The San Diego Police Department headquarters / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Half of the San Diego Police Department officers who wrote more than one ticket for seditious language have also been accused during their careers of violating people’s rights, ranging from harassment to the arrest of peaceful protestors, a Voice of San Diego review has found. A third of those officers have also been involved in fatal or nonfatal shootings.

Until this summer, the city’s seditious language law had mostly flown under the radar. But the San Diego City Council recently repealed the 102-year-old law banning seditious language after VOSD revealed the ways in which police were using the statute to punish speech.

None of the officers included in the review has been convicted of crimes or determined to have committed misconduct. Lawyers and researchers, however, said the overlap between officers willing to write seditious language tickets and complaints lodged against them is a red flag that could point to more significant structural problems within SDPD. In recent years, the city installed an early intervention system intended to flag problem officers to supervisors.

Seditious language is typically understood as speech advocating the overthrow of the government, and 54 different SDPD officers handed out at least 82 tickets for it since 2013. SDPD has declined to discuss the circumstances surrounding individual cases or offer insight into how the officers knew to charge people with the archaic statute, but several of the people who received a ticket told VOSD they were cited for saying something an officer found personally offensive. The department has also previously declined to answer questions about whether officers who wrote seditious language tickets will be punished or retrained.

Low-Visibility Policing

One of the police officers who wrote multiple seditious language tickets is Michael Rojas. In 2015, he issued two tickets at the same time to two men — twin brothers, both 20 years old — near SDSU.

A year later, Rojas was accused of a constitutional violation when he arrested peaceful protesters who’d been dispersing after SDPD declared an anti-Trump rally an unlawful assembly. Rojas arrested Jairo Ramirez, one of the protesters. He hadn’t turned his body camera on, despite a prior order announced via radio for officers present to do so.

In a video posted to YouTube by another protestor, Ramirez is seen walking away, then hes being arrested on the ground. Body camera footage from a different SDPD officer on duty also shows Ramirez walking away from police and following the rest of the crowd, when he’s suddenly tackled and arrested. The officers are hard to identify because they’re wearing riot gear, but Rojas later confirmed in court documents that he arrested Ramirez.

Ramirez sued, but his attorney, Bryan Pease, later dropped the charges against line officers, including Rojas, who arrested protestors at the rally, and instead directed the case against the leadership that issued the unlawful assembly order in the first place. (Pease was himself arrested at the same protest.)

But Pease nonetheless sees a link between officers who are quick to write a ticket for offensive speech and those who arrest a protestor who’s walking away.

“They think they have some basis for it because there’s a law or an order,” Pease said. “But they still have to follow the Constitution.”

Eric Miller, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in policing and criminal justice, said a willingness to ticket people for behavior protected by the First Amendment falls under a policing style that is “deliberately low-visibility.” Writing low-level infraction tickets wouldn’t be considered “red flags” to officers’ supervisors or internal affairs investigators because, technically, they are abiding by the code, he said.

Seditious language tickets are infractions on par with speeding tickets, meaning they were handled administratively, which removed both the city attorney and the public defender from the judicial process, where they might have been flagged and challenged.

It’s not clear whether SDPD is tracking these “low-visibility” police actions because that information is not publicly available. Investigative files don’t become public under state law unless an agency substantiates an accusation of sexual assault or dishonesty against an officer, or if an officer is involved in a shooting or other use of force that causes great bodily harm.

Lt. Shawn Takeuchi, an SDPD spokesman, said the department uses its early intervention system as a “wellness component,” or a way to check in with officers to make sure they’re OK.

“We use the system as a trigger to allow supervisors to become aware of a situation so that they can intervene early with that employee,” Takeuchi said. “So just because there’s a trigger, it doesn’t mean there’s necessarily something wrong.”

A Systemic Issue

Micah Vanesler, a 13-year veteran of SDPD, issued five seditious language tickets between 2013 and 2020 — the most of any officer.

A quarter of all seditious language tickets had been issued during that time in Pacific Beach, mostly along a stretch of Garnet Avenue, and the majority were handed out by Vanesler. One year before he started giving out seditious language tickets, he shot a mentally ill man wielding scissors on the same street.

In September 2013, Vanesler approached Paul Aaron Brinkman, who was charging at people with a metal weapon, police said. Vanesler told him to put his weapon down, and later said in a police interview that Brinkman “was kind of talking at me and saying something kind of 51-50ish,” according to police records obtained by KPBS, referring to the section of California’s Welfare and Institutions Codes dealing with the involuntary hospitalization of someone suffering from severe mental illness.

Vanesler said Brinkman approached him holding a pair of scissors, although police records show there were conflicting reports at the time of what he thought the weapon really was. Fearing that he would be stabbed, he said, Vanesler shot Brinkman once in the abdomen. After almost a week in the hospital, Brinkman survived – and was charged with assault on a police officer. A review by the district attorney found Vanesler’s actions justified. But in a separate federal case against SDPD over another shooting, an expert witness reviewed records of the Brinkman shooting, among others, and concluded SDPD officers often deployed deadly force when such action could have been avoided.

Vanesler continued to patrol Pacific Beach, issuing seditious language tickets multiple times.

Joshua Chanin, an associate professor of public affairs at San Diego State University who has studied SDPD, said that repeated constitutional violations would not happen within organizations with “proper accountability systems.” He noted that singling out patterns of misconduct among officers could potentially lend itself to the “rotten apple” theory — the idea that there are a few bad cops who misbehave of their own accord.

But the frequency of officers being accused of violating citizens’ rights might point to systemic issues within SDPD, Chanin said.

“There’s nothing in the existing oversight that would allow the agency to identify this and correct it,” Chanin said. “So, what really happens here is a sort of organizational malfeasance rather than individual-level malfeasance.”

Of the 54 SDPD officers who issued seditious language tickets, 18 gave out more than one, police records show. Of those 18, at least nine have been accused of misconduct, according to court files and news articles. Six were involved in fatal or nonfatal shootings.

The group of officers who issued multiple seditious language tickets includes Benjamin Douglas, who shot a mentally ill man in 2009; Benjamin Downing, who was involved in the shooting death of a man this past June, and Jeremy Huff, who shot a homeless man holding a replica gun in March. Douglas was cleared of any wrongdoing by the district attorney. The DA has cleared the officer who pulled the trigger in the shooting Downing was involved in, but the family of the man who was killed has filed suit against the city. The DA also determined Huff’s shooting was justified.

A citizen tried to obtain a restraining order against Officer Matthew Paniagua, who wrote multiple seditious language tickets, and other officers who the man alleged harassed and threatened him, but a judge denied the request, court records show. John Horvath, who gave out two seditious language tickets, was accused in a federal lawsuit of taking part in an unlawful warrantless search in 2019. That suit was ultimately dismissed.

Despite years of attempted reforms, SDPD continues to struggle with its early intervention system and officer accountability. The Community Review Board remains the main force of oversight outside of SDPD’s internal affairs and chain of command, but the group has been widely criticized by criminal justice advocates for having no real teeth.

Board chair Brandon Hilpert said the group — currently made up of 16 volunteers as opposed to its usual 23 members — does not have access to any officers’ complaint history or internal affairs’ data-tracking about officer conduct. Nor does the Community Review Board have the power to conduct its own investigations.

Measure B on the November ballot would give the board its own legal counsel, the ability to issue subpoenas and resources to conduct its own investigations independent of SDPD’s internal affairs unit.

The Community Review Board typically only reviews officer complaints that fall under “category 1,” meaning the most severe allegations. Citizen complaints against low-visibility policing would likely fall under “category 2,” which is handled by internal affairs.

Measure B could give the board the opportunity to investigate all complaints.

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