Newport Police Chief, Facing Charges, Is Fired : Scandal: Dismissal in wake of sexual harassment allegations called first step toward department reforms.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Embattled Police Chief Arb Campbell, who stands accused of rape and sexual discrimination in a lawsuit brought by 10 current and former female employees of his department, was fired Tuesday.

Saying that Campbell's departure serves the long-term interests of the police force, City Manager Kevin J. Murphy announced that he had relieved the chief of command in an attempt to quell one of the worst controversies in the city's history.

"This is just a small step in a very long footrace," Murphy said, ushering in what he hopes will be an era of reform for the 250-member Police Department. "The focus is on doing the right thing. I believe that this was best for our community. We'll try to put this facet behind us and move on."

Murphy declined to discuss specific reasons for Campbell's firing except to say that the grounds were "many" and "varied."

Neither Campbell, who is reportedly suffering from severe depression and high blood pressure, nor his attorney, Bruce Praet, could be reached for comment Tuesday. But the chief's wife, Newport Beach Police Officer Mary Lavonne Campbell, said: "This is Christmas. As you know, my husband is very ill. This did not help any."

In previous statements, Campbell, 53, has said that he is the victim of spurious charges from disgruntled employees who either have psychological problems or want to cover up their own professional incompetence.

He also has filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court, alleging that the city manager improperly put him on paid administrative leave Oct. 15 and that he has been the target of an ongoing "witch hunt" at the department.

Margaret McInnis, a communications supervisor and one of the women suing Campbell and Capt. Anthony J. Villa Jr., said Tuesday: "It's a very major step. I knew we were telling the truth, and the truth--I hate to sound trite--can win out. The facts stand for themselves. Somebody finally believes us."

Campbell's firing comes four days after the city moved to fire Villa, 47, the chief's friend and professional confidant, based on evidence of sexual harassment purportedly uncovered by a city investigation.

Mayor Clarence J. Turner said Friday that city officials had decided to send Villa a notice of termination, the first step in the formal process to fire a police officer. He will have an opportunity to respond before a final decision is made.

Villa, who is a party to Campbell's lawsuit against the city, and his attorney, Jeff Epstein, have declined to comment on the city's move.

Murphy said Tuesday that the firing of both men is just the beginning of reforms for the department, which has more than 70 female employees. When the city's internal investigation is concluded, Murphy said, he plans to institute a variety of training programs regarding sexual harassment.

In his preliminary report to the City Council on Dec. 14, attorney Harold A. Bridges, who is handling the inquiry, said that there was evidence of sexual harassment on the police force and that a hostile work environment existed in the department.

Bridges recommended that the city adopt training programs, improve its process for investigating sexual harassment claims and intensify efforts to bring more women into all ranks.

"When the police are walking up and down the streets," Mayor Turner said, "I want to make sure that there is respect for both the guy in the uniform--or the woman in the uniform--and the people they're sworn to protect."

Other City Council members said they thought that firing Campbell was the only way to restore credibility to the department after months of bad publicity over sexual harassment allegations and other charges.

The Times reported that Campbell had diverted to his own personal use a 1985 Mercedes-Benz sedan that was seized in a drug raid and turned over to his department for law enforcement purposes. The articles also detailed how Campbell had granted special favors and police service to his friend Willard S. Voit, a wealthy Newport Beach resident who sold Campbell one of his homes on Balboa Peninsula.

The controversy that eventually led to the firings of Campbell and Villa surfaced Sept. 24 when four former and current female employees sued the Police Department, alleging sexual harassment and discrimination.

All charged that they were discriminated against in their careers and were either fired or disciplined after complaining of sexual harassment. Most of the harassment charges centered on Villa; Campbell was accused of knowing about the alleged abuse and doing nothing.

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Campbell said he would retire after 26 years on the police force. But he withdrew his retirement in October when dispatcher Peri Ropke joined the case and accused him and Villa of raping her at a department party more than 11 years ago.

Hours after Ropke made the shocking allegation at a news conference, the city manager placed Campbell and Villa on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of a city investigation into the charges of sexual harassment. Since then, five more women, including an officer cited for bravery in a house fire, have joined the lawsuit.

The situation grew more tenuous for Campbell at the end of October when the Newport Beach Police Employees Assn. issued an overwhelming vote of no confidence in him and Villa.

Acting Police Chief Jim Jacobs said Tuesday: "The investigation has gone on for what seems like an indeterminate amount of time and has affected our lives in innumerable ways. The department has needed to get this in the past for a long time. Everybody is anxious to have this behind us. There are things we need to focus on in our police work."

Jacobs said the department will be focusing on the budget, a contract for police employees and law enforcement problems over the holidays. He added that he is not interested in seeking a permanent appointment as police chief.

Although they lauded the city for taking decisive action against Campbell and Villa, some of those involved in the sexual harassment lawsuit are still critical of the way the city has handled the situation.

"I am not surprised by the city manager relieving the chief of police. I am surprised that it took this length of time," said Bino Hernandez, an investigator who works on behalf of the women. "I hope that the damage caused to the victims will be settled in a shorter time than it took to determine that the chief was the problem. To prolong this will only accentuate the damage and the anguish."

Steven R. Pingel, an attorney who filed the lawsuit, said: "I don't think the city had any choice, given the information they had been supplied by my clients and many other witnesses as to the misconduct of Campbell and Villa. City officials had information to take action sooner than they did, but I'm glad they finally took it."

Pingel accused the city of being "lackadaisical" in its approach to dealing with allegations of sexual harassment at the department in the past and said that he is prepared to take the case to trial, given the tacit admissions of the firings.

"There is a recognition that Campbell has mismanaged the department--and mismanaged a department where sexual harassment was rife, involving his closest confidant, Capt. Anthony Villa," said Pingel. He added that there have been no overtures for settling the lawsuit.

By January, Murphy said, he hopes to hire a company to conduct the search for a new police chief. The city's Civil Service Commission and members of the community will be involved in the recruitment, he said, which could take four to five months.

City Council members said they hope the next chief will foster a spirit of openness and communicate regularly with the press, the council and the community. Ideally, according to city officials, the candidate should understand the uniqueness of Newport Beach, with its small-town atmosphere, heavy tourism and high-profile business leaders.

"It's going to have to be someone that is very creative in providing the services as cost-effectively as possible," Murphy said. "We will be trying to seek a chief who is progressive, entrepreneurial and a team player."

Steps of a Scandal

Sept. 24: Four current and former female employees sue Newport Beach Police Capt. Anthony Villa and Chief Arb Campbell, calling the department "a hotbed of sexually offensive conduct."

Oct. 7: City initiates special investigation.

Oct. 15: A police dispatcher joins the suit, charging that she was raped by Campbell and Villa at a police party 11 years ago. Both men are placed on administrative leave.

Oct. 30: Police officers return a vote of no confidence in Campbell. Meanwhile, Campbell and a group of prominent citizens begin a campaign for his reinstatement.

Nov. 12: Campbell and Villa file a civil rights suit against the city.

Dec. 1: Four more women join the lawsuit.

Dec. 14: An investigator tells the City Council of evidence of hostility and harassment in the department.

Dec. 15: A 10th female employee joins the lawsuit.

Dec. 18: The city moves to fire Villa.

Dec. 22: Chief Campbell is fired.

Researched by JANICE L. JONES / L.A. Times

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