A residents group has increased its pressure on city officials to reinstate Police Chief Dexter Atkinson in the wake of a judge’s ruling that the chief’s supporters say clears him of allegations of misconduct.
More than 100 residents crowded into the City Council chambers Tuesday night to show their support for Atkinson, who has been on paid administrative leave since August while the district attorney’s office investigates whether he acted illegally in allowing a three-time convicted drunk driver to avoid jail.
Last Friday, Pomona Municipal Court Judge Jack P. Hunt found that contractor John Donald Barber did not violate his sentence by consulting on building renovations at the Claremont police station in lieu of jail time.
Barber, ordered last year to serve 120 days in jail under the state’s mandatory sentencing laws, was permitted by the court to do his time in the Claremont jail. Atkinson had Barber perform “community service” instead of spending time in custody and later wrote to the court attesting that Barber had completed a work program.
Atkinson has been unavailable for comment since he was relieved of his duties. His attorney, Henry Fenton, said the outcome of Barber’s hearing bolstered his belief that the investigation of the police chief was unwarranted.
“Right from the outset I couldn’t really see how there was anything there,” Fenton said. “I don’t know what has motivated this entire thing. I just don’t think there’s any basis for any continuing investigation.”
Deputy Dist. Atty. Lawrence Mason said after Barber’s hearing that he did not know what impact the ruling would have on his investigation of Atkinson, which he said should be completed by next week. The police chief’s management practices are also the subject of an administrative investigation ordered last month by City Manager Glenn Southard.
But to Atkinson’s supporters, who viewed Barber’s hearing in Municipal Court as a trial in absentia for the police chief, the judge’s finding was a verdict of innocence. Waving signs and sporting buttons demanding “Bring Back Dex,” the residents again called on the council and city manager to put Atkinson back to work.
“Enough is enough,” the Rev. George Crites, spokesman for the residents group, told the council. “We want Chief Atkinson back. . . . This court finding obviously clears Chief Atkinson of any alleged attempt to obstruct justice. . . . We are shocked that you have not already reinstated Chief Atkinson.”
Crites told Mayor Judy Wright to order the city manager to reinstate the police chief. “If Mr. Southard refuses to comply,” Crites added, “we strongly suggest you immediately put Mr. Southard on administrative leave pending an investigation of his behavior in this whole matter.”
Wright replied to the group that the council could not respond to its demands until both investigations are completed. Southard then told the audience he would issue a statement the next morning.
In the statement, Southard provided a status report on the two investigations and appealed to the community for patience until the inquiries are completed.
“The investigation of Chief Atkinson is an unfortunate necessity,” the statement read. “Serious allegations have been made and it is my duty to investigate them.”
The city manager said he was told about the arrangement with Barber during a meeting in August with “a number of police officers.”
Southard added that the investigations have been prolonged because of procedural rights of police officers accused of misconduct, particularly the right to be represented by an attorney. “Coordinating schedules with counsel requires additional time,” he said.
Regardless of when the district attorney’s investigation is completed, Atkinson will remain on leave until at least next month, Southard said. Three weeks ago, the city gave the police chief a list of questions to which he must respond by Monday. After receiving Atkinson’s replies, Southard will meet with him and decide what action will be taken.
No Attempt to Deceive
Although the judge in Barber’s hearing did not deal with the allegations against Atkinson, he found no attempt by Barber to deceive the court about the punishment he would receive. Hunt cited a section of the Penal Code that allows law enforcement agencies the option of putting prisoners to work instead of putting them behind bars.
Hunt also said the court was clearly aware Barber intended to perform a work program in Claremont, noting that sentencing judge Robert Gustaveson had told the man’s attorney, “If they want to work him and let him go after eight hours, that’s fine with me.”
Because the law allows the sentences of prisoners who participate in work programs to be reduced by one-third, Hunt said Barber more than fulfilled his sentence by working 89 days on remodeling projects for the police station.
“You have been able to take advantage of a crack in the framework and have been able to escape jail time so far,” the judge told Barber.
A judge in Fullerton will decide next month whether Barber satisfied a 60-day jail sentence imposed last year after he violated probation from a previous drunk driving conviction by being convicted of the offense again. Barber also worked at the Claremont police station to satisfy that sentence.
Although he refused to comment on how the Pomona judge’s ruling would affect the city’s investigation of Atkinson, Southard in his statement called the outcome of Barber’s hearing “very disturbing.”
‘This Is Unacceptable’
“I agree with Judge Hunt that a ‘crack in the framework’ allowed a three-time convicted drunk driver to escape from serving any jail time,” Southard said. “It appears Claremont helped Mr. Barber achieve this end. In a city with a deep commitment to programs to prevent substance abuse, this is unacceptable. I intend to see this does not happen again.”
Interviewed during a recess in Tuesday’s council meeting, the mayor echoed Southard’s criticism of the judge’s ruling.
“I think it’s absolutely intolerable that a third-time drunk driver spends no time in jail when we thought that was the intent of the new (mandatory sentencing) law,” Wright said.
Addressing the council Tuesday night, resident David Thompson defended not only Atkinson, but the state law that permits nonviolent offenders such as drunk drivers to work off their jail sentences.
“The tasks they are performing repay society in a much more tangible way than sitting in a jail cell ever could,” Thompson said. “In the Barber case alone, the city of Claremont saved thousands of dollars that it would have had to pay in contractor fees or done without the service.”
Although pleased with the judge’s ruling, Barber has angrily questioned the circumstances that caused his drunk driving convictions to become a subject of public debate.
“There’s a hidden agenda here that’s way beyond this (case),” he said outside the courtroom last week. “There’s something going on in city government. . . . All I know is I’ve been put through hell for something that should never have gone to court. It’s hard to be in the press as much I was.”
Despite the negative publicity, Barber said he would like to return to the Claremont police station to oversee the construction of a patio he designed while performing his controversial work program.
“When the chief’s reinstated, I want to go back and guide him on finishing that patio,” he said.