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This project is a collaboration of news organizations throughout California coordinated by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and the Bay Area News Group. Reporters participated from more than 30 newsrooms, including MediaNews Group, McClatchy, USA Today Network, Voice of San Diego and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.
He shoved her to the ground, kneed her in the back and handcuffed her so she couldn’t take their baby and leave, she told police. When she tried to get away, she said, he grabbed her hair and pushed her face into the door frame.
Police photographed her swollen right eye for evidence.
But his actions that summer night in 2007 — and the domestic abuse, false imprisonment and battery charges that followed — didn’t cost Vidal “Dustin” Contreras his job.
The Kern County Sheriff’s Deputy was allowed to plead no contest to a single, far-less serious charge: disturbing another person “by loud and unreasonable noise.” Not only did Contreras keep his badge, he went on to be a human-trafficking detective with a troubling record of investigating cases involving vulnerable women.
That’s not so unusual, when it comes to domestic violence and cops in California.
A six-month investigation by a statewide coalition of news organizations found cops who are accused of committing a litany of violent behavior — leaving bloody marks on the arms of an elderly father, giving a daughter a black eye, knocking a wife unconscious — routinely plead down to nonviolent misdemeanors for disturbing the peace or vandalism or unreasonable noise. And those softer charges can allow abusive officers to keep their guns — and keep enforcing the law in the Golden State.
In the most extensive review of domestic violence among cops in California, reporters uncovered the cases of more than 80 law enforcement officers who were convicted in connection with a domestic-abuse charge in the past decade. And that’s just a fraction of what’s out there, because the state’s records on criminal conduct among cops are too flawed to illustrate the true scope of the problem.
The cases touched every part of the state.
There was a San Francisco sheriff’s deputy who kept his job after pleading down a domestic battery charge and then being arrested for driving drunk two weeks before the end of his probation. There was a CHP officer who pleaded down a domestic violence charge to vandalism and not only still patrols California’s highways but served as the lead investigator on an alleged domestic homicide. And there were multiple deputies with the L.A. sheriff’s department who are still on the force after court records say they brutally harmed family members but took plea deals for nonviolent misdemeanors.
Patricia Giggans, who chairs the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Civilian Oversight Commission, was indignant when presented with never-before-publicized details about L.A. deputies with abusive pasts still on the force.
“Disturbing the peace?” she said, questioning one plea deal. “When you give a child a black eye, that’s disturbing the peace?”
Troubling Patterns Emerge
For some officers, an arrest came only after years of abuse allegations. And the review found others who work in the criminal justice system sometimes minimized the crime.
“There is something broken with that system,” said Rabeya Sen, president of the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence.
Just how broken is it? Family violence stood out as the most common crime outside of driving offenses in the news organizations’ review of more than 600 criminal convictions against former or current police officers in the last decade. Unlike many states, California does nothing to inform the public when police break the law and little to prevent offenders from continuing to be cops. But many of the cases were revealed in a secret list that state officials created of thousands of current and former police officers and law enforcement applicants who have been convicted of a crime.
The examination of court cases and months of interviews revealed officers not only rarely spend time behind bars for domestic violence, they often receive special privileges because of their law enforcement jobs and connections. Among the findings:
- Abusive officers routinely found ways around laws that could cost them their jobs. Any person convicted of a felony or certain violent misdemeanors loses the right to own a gun, and for cops that means losing their jobs. But more than a third of the officers facing domestic violence charges in the media coalition’s examination took plea deals to lesser crimes that allowed them to keep their weapons, and about 15 percent are still working in law enforcement today. Reporters also found that judges used special exemptions for cops to let at least 14 officers keep their guns even though they were the subject of restraining orders or violated laws that would have required them to give up their firearms.
- Police departments let abusive officers keep working despite past abuse. More than two dozen of the convicted cops had a history of abuse allegations long before their arrests, and their departments often knew about it but kept them on the force. An 11-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department was investigated twice for domestic violence in recent years before pleading guilty this summer to felony assault with a firearm after court records say he stuck a gun to his girlfriend’s head and asked her for a reason she “deserved to live.” A police chief in the Northern California town of Rio Dell hired his brother-in-law despite knowing he had a domestic-violence-related conviction — only to see him fired six years later after he was arrested for battering another girlfriend. “Maybe I made a mistake,” the former chief said in an interview.
- Domestic abuse accusations against police rarely result in criminal charges, much less convictions. As difficult as it is to convict a cop of domestic abuse, most accusations fade before there are even charges. The news organizations surveyed the state’s largest law enforcement agencies and found criminal charges were rare even when internal reviews found evidence of abuse. For example, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department sustained allegations in at least a third of the nearly 100 domestic violence cases against its officers from 2014 to 2019, and a dozen cases are still being reviewed. Yet only nine LA sheriff’s deputies appear on the news organizations’ list of cops with domestic-violence-related convictions over the last decade.
- Tolerance of officer abuse varies widely among California’s law enforcement agencies. While some departments acted swiftly and decisively — firing officers accused of domestic violence — other agencies offered abusive cops second and even third chances.
The disparity is also evident in policies. The San Francisco Police Department worked with advocates several years ago to craft an aggressive policy addressing domestic violence among its ranks, reviewing accused officers’ access to confidential law enforcement databases and weapons, and even barring officers from wearing uniforms or department gear in court. But 12 of the 15 largest departments in the state, including the California Highway Patrol, have no specific policies for handling officer-involved domestic violence allegations or did not respond to requests for such records.
‘Three Sides to Every Story’
The findings raised serious questions about the way police treat domestic violence, a relentless problem in communities throughout California.
Local law enforcement responds to more than 160,000 calls a year involving domestic violence against adults, a figure that has remained virtually unchanged for the last decade. Over that time, nearly 1,200 people, mostly women, were murdered in California as a result of domestic violence, according to state data.
And while the research is limited, studies suggest that law enforcement officers are more likely to be involved in domestic violence than the general public.
So what happens when a victim calls 911 and a cop with his own history of domestic violence shows up at the front door?
Police officers like Douglas Swanson answer the call with a special perspective. As a Kern County Sheriff’s deputy, Swanson was arrested twice over a four-year period after domestic disputes, court records say. He was convicted the second time of disturbing the peace after a police report says he forced his girlfriend to the ground in a walk-in closet and tried to pull her clothes off. Six years later, he serves as a correctional officer and a reserve cop in the city of Taft where he said he frequently is called to domestic disputes.
“There’s three sides to every story,” Swanson said. “There’s his side. There’s her side, and then there’s the truth.”
Like every one of the officers interviewed for this story, Swanson denied being an abuser and said he only took a plea to a lower charge to save his career. Without exception, the officers interviewed failed to accept responsibility, often blaming partners, prosecutors and even political opponents for fabricating the abuse.
But the news organizations’ investigation revealed it’s not just abusive cops who often show a disturbing indifference toward the crime of domestic violence.
Consider the case of Riverside police Officer Brent Stewart, who battered his wife after a night of drinking in 2015. When his fellow officers arrived at his home, they found the door unlocked, their off-duty colleague gone and his wife on her back on the floor near a pile of laundry.
“I couldn’t get him to stop hitting me,” she told them, almost apologetically, when she came to, according to court records. However, Stewart’s colleagues didn’t arrest him when he returned home still stumbling and swaying. They let him get some water and an energy drink, then drove him to a sergeant’s house to “sleep it off,” court records said.
It was only after a supervisor reviewed what happened that the officers returned to arrest Stewart and confiscate his weapons. He was later charged and convicted of spousal abuse and possessing brass knuckles.
A spokesman for the department, Officer Ryan Railsback, insisted Riverside police did take the case seriously.
“There was an arrest that was made. There was a court process and there was a conviction,” he said. “And that employee is no longer working for us.”
Even when officers aren’t themselves involved, evidence shows that police sometimes minimize domestic violence. The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department aggressively pursued discipline or fired at least five deputies in recent years for, in part, failing to adequately investigate and respond to domestic violence calls, according to disciplinary records.
One Riverside deputy responded to a call where a woman was strangled to the point she urinated on herself. But despite visible bruises he didn’t write a report, the records show, and the department determined he lied when he wrote a notation on the call that no assault occurred. Other officers from the department later conducted their own investigation and arrested the abusive husband.
“To me it’s embarrassing,” said Lt. Chris Durham, a Riverside sheriff’s department spokesman who said his agency spends a lot of time training deputies on how to handle domestic violence, one of the most common calls they receive. “It’s our fundamental job to help and serve others. …You don’t deserve to wear my uniform if you’re not going to do the basics.”
But not all law enforcement leaders exhibited such a hard line on domestic violence.
That’s evident in one of the state’s largest law enforcement agencies — the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
A Culture of Tolerance in L.A.?
Shortly after taking office in December, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva reinstated a deputy who had served on his campaign after being fired by the previous sheriff over domestic abuse allegations.
The move brought an outcry from the county’s Inspector General, L.A. county supervisors and the sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission. Villanueva defended his decision during a commission meeting earlier this year, insisting that even though Deputy Caren Carl Mandoyan had been found culpable in an internal investigation, he was never charged with a crime.
“We don’t operate based on allegations,” the sheriff said. “We operate based on fact, what can be established in a court of law.”
The statement shocked Giggans, who has spent 40 years working to stop violence against women.
“Unless a court of law deemed someone guilty, it’s of no concern to this sheriff?” Giggans said in an interview. “I don’t know of any workplace that functions like that.”
In August a local judge temporarily overturned the rehiring. But even if that decision withstands additional legal wrangling, the news organizations’ review found the LA sheriff’s office has had a roster of other deputies not only accused but also convicted in domestic-violence-related cases:
- Deputy Antonio Ramirez was charged in late July with assaulting his 73-year-old mother then later resisting arrest while carrying a dagger. But it was far from the first time he had harmed a family member. He had a lengthy history of domestic violence allegations, including a civil court judgment and a criminal conviction in 2018 for battering a girlfriend.
- Deputy Jose Acero was charged with elder abuse after allegedly grabbing his elderly father’s arms so hard that it left bloody marks. In October 2017, he pleaded down to disturbing the peace. A week later, his wife alleged in court papers 15 years of verbal, emotional and physical abuse, including kicking her when she was pregnant. Months later, a judge modified the terms of Acero’s probation over the objection of a prosecutor who wrote in a court filing that Acero’s behavior violated his obligation as “a deputy, a son, and a human being.”
- Deputy Jorge Caamal was charged in 2016 with child abuse after allegedly striking his teenage daughter several times over a four-year period. When she was 15, according to court records, she showed up to school with a black eye, swollen lip, redness to her face and a cut in her ear. Caamal, a champion boxer, denied hitting her and told police the bruising was probably makeup. He, too, ultimately pled down to disturbing the peace and is still on the force.
The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department declined multiple interview requests and refused to say how these officers are still employed. Ramirez is reportedly on unpaid leave as his new case unfolds, but the others are still on the payroll.
Among the deputies, only Caamal agreed to an interview. He insisted he was innocent despite his guilty plea, blaming a bitter custody dispute with his ex-wife and still insisting his daughter used makeup to blacken her eye.
When asked about records that show the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department responded to 10 calls for service at the family’s home between May 2014 and May 2016, including calls for a domestic dispute and child abuse, Caamal insisted he never hurt his daughter. He even offered to have her call a reporter to say she made up the allegations.
“I love her. I forgive her,” he said. “I was actually the victim in this.”
A Special Kind of Torture
To be sure, even domestic violence cases that don’t involve cops are notoriously hard to prosecute. More than 16,000 such cases were referred to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office last year alone, but the office declined two-thirds of them. Experts say that’s because victims often refuse to cooperate and prosecutors can have a tough time making charges stick if there are no visible injuries.
Prosecuting cops who abuse family members can be even more difficult.
Reporters reached out to more than a dozen women identified as victims in criminal domestic violence cases involving law enforcement officers. Almost all declined to speak on the record and asked that their names not be used. Their responses suggest why abuse is so underreported, experts say, and why it’s so hard to hold abusers accountable.
They said they lived in fear or wanted to protect their kids or felt guilty about what happened.
That’s what makes Desiree Martinez unique.
In 2015, she took the almost unheard of step of filing a federal lawsuit against her abuser, a Clovis police officer named Kyle Pennington, and two different local departments for failing to protect her. She even held a news conference to send a message to other women in similar circumstances.
In an interview for this story, she described Pennington’s jealous rage during a weekend trip in 2013, when he slammed her against the wall, choked her and ripped the telephone cord from the wall as she tried to call for help.
It didn’t stop. Officers from Pennington’s own department responded to another incident weeks later. Martinez said she tried to tell them about the escalating abuse. But instead of taking her somewhere far from Pennington, they had her stand feet away from him, Martinez said. A female officer allegedly asked her to repeat what she’d just told them, but Martinez froze because her abuser was standing nearby.
“I was just so scared and she was like, ‘So now you’re not going to be cooperative?’” Martinez said.
She described a special kind of torture being abused by a cop. She said he convinced her that he might do a sting operation on her — sending his law enforcement buddies to pretend to question her about abuse. If she made any accusations, he said he’d find out and kill her.
“I didn’t want to say anything because I was just so scared,” she said.
In a phone interview, Pennington denied abusing her. He pointed out that a jury acquitted him of some of the more serious charges. But a jury did convict him of violating a restraining order, and he agreed to plead no contest to a misdemeanor abuse charge. He said he took the deal because he couldn’t afford to keep fighting the charges.
“In hindsight, I wish I had the money to take it back to trial,” Pennington said.
But Martinez isn’t letting it go. She’s still pressing her lawsuit in court and continues to tell her story in the hope police departments take domestic violence more seriously.
“Violence hides in silence,” Martinez said.
The Special Gun Exemption
Ana Marquez also survived an explosive relationship with an officer and said the experience taught her an unmistakable lesson on why cops often feel a sense of impunity for inflicting violence in their own homes: “They have more power.”
Marquez’s torment culminated on a violent night in 2017 when, court records say, former Marina police Officer Toney Canty allegedly attacked one of her daughters when she tried to check on her mother who was just back from the hospital. The daughter, Diana Reyes, described in an interview how Canty pushed her into a hallway and with one hand and a blank stare, choked her against a wall, only letting go when her younger brother called him the “devil.” He was charged with misdemeanor battery, improperly storing firearms and child endangerment.
“If he was not a police officer,” Ana Marquez said, “he would be in jail for what he did.”
In an interview, Canty called the abuse “100 percent not true.” He had left his law enforcement job before his arrest, but was working as a firearms instructor and risked losing his right to own a gun for 10 years. He ended up taking a plea deal to a lesser charge of false imprisonment and got to keep his weapons.
But Canty needed to take advantage of yet another privilege reserved for police and others who require guns for their jobs.
Typically, alleged abusers who are the subject of either a civil restraining order or criminal protective order lose their right to possess firearms. However, the news organizations’ review found judges routinely grant cops exemptions in state law that allow them to keep their weapons.
Canty received such an exemption to keep his six guns when Marquez obtained a restraining order against him, arguing he needed them for his livelihood to train police, security guards and others to use firearms.
In granting it, the judge said, “I don’t know that I can do anything else.”
Diana Reyes had skipped class during her first semester at college to attend a hearing and remembers her shock that the system would let her attacker keep his weapons when most offenders would lose theirs.
“All the time,” she said, “I worried that he was going to act out on revenge.”
In interviews, lawyers and judges say there is no question that judges freely grant such exemptions, but there is plenty of debate about whether those exemptions should exist. San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe is convinced they should not.
“They’ve chosen a career that requires a trust from the community,” he said of law enforcement officers. “When that trust is breached, I don’t think there is any excuse. I think they have forfeited that right.”
A Different Picture Emerges
Police confiscated Vidal Contreras’ .40-caliber Glock 22 police service pistol and other weapons the night he was arrested after handcuffing his girlfriend and allegedly injuring her eye. But he kept his right to carry a firearm by pleading down his domestic violence charges to a nonviolent misdemeanor.
He was ordered to attend a 52-week parenting class and serve two years of probation.
His victim declined an interview. But Contreras’ attorney Ken Yuwiler said recently: “Sometimes in the heat of the moment people make allegations that aren’t true. This one wasn’t true.”
Contreras’ arrest appears to have never been publicized or reported in the local media and he has gone on to build a public profile over the years as a community leader who became the co-director of a countywide coalition to combat human trafficking.
But behind the scenes, another picture has emerged of Contreras’ work.
The detective was placed on administrative leave in February 2017, according to an internal Kern County DA’s memo filed as part of a high-profile torture-kidnapping case, which is now in turmoil over questions about Contreras’s credibility.
The reason for his discipline is not spelled out in the filings but three people with direct knowledge of the case and other records obtained for this story suggest that Contreras was letting cases pile up — leaving young women and children to suffer.
The Sheriff declined to comment. Contreras did not respond to an interview request.
A discipline review committee in December 2017 sustained numerous allegations against Contreras, records show, including neglect of duty, dishonesty and incompetence and recommended he be fired.
But that didn’t cost him his job.
He’s still on the force. And earlier this year, the Kern County Board of Supervisors praised him during “Human Trafficking Awareness Month.” One supervisor even singled out his “commitment to helping some of the world’s most vulnerable human beings.”
It’s an image that has endured for years despite the conviction against Contreras filed away in the Kern County courthouse that police accountability advocates like San Jose’s former independent police auditor LaDoris Cordell say should have been dealt with more severely in the first place.
“This case,” she said, “is a disturbing example of how our laws, prosecutors and judges have reduced to little more than an afterthought the domestic-violence victims of sworn officers.”