In a sharp rebuff to Police Chief Neil J. Purcell Jr., the city Personnel Board has recommended unanimously that the Police Department rehire an officer fired for allegedly lying during an investigation into a videotaped police brutality incident, officials announced Wednesday.
Daniel J. Lowrey, a three-year patrol officer with the Laguna Beach Police Department, was fired after another officer allegedly kicked a man during an arrest outside of a wild party. Lowrey was one of several officers at the scene. The kicking was captured on videotape by a nearby resident.
At the conclusion of a police investigation earlier this year, Chief Purcell fired Officer Keith R. Knotek for kicking the man. Purcell later fired Lowrey for allegedly lying to a supervisor by denying he saw the kicking.
But the city's Personnel Board, which heard Lowrey's appeal on Sept. 6, recommended that Lowrey be rehired. The board determined there was insufficient evidence to prove that Lowrey lied to Capt. William Cavenaugh during questioning about the kicking incident, board Chairman Jerrold A. Bloch said Wednesday after the board's report became official.
The board's recommendation now goes to City Manager Kenneth C. Frank, who said he will conduct his own review and decide in about two weeks whether to rehire Lowrey.
During the June, 1990, incident, Lowrey was standing near two officers struggling to handcuff a party-goer. Knotek approached the man and kicked at him three times.
The transcripts of Lowrey's interviews with Cavenaugh during the internal affairs investigation stated that Lowrey admitted he saw an officer make kicking movements, but that he never saw the kicks land, Bloch said.
Bloch said he was surprised to learn that Lowrey admitted to seeing "kicking motions." Lowrey's termination notice said he was fired for lying about what he saw at the scene. Bloch said he was under the impression, by reading that termination notice, that Lowrey stated he never saw any kicks.
Since the short videotape of the event does not prove that Lowrey definitely saw the kicks land, Bloch said, the board needed only about 10 minutes to reach its decision.
Lowrey and his attorney could not be reached for comment.
Purcell said Wednesday he was disappointed in the board's decision and still believes that Lowrey should have been fired.
The chief said that Lowrey's statements to Cavenaugh were inconsistent and seemingly at odds with what Lowrey must have seen while standing within a few feet of the kicking, Purcell said.
Lowrey told Cavenaugh during taped interviews that he was watching the backs of two officers trying to handcuff the struggling man on the sidewalk, Purcell said. During the approximate four seconds the kicking took place, Lowrey can be seen on the tape standing within arm's reach of the officers and facing them, Purcell said. Lowrey never turned to the side or rear, Purcell said.
The tape shows Knotek stepping from Lowrey's right side toward the two officers and kicking at the man, Kevin A. Dunbar. One officer can be seen letting go of Dunbar and moving his head back, appearing to get out of the way of the blows, and the other officer was reaching out with his right hand and pushing Knotek away from Dunbar.
Dunbar sued the city over the incident and recently settled out of court for $100,000.
Lowrey told Cavenaugh that his main goal during the incident was to protect the safety of the two officers. But then he said he didn't notice Knotek step in to kick Dunbar, and he said he also didn't notice how the officers reacted to the kicking, Purcell said.
"To me, that was inconsistent," he said.
Cavenaugh said he interviewed Lowrey three times about the incident, giving him a chance to amend his version of what he saw. "I realize sometimes an officer doesn't want to say something about another officer," Cavenaugh said. "That's a reality."
At the conclusion of the third interview, Cavenaugh testified, he decided that Lowrey was lying. Even if Lowrey had been momentarily distracted, he should have seen the third kick, Cavenaugh said. "I think he saw all three," he said.
Besides Lowrey's statements to Cavenaugh, Purcell said, his decision to fire Lowrey was based on Lowrey's annual performance review in October, 1990. In the review, a sergeant wrote that "the majority of supervisors have a real concern with Dan's defensiveness and credibility."
One of Lowrey's supervisors, Sgt. Lance Ishmael, testified that Lowrey had been "untruthful" with him in August, 1990, when Ishmael was looking into how a hole got punched in a wall in one of the Police Department's temporary trailers at City Hall.
One officer admitted it occurred while he and Lowrey were roughhousing in the hallway, Ishmael said. But when Ishmael later confronted Lowrey, he said, Lowrey denied knowing anything about it. It was not until he told Lowrey about the other officer's statements that Lowrey admitted to being involved, Ishmael said.
Before he makes a decision about Lowrey, City Manager Frank said, he wants to read a transcript of the board's hearing and talk to an independent attorney.