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Sitting in court this week, former San Diego police officer Anthony Arevalos watched woman after woman accuse him of sexually assaulting them, soliciting bribes and falsely imprisoning them.
But the woman who first complained of being sexually assaulted by Arevalos was not among them. Police investigated her complaint in February last year. They recommended prosecutors with the District Attorney’s Office bring charges against one of their own.
And the case stopped there.
The District Attorney’s Office declined to press charges, three SDPD sources told voiceofsandiego.org, and the Police Department sent Arevalos back to the streets where he worked as a traffic cop patrolling for drunk drivers — a post in which he arrested women more often than any of his peers.
Eight months after the first complaint, Arevalos solicited sexual bribes from a different woman during a traffic stop, groped her and then let her go, prosecutors say. Two months later, they say, another woman. The next month, another woman. And a month after that, another.
Then, on March 8 this year, after a downtown Mardi Gras celebration, Arevalos made a traffic stop that ended his career as a San Diego police officer and led to 21 felony charges that carry a maximum 21-year prison sentence. He’s pleaded not guilty.
Arevalos’ is one of the highest profile cases of alleged police misconduct that’s rocked the Police Department in recent months. Since October, the department has acknowledged 11 internal or criminal investigations involving offenses as serious as on-duty rape. Others involve felony drunk driving, domestic violence, excessive force and assault, creating the largest string of criminal allegations against San Diego police since the early 1990s.
Arevalos stands out. The charges are more severe, the alleged misconduct occurred while he was on duty and he’s accused of assaulting multiple women over the course of three years. Every other officer involved in the scandal has been accused of an isolated, single incident.
The Arevalos case also underscores many of the concerns that police acknowledged in the weeks following his arrest. Faced with year after year of budget cuts, Police Chief Bill Lansdowne has reduced internal oversight and left supervisors with less time to monitor for misconduct. Supervisors are considered the first line of defense for police misconduct.
With Arevalos, police knew of an allegation more than a year before he was arrested and fired. But he stayed on the job after the incident and retained the authority that prosecutors say he used to solicit sexual favors or assault five other women.
Lt. Andra Brown, a spokeswoman for the San Diego police, acknowledged in an interview that police had forwarded charges against Arevalos to prosecutors. Two other sources familiar with the case confirmed the recommendation.
Brown refused to explain why the department continued employing Arevalos even though its investigators recommended charges. She wrote in an email that the District Attorney’s Office had directed police not to discuss any aspect of the investigation with news media.
Police have previously said that the 2010 complaint was thoroughly investigated and no charges were filed. But they hadn’t said that they’d recommended charges to prosecutors who decided to drop the case.
Steve Walker, a spokesman for District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, declined to explain why prosecutors disagreed with the Police Department’s recommendation to file charges against Arevalos last year.
“We don’t comment on pending cases because we don’t want to jeopardize the defendant’s constitutional right to due process and a fair trial,” Walker wrote in an email. “It’s our ethical duty not to try cases in the media or in the public.”
Gretchen von Helms, an attorney representing Arevalos, said prosecutors told her it was dismissed because the accuser had credibility issues.
Von Helms said prosecutors frequently rely heavily on the testimony of accusers in sexual assault cases. “Based on my experiences,” she said, “there has to be serious credibility issues for that not to go to trial.”
After police arrested Arevalos in March and accused him of sexually assaulting several other women, a person who knew Arevalos called investigators and said the officer had a well-known history of police misconduct. The person’s tip, but not their identity, was included in a search warrant unsealed at the request of local news media. The person said Arevalos had kept lewd photos of women he met during the course of his job and they last saw the photos 15 years ago.
Arevalos’ arrest history stands out, according to police records analyzed by VOSD. Among 55 police officers who made 20 or more drunken driving arrests in a 20-month period before his termination, Arevalos arrested the highest proportion of women. The average officer arrested three men for every one woman. Arevalos arrested an almost equal number of men and women.
Arevalos didn’t arrest every woman who has accused him. Some said in court they agreed to his demands to avoid a DUI. Others said he solicited sexual favors but they refused to comply and went to jail. After the February 2010 complaint, no women contacted police about Arevalos’ conduct until March 8 this year, police say. That’s when the floodgates opened and police reopened an investigation of the old complaint.
With the March 8 incident, investigators felt they had enough evidence to corroborate the woman’s story and set a trap for Arevalos to bolster a case for prosecutors. They recorded calls between the woman and the officer the day after the incident, according to court filings.
Prosecutors describe the incident this way: They say Arevalos stopped the woman and threatened to arrest her for drunken driving. The woman told Arevalos the arrest would ruin her career, so he suggested a sexual bribe. They both drove to a nearby gas station and walked into its restroom together. There, the woman showed her breasts and gave her panties to Arevalos. He groped her, then let her go.
In a phone call taped by police the next day, the woman told Arevalos it had been overwhelming to stand in front of him with no panties. He replied, according to court documents: “I know that. You’re a grown woman, you handled it very well.” When the woman asked what he liked best, he replied: “When the shirt came up and the pants came down. I didn’t expect your body to be as nice and wonderful as it was.”
San Diego police arrested Arevalos March 10 and fired him a month later based on its internal investigation of the complaint. The arrest bolstered concerns of institutional problems at the San Diego Police Department. As more and more women stepped forward, the question became: How could a cop repeatedly solicit sexual favors at traffic stops without anyone knowing?
Arevalos patrolled the streets alone, but supervisors and dispatchers are supposed to monitor officers’ activities so they know which units are available in case of an emergency. In some of the charged incidents, Arevalos is alleged to have spent hours on traffic stops that netted no arrests.
After three more San Diego police officers were accused of other crimes, Police Chief Bill Lansdowne acknowledged an internal problem, publicly apologized for the conduct of his officers and promised improvement through a seven-point plan. Citing Arevalos and other officers who had financial problems, Lansdowne said the department needed to pay closer attention to stress and the potential for misconduct. He promised to add three or four officers to the department’s internal affairs unit.
City officials commended Lansdowne for his swift response to the spike in misconduct. Despite the quick response, the scandal will continue to play out in the courtroom and headlines for months to come. Lawsuits are expected, with one woman already filing a $5.5 million claim against the city, saying the Police Department condoned misconduct by refusing to properly investigate and discipline Arevalos before he sexually assaulted her.
Arevalos, free on $200,000 bail, is next scheduled to appear in court July 18.
Clarification: The headline of this story has been changed from “SDPD Urged Charging Cop, But Sent Him Back to Patrol” to “SDPD Recommended Charging Cop, But Sent Him Back to Patrol” to better reflect the story’s tone.
Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He writes about public safety and handles the Fact Check Blog. What should he write about next?
Please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5668 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle.