his officer felt the use of force was unnecessary.
“This was kind of a no brainer for us. This is the kind of call we handle every day,” Solomon says.
But Rodriguez says his officers didn't hear anything like that at the scene: "He just stood there, he did not object verbally to what we were doing."
Following the incident, Solomon says the CSUMB officer called the Marina police on the radio.
“He thought they were heavy-handed, thanked them, and said ‘If that’s what you’re going to do, I don’t need you.'”
But Rodriguez characterizes the officer's words quite differently.
"He called the sergeant to thank them for the assistance, and said that his department policy did not allow for him to take that type of action."
Mastagni-Storm says the Marina officers filed a complaint against the CSUMB officer for failing to act two weeks later.
Rodriguez is not aware of that complaint, and says one of his officers made a complaint to Marina's operations commander immediately following the incident to express his concern over the CSUMB's officer's lack of action at the scene.
"He was very concerned that this officer would not engage whatsoever."
The complaint ultimately led to the officer being put on paid administrative leave, and he was notified earlier this week that he would be terminated.
“After what happened in Ferguson, here we have an officer who clearly did the right thing, and he’s getting fired for it,” Solomon says. “It’s very frustrating for us.”
That comment echoes a statement from the student’s father that was included in a SUPA press release about the incident:
“It defies logic and is extremely disappointing that, at a time when law enforcement is under fire for using more force than necessary, an officer is being terminated for attempting to use civilized methods to resolve a situation.”
Mastagni-Storm says the officer had interacted with the student prior to the incident and was trying to develop a rapport with him, and even called the student's father before he arrived to the scene.
"It’s very common for campus police to know students by name and develop relationships with them," she says.
Mastagni-Storm also disclosed the CSUMB officer is Asian, and the student in the incident is black.
To that, Rodriguez adds his three officers were black, white and Hispanic, two with 15 years each of experience, the other with two.
Neither Mastagni-Storm or Solomon are willing to share the police reports from the incident, but both say there is nothing to indicate any wrongdoing by the CSU officer.
“There’s nothing that supports their charges,” Solomon says.
The CSUMB Police Department referred inquiries to a university spokesperson who provided only this brief statement:
“This issue involves a personnel investigation and we are unable to provide specific comments regarding an ongoing personnel matter. This case is much more complex than was conveyed in the press release. However, we are not at liberty to comment further as the personnel process moves forward.”
To Solomon, the only complexity is that he believes the Marina officers filed their complaint preemptively, fearing the CSUMB officer would file a complaint against them for excessive use of force.
“If you just look at the facts of the case,” he says, “it doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Rodriguez flatly objects to that claim, saying his officers handled the situation entirely appropriately.
"This was a crisis, and the intent of the officers was to get him some assistance."
Mastagni-Storm says she will be filing a writ in Monterey Superior Court in the coming weeks alleging the officer's rights were violated. Specifically, she alleges documents containing adverse comments about the officer were handed over to an investigator without ever being shown to the officer for a chance to rebut them.
When asked why the CSUMB's investigation of the incident and decision to terminate the officer took nearly a year, Mastagni-Storm didn't have an answer.
"One would think that an incident that would warrant a termination, you would think it would be done quickly," she says.
Mastagni-Storm adds the officer was a corporal in a quasi-supervisory position and has no red flags in his file.
"He has a very good work record," she says. "He doesn’t understand where this is coming from."
For Rodriguez's part, he says his department has an excellent relationship with CSUMB Police and finds the whole incident highly unfortunate. He also takes issue with how it's being told by the other side.
"The spin they're putting on this is both reckless and irresponsible," he says. "This was all about getting this kid some help."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported Mastagni-Storm's firm had already filed a writ—it has not. Attorneys had filed a claim with CSUMB, which they learned today was denied.