Anaheim Officer Fired for Whistle-Blowing, He Claims : Law enforcement: Steve Nolan says he broke ‘code of silence’ when he reported alleged police brutality. The department disputes his accusations.
Steve Nolan was considered a good cop.
He graduated No. 1 in his class at the Sheriff’s Academy and received two distinguished service medals during his first eight years with the Anaheim Police Department.
But it has been more than two years since Nolan wore a badge.
The 32-year-old former gang investigator contends that his career in law enforcement came to an abrupt end when he broke the Police Department’s “code of silence” and reported to his superiors two episodes of alleged police brutality.
“It is considered the worst thing in the world to snitch off another cop,” Nolan said recently. “As soon as I stepped on the wrong toes, it was all over. It was unbelievable.”
One of Nolan’s attorneys filed a lawsuit against the city of Anaheim on May 17, claiming that Nolan’s 1993 dismissal from the police force came in retaliation for reporting the alleged brutality. Though the firing was overturned in August by an outside arbitrator, Nolan remains on stress disability leave and is embroiled in a battle with the city over workers’ compensation benefits.
An investigation by the Anaheim Police Department concluded that wrongful conduct by the officers Nolan named could not be proved, and no disciplinary action was taken against them, according to the arbitrator’s final opinion, which was obtained by The Times. But Nolan contends that the internal investigation was not carried out properly.
Anaheim Police Chief Randall Gaston said he “could talk for hours” about Nolan’s accusations and dismissal, but has been advised by the city’s attorneys not to comment on specifics.
“It’s not real fun to be in the position to not be able to comment and not be able to defend the officers in the unit,” Gaston said. “But we have to act responsibly, and I don’t want to be accused of releasing information that takes away from the legal process that’s still ahead.”
Gaston questioned Nolan’s credibility, citing the officer’s disciplinary record, which, according to arbitrator Edgar A. Jones Jr.'s opinion, includes several reprimands for incidents on and off duty. Gaston also mentioned sections of the opinion in which alleged rude behavior by Nolan was recounted by his colleagues.
City Atty. Jack L. White and Mayor Tom Daly also declined to comment.
Nolan contends that another officer beat a handcuffed teen-age robbery suspect Nolan had arrested in December, 1991. Three months later, Nolan said, he saw another teen-ager being beaten with a flashlight and kicked by two other officers during a gang sweep.
“If [brutality] happens and you know it, you’ve got to do something,” Nolan said. “These were the most blatant things I had seen in my career. As far as I’m concerned, when the cuffs go on, the party’s over.”
The arbitrator’s ruling does not conclude whether beatings occurred or whether excessive force was used on the suspects.
Nolan said that after reporting the alleged incidents to his superiors, he was branded a “whistle-blower” throughout the department and fired on March 10, 1993, by then-Police Chief Joseph T. Molloy, who died later in 1993.
Nolan said that after his arbitration victory, he received anonymous telephone threats and is afraid to return to the force. Nolan said he suspects that the calls were made by someone in the Police Department.
“One caller actually said: ‘You’re dead,’ and another said: ‘Don’t forget your [bulletproof] vest,’ ” Nolan said.
Nolan’s lawsuit is based on a section of the state Labor Code that prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee for disclosing information that the employee believes is in violation of the law.
“In light of what happened to Rodney King, he did everything he was supposed to do, and look what happened to him,” said John W. Lewis, one of Nolan’s attorneys.
“He was put between a rock and a hard place. If he didn’t report it and it came to light, he would be disciplined.”
Nolan said he lived on credit cards and borrowed from family and friends to pay his bills before he received more than $70,000 in back pay after the arbitrator’s decision on Aug. 31. His short-term disability pay ended at the end of April. He has applied for long-term disability pay, but a decision is pending.
“I think Steve’s situation is a tragedy,” said now-retired Anaheim Police Capt. Jack Flanagan, one of Nolan’s former superiors. “He did a hell of a good job, to my knowledge. He was a producer and that was the bottom line for me.”
After placing first in his class when he graduated from the Orange County Sheriff’s Academy in 1985, Nolan began working as a patrol officer in Anaheim. In 1989, he went to work in the career criminal unit and was an original member of the gang unit that was formed in 1991.
Although Nolan shined as an investigator in the unit, the arbitration ruling reveals personal problems both on and off the force.
In 1988, he received a reprimand from his superiors for his involvement in an off-duty physical altercation with a female companion while under the influence of alcohol, according to Jones’ decision. In 1992, he received another written reprimand for being drunk and arguing with his fiancee while off duty, an incident that prompted police in Nolan’s hometown to respond, according to the ruling.
In 1991, Nolan received a one-day suspension for buying alcoholic beverages while on duty, the ruling shows.
Other blemishes on Nolan’s disciplinary record include: losing property of a person taken into custody and, while off duty, angrily breaking off the side-view mirror of a car parked too close to his, according to the arbitration opinion.
Nolan said his worst troubles began on Dec. 28, 1991.
That evening, Nolan arrested a 16-year-old alleged gang member on suspicion of robbery, according to the arbitration opinion. Nolan said two other Anaheim police officers took the youth to the station. Later that evening, Nolan said, he saw the teen-ager handcuffed and sitting in a chair in the department’s gang unit office. His face was swollen and scratched, and his eye was swollen shut, Nolan said.
Nolan said the teen-ager did not have the injuries when he was arrested. The disposition of the case was not available.
“I froze in shock,” Nolan said. “I was scared to death. I had arrested him. He was a handcuffed juvenile, who might have been beaten in the station or in a police car. The image of Rodney King was fresh in everybody’s mind.”
Jones wrote in his Aug. 31, 1994, opinion that Nolan “was reasonable in his perception that undue force had been used against the victim. [Nolan’s partner] also observed the swollen eye in the office, which had not been swollen when the victim was turned over to the other officers in the field for transport to the department.”
Nolan’s partner did not return two telephone calls to his office at the Police Department.
But Jones wrote that it was not his job to determine whether brutality had occurred. The Police Department’s internal investigations were not recounted in the arbitrator’s 57-page written opinion, and police personnel involved either declined to comment or did not return a reporter’s telephone calls.
Asking for confidentiality, Nolan said he reported the incident on New Year’s Eve to Sgt. Craig Hunter, his superior in the gang unit. Hunter interviewed the teen-ager in Juvenile Hall and concluded that what had appeared on the surface to be undue force was not, according to the arbitration document.
Hunter did not return three telephone calls seeking his comment.
Despite Nolan’s request for confidentiality, word began to spread that he had reported the incident, straining relations between him and other members of the gang unit, Jones concluded. Nolan said he began to receive complaints from Hunter about his interaction with other officers.
But Nolan said he continued to work without major incident until March 13, 1992, when, he said, a second beating occurred.
Nolan said he was called to the city’s Jeffrey-Lynne neighborhood along with other members of the gang unit for a sweep of the area. Nolan said he saw an officer run up to a teen-ager who was on the roof of a carport and that the officer knelt and struck the teen-ager on the head three or four times with a heavy metal flashlight.
“It was like someone pounding nails with a hammer,” recalled Nolan, who said he then saw another officer run up and start kicking the teen-ager.
“His face and head were in bad shape,” Nolan said. “I was asked to take [him] to the hospital. I was upset. I told them I was not going to take their meat to the hospital.”
In an interview, the youth said: “I was handcuffed, then hit in the head with a metal flashlight and kicked. I was bleeding all over and felt dizzy and dazed. My whole shirt was bloody.”
Nolan said he did not immediately report what he said he had seen. But in July, 1992, with relations between him and other members of the gang unit worsening, Nolan requested and received a transfer back to patrol duty.
Nolan said that after a member of the gang unit approached him in September and said another beating had occurred, he decided to meet with Molloy, who asked Nolan to write a memo detailing the two incidents.
Nolan claims that his confidential memo was eventually distributed to members of the gang detail and that each member was asked to respond to his allegations. He said Molloy later issued a memo to the entire department stating that a committee of officers assigned to investigate the allegations had found no misconduct.
“Nothing was ever done after that except to destroy my career,” Nolan claimed. “It was the biggest cover-up I’ve seen in my life. All the officers were exonerated and they fired me.”
In January, 1993, Molloy gave Nolan a 15-day suspension without pay over a variety of charges, the two most serious of which were abrasive and hurtful treatment of fellow investigators and causing several tape-recorded interviews from an ongoing attempted-homicide investigation to be erased, according to the arbitration record.
Gaston, according to arbitration records, wrote in memos to Molloy that Nolan had attempted to “sabotage” the gang unit by causing the tapes to be erased.
Nolan’s suspension escalated into a firing in March after he was accused of hiding a case investigation file, which was later found in the file cabinet of another officer, according to Jones’ ruling. Since Nolan had already been suspended for the other charges, his firing hinged on the validity of the accusation that he had hidden the file, according to the arbitration ruling.
The arbitrator wrote that after a 16-day hearing in which testimony consumed 2,549 pages of transcripts and countless pages of exhibits, “there is not [a] shred of credible evidence” that Nolan had hidden the file.
Jones also wrote that there was “little doubt” that the accusation stemmed from the anger among gang unit members generated by Nolan’s complaints about the alleged beatings.
Jones ordered that Nolan be reinstated without loss of seniority and all other contractual benefits. He also ordered Nolan’s suspension without pay reduced from 15 days to five days, and that the officer receive full back pay.
Still, four of 12 charges against Nolan were partially or completely upheld by the arbitrator--a fact that Gaston pointed out in a brief interview this week.
Among the charges sustained were racial slurs and other insults that Nolan is accused of making toward other members of the gang unit.
Nolan said his comments were typical of the kind of kidding around that went on in the gang unit, behavior he said others also engaged in.
Nolan said he is considering studying law “in order to help other police officers” and has no regrets about speaking out.
“I’ve gone over this a thousand times in my head,” he said. “If I had to do it all over again, would I? The answer is yes. There’s no doubt in my mind.”