The fate of Police Chief Dexter Atkinson may hinge on a Pomona Municipal Court judge’s ruling, expected Friday, on whether a local contractor satisfactorily served a 120-day sentence for his third drunk driving conviction.
Atkinson has been on paid administrative leave for more than two months while Deputy Dist. Atty. Lawrence Mason investigates whether the chief broke the law by allowing John Barber to do consulting work on police station renovations rather than do time.
But friends and supporters of the police chief have reached their verdict.
They believe Atkinson is innocent and has been treated unfairly by city officials, particularly Glenn Southard, who called for the district attorney’s investigation shortly after becoming city manager this summer. Southard is also conducting an internal review of the police chief’s administrative practices.
About 25 Atkinson supporters attended last week’s City Council meeting to present a letter in the police chief’s defense, signed by 84 residents.
‘Treated Like a Pariah’
“Chief Atkinson has been isolated from the community, treated like a pariah and (has had) his reputation smeared by injudicious comments to the press by city officials,” the letter stated. “He has been found guilty by the press even though he has not been charged with anything.”
The group’s spokesman, the Rev. George Crites of New Beginning Christian Outreach in West Covina, said later that residents were not referring to any specific comments made to the press by city officials. Rather, he said, the publicity surrounding the investigation has unfairly tarred the police chief with a presumption of guilt.
“Those kinds of things, if printed, can ruin a man’s reputation and career,” Crites said.
Those in the group defending Atkinson range from close friends who were on a Caribbean cruise with the chief when he was relieved of his duties to residents who say they only became familiar with him after reading newspaper accounts of the allegations.
At last Tuesday’s meeting, they were joined by Jason Brown Atkinson, the chief’s 13-year-old stepson, who told Southard, “Until this situation is settled, please realize that all of your comments to the press affect the entire family.”
Southard, contacted this week at a League of California Cities conference in San Diego, described the group’s efforts as unfortunate.
“I don’t think they understand all the facts,” he said. “Of course, this group hasn’t asked to talk to me. I would love to do so.”
Southard added that the complaining residents do not appear to represent a groundswell in the community. “I think it’s important to note the size of the group.”
Mayor Judy Wright, speaking on behalf of the City Council this week, said the council could not respond directly to the points raised by Atkinson’s supporters. However, she defended Southard and appealed to the community for understanding.
“The city has been extremely careful . . . to protect the rights of all involved, and it is unfortunate that allegations to the contrary have been made,” Wright said. She added that under Claremont’s city manager form of government, Southard has full authority in the situation.
“The council hires the city manager and the personnel decisions are his, not ours,” she said. “We think we hired very well, and until the investigations are completed and any action is taken, the City Council will not be involved.”
Atkinson’s supporters glowingly describe the him as a man who has given the last 18 years of his life serving Claremont as an officer, Little League coach and Red Cross volunteer.
“He has always been above reproach and always scrupulously honest and ethical,” resident Pat Hauducoeur wrote in a letter to the council. “I have never witnessed anything that would bring reproach on the Police Department or the city of Claremont.”
While Atkinson is well-established in the community, Southard is viewed by the chief’s supporters as a relative outsider. They note that Southard called for the investigation only seven weeks after he came to Claremont from San Juan Capistrano, where he had been assistant city manager.
Although obviously not happy to be the target of such attacks, Southard said he understands the loyalty that motivates the residents’ campaign.
“I do not take it personally,” Southard said. “I’m just in the unfortunate position of having to deal with this. . . . I think it’s a natural reaction of friendship. These are very valid feelings. The question isn’t whether the chief is a nice guy, but whether there was a violation of the law.”
The greatest point of contention between Atkinson’s supporters and the city manager is Southard’s directive that city employees are not to speak with Atkinson while he is under investigation. At last week’s council meeting, Crites blasted the order as a violation of city employees’ First Amendment rights and anathema in a free-thinking college town such as Claremont.
“We thought we were moving to a liberal and progressive community,” Crites told the council. “However, we find instead in the reprehensible circumstances surrounding this matter what appear to be more Gestapo and fascist tactics.”
Southard said such an order is standard procedure and he was not aware of anyone refusing to comply with it.
The residents have also accused Southard of trying to reverse Atkinson’s efforts to make the police deparment more “community-oriented.” Specifically, they cite the rehiring of Officer Richard Garcia, who was dismissed last year after he was accused by a citizen of using excessive force. The officer is named in a suit against the city that is pending in Pomona Superior Court.
Southard refused to comment on the lawsuit but confirmed that Garcia has been put back on the force since Atkinson was placed on leave.
“He has been rehired and we’re happy to have him back,” Southard said, adding: “Ultimately, I made the decision. . . . I think he’s a good officer and will do a good job for Claremont.”
Barber was sentenced to 120 days in jail by a Pomona Municipal Court judge last year after his third conviction for drunk driving. Because the incident was a violation of probation for a previous conviction, a North Orange County Municipal Court judge also sentenced Barber to 60 days. Both judges allowed Barber to serve his sentence in the Claremont jail.
Helping Plan Projects
Instead of spending the time in jail, Barber said he spent 180 days performing “community service,” which in his case meant helping plan renovation projects at the police station. Judge Jack P. Hunt is expected to rule Friday on whether Barber’s volunteer work was a legal substitute for jail time. Barber has said his work program was approved by the judge who sentenced him.
The residents say they will step up their campaign on Atkinson’s behalf if Barber is cleared of any wrongdoing Friday. Crites said the group would then attend next Tuesday’s council meeting and demand the police chief’s reinstatement.
Atkinson’s attorney, Henry Fenton, said this week that even if a judge finds that Barber did not serve his required sentence, it does not mean the chief knowingly violated the law. “I don’t think Barber’s case necessarily has anything to do with Chief Atkinson’s situation,” he said.
Testimony at last week’s hearing in Pomona revealed that Barber had hired Atkinson’s 18-year-old son before beginning his work program at the Claremont police station and later hired the police chief’s wife. However, Atkinson’s supporters said they are confident the evidence will not be sufficient to indicate wrongdoing by either Barber or Atkinson.
“I was at that hearing,” Crites said. “I didn’t hear any testimony come out that affected my opinion of what happened.”
Nonetheless Crites said, a ruling against Barber would cause the residents to reconsider their efforts.
“It would have an impact, of course,” Crites said. “Naturally, if some evidence were to come out and he were found to be guilty, we would abide by the court’s ruling.”
Mayor Wright said the council is anxious to see the conclusion of Barber’s hearing and the investigations of Atkinson.
“It’s extremely upsetting and distressing that one our employees is under investigation,” she said. “We are all very disappointed that this is taking so long. . . . I’m sure it’s frustrating to the entire community. Believe me, it’s frustrating to us, too.”