On a dark boulevard in Mission Valley, lined by department stores and spacious condos, the police officer spotted the suspected drunk driver. It was February 2010.

Someone had called police to report the 28-year-old woman. Officer Anthony Arevalos responded. For three years, he’d specialized in arresting drunk drivers for the San Diego Police Department. He measured up their slurred speech, dazed glares, and stumbling steps. A breath test sealed their fates.

And so it was with the woman in Mission Valley. Arevalos arrested her and put her in the back of his cruiser. They headed to the county women’s jail, the Las Colinas Detention Facility.

But they didn’t drive straight there, the woman later said. According to her story, Arevalos hit the brakes on another dark road, pulled over, and sexually assaulted her in the back seat, where no one could see them. Then he got back behind the wheel and took her the rest of the way to jail.

When the woman told the Police Department what happened, Arevalos was swiftly yanked from patrol. After weeks of investigation, police recommended criminal charges to prosecutors.

Arevalos, a 17-year veteran, had a reputation in the department. He targeted young, attractive female drivers. He arrested women more often than any of his colleagues. He sent lewd photos of women he stopped to fellow officers. He showed off women’s driver’s licenses like trophies. He had a nickname: “The Las Colinas Transport Unit.”

Even Arevalos’ supervisor, Sgt. Kevin Friedman, had taken note. “If someone was attractive, he would display it,” Friedman would later say.

Yet nothing happened. District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis declined to press charges and the Police Department sent Arevalos back to the same job, back to San Diego’s streets. There he stayed until March 2011, when another traffic stop ended his career.

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This one was downtown. She was 31 years old. The woman later told police that Arevalos solicited bribes from her and sexually assaulted her in the bathroom of a 7-Eleven.

This time was different: Arevalos admitted to the crimes on a wiretapped call. And detectives quickly unraveled one of San Diego’s worst cases of officer misconduct in the last decade. As the news spread, more and more women stepped forward with allegations of abuse.

Seven women in all. Most said they’d been stopped after police first investigated Arevalos for sexual assault and then sent him back on patrol.

Prosecutors charged Arevalos with 21 felonies: sexual battery, soliciting bribes, false imprisonment. None of the charges were related to the February 2010 incident and it remains unclear why. Prosecutors have declined to explain.

In November, a jury found Arevalos guilty of eight felonies and four misdemeanors. While the verdict brought the high-profile case near its conclusion, it was only one of many misconduct allegations that surfaced at the San Diego Police Department this year. In an eight-month period, the department acknowledged 11 investigations into its own officers. Allegations ranged from off-duty drunk driving to on-duty rape.

The police chief publicly apologized and promised changes. After years of budget cuts, the department’s tools to monitor misconduct had been ignored, stretched, or dismantled. It added to a police culture that allowed bad behavior to fester.

But no case was more dramatic than Arevalos’. The Police Department missed numerous red flags. Warning signs went ignored. Though Arevalos was known to target female drivers, police kept him in a position of great power and limited oversight.

Downtown, patrolling alone, looking for drunk women.

Latitude for a Bad Cop to Roam

Photo by Sam Hodgson
San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne (left), and Executive Assistant Police Chief David Ramirez (right) address a City Council committee about a string of police misconduct cases in their department.

Officer Freddie Thornton had enough.

He was assisting Arevalos on a traffic stop one night, more than a year ago. Arevalos had pulled over a woman wearing a green dress and gave Thornton a dirty grin. Arevalos was all over the woman, Thornton would later tell prosecutors.

It wasn’t the only time Thornton saw Arevalos act unusually.

One time, Arevalos pulled a pair of women’s panties from the trunk of his police cruiser. Another time, he confided that he kept lewd photos of women on his cell phone — photos he said he’d downloaded from another officer’s investigative case files without permission.

After seeing Arevalos and the woman in the green dress, Thornton was fed up. He later told prosecutors he’d warned Arevalos that he wouldn’t assist him on any more traffic stops. He didn’t want to risk getting fired.

Police had assigned Thornton and Arevalos to the department’s traffic division. Arevalos, a married father of two, worked in a special unit patrolling for drunk drivers, a job that offered extra pay and overtime.

Arevalos also got more discretion on the streets. While most patrol officers scurry between radio calls all night, DUI officers are supposed to be proactive, choosing whom they stop, where they stop, and when they stop. They work alone unless another officer provides cover.

Thornton’s account isn’t the only one. Other officers have testified that Arevalos acted unprofessionally. But his behavior never got him reassigned or fi red.

Those anecdotes from fellow cops concern Samuel Walker, a national expert on police reform. He said the Arevalos case highlights systematic problems with internal oversight at the San Diego Police Department and an inappropriate tolerance for misconduct.

“If he was sending pictures to other officers, they knew about it. They should have done something,” Walker said. “I think all of that tells something about the culture within the department, which is very bad.”

Police misconduct typically evolves over time, Walker said. Officers start with small infractions, learn what behavior is tolerated and then elevate to larger breaches of policy without reprisal.

Police chief Bill Lansdowne blamed the misconduct spike on officers’ stress, the economy, and budget cuts. But his own decisions contributed to lagging oversight, too. Rather than reduce emergency operations like patrol and homicide, Lansdowne chipped away at counseling programs, supervisors, and Internal Affairs.

Some oversight tools disappeared entirely. After Lansdowne became chief in 2003, he dismantled an investigative unit police established in the early 1990s to proactively monitor for misconduct. It conducted stings and undercover surveillance on officers. The unit had more funding and time than Internal Affairs, which got bogged down in routine citizen complaints and clerical tasks.

To some officers, disbanding the investigative unit signaled that Lansdowne thought monitoring for misconduct was a lower priority. Lansdowne defends the shift, saying it saved money and streamlined investigations. Cases of internal misconduct are now handled by specialists of the alleged crime.

Long before the scandal, police recognized a need to strengthen internal oversight. The department created a system to track how often officers use force, respond to traumatic calls, and have complaints filed against them. They wanted to recognize patterns of misbehavior. But the Arevalos case and other recent allegations have shown the $450,000 program wasn’t a high priority. It was tossed between managers until it landed on the desk of Sgt. Gary Collins — after the misconduct scandal struck.

“It’s one of those things that probably isn’t being as utilized as it should be,” Collins said in May, “but I’m confident with everything that’s going on that it will be.”

A Missed Opportunity

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Former San Diego police officer Anthony Arevalos patrolled the Gaslamp Quarter for drunk drivers. Seven women he stopped say he solicited sexual bribes from them.

It was September 2009. The 26-year-old woman had to close shop for the night. She slammed a few drinks with co-workers, locked the Gaslamp Quarter restaurant’s doors and got in her car.

A few blocks away, though, the woman made a wrong turn down a one-way street. Arevalos was driving toward her in a marked police car. He flipped on the car’s lights and pulled her over.

Arevalos suspected the woman was driving drunk and took her to police headquarters for a breath test. The woman had double the legal limit of alcohol in her system. But Arevalos didn’t book her. They drove back to the woman’s car.

During that trip back, the woman later said, Arevalos pushed for a sexual favor in exchange for letting her go. She didn’t agree to anything, she said, but Arevalos promised to show up at her restaurant and collect his favor soon enough.

The next day, the woman talked to a cop that a friend knew. She told James Clark, a detective, that a downtown cop had wanted a favor in exchange for not arresting her. She didn’t know his name or which agency he worked for. She didn’t specifically say what favor he wanted, but Clark figured it was something sexual.

“I remember thinking the officer was acting unprofessional, that he was trying to pick up on her,” Clark testified.

Clark suggested the woman call Internal Affairs. But he didn’t himself. And he didn’t tell his supervisors about the conversation. He was off-duty and later testified that the complaint didn’t seem important enough to merit investigation.

From Badge to Bars: Anthony Arevalos
Click on the graphic to enlarge.

The woman didn’t call Internal Affairs either. She feared she’d be charged with drunk driving in retaliation and was planning to move out of state.

In an interview assistant police chief Boyd Long said it’s unclear whether Clark violated department policy by not reporting the woman’s complaint. Officers should normally report any allegation, he said, but the conversation could’ve been confidential.

Internal Affairs didn’t learn about the incident until Clark reported it more than a year later, after Arevalos’ arrest.

The detective’s response is a stark contrast to the officer who received the complaint that ultimately took down Arevalos. That happened in March 2011. A woman called police and complained that an officer had taken her panties in exchange for not arresting her.

The officer who got that call, Kelly Besker, immediately reported the complaint to his supervisor. The woman identified the officer who had pulled her over as “Officer Anthony.”

The investigation had begun.

Jury Verdict: Guilty

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Former San Diego police officer Anthony Arevalos is led from the courtroom in handcuffs after being convicted on eight felony and four misdemeanor charges.

Arevalos arrested more than 80 people as a traffic officer for the San Diego Police Department last year. On Nov. 17, the state handcuffed him and took him to jail.

After deliberating for five days, a jury convicted Arevalos of soliciting sexual bribes from five of his seven accusers and sexually assaulting one of them. His maximum possible prison sentence fell from 21 years to about 10 and a half.

Lansdowne, the police chief, praised the jury’s verdict and urged the judge to sentence Arevalos to prison at a scheduled Feb. 10 court hearing.

For months, Lansdowne and other top brass had refused to address lingering questions about Arevalos and downplayed the scope of the controversy. The department denied requests for public records and portrayed Arevalos as a rogue officer who eluded his peers.

Only after Arevalos’ conviction did Lansdowne acknowledge the department’s failure to detect a dishonest cop and broader problems in its ranks. He told The San Diego Union-Tribune that officers’ suspicions never reached department leaders.

“Clearly there were some red flags that should have been reported but weren’t,” Lansdowne told the newspaper. “We’re going to be addressing all of those issues.”

This story also ran in the January 2012 issue of San Diego Magazine.

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 keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.

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