Riverside Force Rife With Racism, Black Officer Says : Police: Complaint to state says he is on leave because of post-traumatic stress. Chief avows 'no tolerance' for bigotry.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A black Riverside police officer, who arrived on the scene after the shooting of black teenager Tyisha Miller by four other officers in December, has filed a blistering account of what he alleges is pervasive racism on the force that he says results in the victimization of the community and a work environment so hostile that he left in fear of his life.

Officer Rene Rodriguez made the allegations in a civil rights complaint filed with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and in an accompanying 39-page account of his experiences that has already been submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. The account contains detailed allegations of racial profiling of citizens, reports of officers with racist tattoos and descriptions of officers giving each other high-fives at the scene of the Miller shooting and referring to the victim's grieving relatives as "animals" having a Kwanzaa celebration.

Rodriguez, who has been on unpaid leave since March saying he has post-traumatic stress disorder and lacks assurance of a safe workplace, says his civil rights and those of other officers and members of the community have been violated. Rodriguez further detailed his allegations, which are being investigated by federal authorities, in a recent interview with reporters.

He is demanding that his pay and benefits be reinstated, and that the alleged hostile environment, discriminatory behavior and racial harassment of the community cease, said his lawyer, Constance Rice, who filed the civil rights complaint along with attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Riverside Police Chief Jerry Carroll said that he could not discuss Rodriguez's case because it is a personnel issue but that he has "absolutely zero tolerance for racism and discrimination in the Police Department. Just because somebody makes a statement doesn't mean that it's true. Those allegations need to be investigated, and we need the opportunity to do that."

The department also issued a statement saying it has "strong policies that prohibit inappropriate racial speech or behavior on the part of all employees. The [department] is made up of outstanding individuals who are professional in their speech and conduct. They treat fellow employees and members of the public with equality and with respect."

The statement added that complaints are thoroughly investigated and that the department takes appropriate corrective steps, including disciplinary action.

Official Denies Racist Pattern on the Force

Det. Jeffrey Joseph, president of the Riverside Police Officers Assn., who served 15 years on the city force, acknowledged that he has heard "inappropriate [racist] comments, and when they have occurred, the officers have been punished." But he added that "I have not seen a pattern and practice of racism" such as that described by Rodriguez.

City Atty. Stan Yamamoto criticized Rodriguez for "playing this out in the press. Just about everybody knows that we're under investigation by the Department of Justice, the county grand jury, the attorney general's office. There are official means to take complaints to the department."

Rodriguez, however, said he tried to resolve his issues through official channels for months, even when his co-workers became increasingly hostile. His pay and benefits were cut off and he faced the loss of his family's home, cars and livelihood, he said. Eventually, he added, he was threatened with an investigation that he considers a trumped-up reprisal for his role as whistle-blower.

He said the department is "starving me out, sending a message to people who want to break that code of silence and speak up against officer misconduct. And it's working. They're doing everything they can to cover up for these people instead of just disciplining them and weeding them out."

The Miller shooting triggered a wave of outrage and protests led by members of Riverside's black community and drew widespread attention to the issue of officer-involved shootings. A sergeant who was at the scene and the four officers who shot Miller have been dismissed, and federal prosecutors have launched a civil rights probe of the department.

"We're doing a full-fledged investigation into the Police Department to determine whether an investigation shows a pattern and practice of civil rights violations," said Michael Gennaco, head of the U.S. attorney's civil rights division in Los Angeles.

Rodriguez said the Miller incident heightened racial tensions within the department and made him, the only nonwhite officer at the scene, a target of hostility.

Miller was shot 12 times by the four officers, who were responding to a 911 call reporting a woman unconscious in her car. Officers said they found her unresponsive in the driver's seat with a gun in her lap. One of the officers broke a window of the car in an attempt to take the gun and fired on Miller when she allegedly reached for the weapon.

On the night Miller died, Rodriguez said, he was responding to a routine request for medical aid for a female sitting in a car when he heard an officer yell, "Shots fired!" on the radio.

In his statement, Rodriguez said he arrived at the gas station where Miller's car was parked to find the vehicle riddled with bullets and four officers animatedly reenacting the shooting. Rodriguez said his colleagues were laughing, making "whooping" sounds, slapping each other on the back and embracing.

"She wasn't going to hurt you; I had that bitch covered," Officer Wayne Stewart, 26, said to Officer Michael Alagna, 27, according to Rodriguez's account, which said Stewart and Alagna exchanged high-fives. Sgt. Gregory Preece--whose dismissal became final Wednesday, Chief Carroll said--pointed to the body and called Miller "that bitch" at least three times, and officers made "admiring" comments about how easily the bullets penetrated the car, Rodriguez said.

The officers were asked for comment through their attorneys, but the lawyers did not return phone calls.

After the Miller shooting, police cordoned off the area as Miller's relatives began to gather nearby. An elderly black woman arrived in her nightgown and slippers and collapsed, wailing: "Is my baby dead? Oh my God, oh my God!" Rodriguez said.

He said Preece, 38, told the four officers: "We need to get you guys out of here--these animals are arriving in busloads."

Back at the station, when someone asked if people were still showing up at the scene, Preece replied: "Yeah, they're having a Kwanzaa reunion across the street," Rodriguez alleged in his account. The document said Preece then added, "If it'll make the family feel any better, we shot her with black bullets."

"NHI, brother," chimed in another officer, using initials for "No Human Involved," Rodriguez alleged in the account.

In the two months that Rodriguez waited to be contacted by the department's internal affairs division, his fellow officers became increasingly hostile, getting up and walking out of a room en masse when he entered, he said. He said he believes that officers feared he would tell all he had witnessed and heard in the aftermath of the shooting.

Rodriguez said one officer told him he was rumored to "hang around with gangbangers." He also had trouble getting backup for his traffic stops, "leaving him in a potentially dangerous situation alone," his statement said.

At home, Rodriguez said, he began to get serial hang-up calls late at night from an untraceable number. He said the calls stopped when he requested assistance from Assistant U.S. Atty. Gennaco but resumed when the Riverside County district attorney decided not to indict the four officers who shot Miller.

Rodriguez said that once when out on a call he overheard an officer telling another, "That f---ing [Rodriguez] is lazy," and that when Rodriguez got into his patrol car he found a stink bomb.

As protests over the shooting intensified, Rodriguez said, an officer made a joke that was widely circulated: "In L.A. they treat you like a King; and in Riverside, it's Miller time." The references were to the Rodney G. King beating and the Tyisha Miller shooting.

Investigation Into an Off-Duty Incident

On March 19, Rodriguez said, an officer told him that "the guys are talking. Rumor has it that you work for internal affairs and that you are secretly taping officers."

Believing that such suspicions could provoke hostility or even violence from other officers, Rodriguez said, he met with two superiors and told them his account of the events since the shooting. Rodriguez said one of the officers told him to take three days off while the department investigated to ensure that Rodriguez was safe.

On March 22, Rodriguez said, he was called in for an internal affairs interview that focused on what he had seen at the shooting--not on the alleged mistreatment that followed.

Rodriguez said that on his way out of the interview, a lieutenant asked, "Feel better?" and informed him that he was under investigation.

The lieutenant told him the department was reopening an inquiry into an off-duty incident in January in which Rodriguez tussled with a vagrant who yelled racial slurs at his parents and physically attacked him, Rodriguez said. The lieutenant said the incident had been referred to the district attorney's office.

Michael Silverman, the deputy district attorney who reviewed the referral, confirmed that the case had been sent over by an investigator in the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, naming both the vagrant and Rodriguez as, in Silverman's words, "potential suspects, a you-sort-it-out kind of thing."

Silverman said that at a staff meeting it was unanimously decided that Rodriguez should not be a suspect. Prosecutors would have launched a case against the vagrant, but the vagrant was already charged with a felony and in a hospital, too ill to stand trial, Silverman said.

Nevertheless, Rice, Rodriguez's attorney, said Riverside police are demanding that her client be interrogated about the incident before his pay can be reinstated.

Rodriguez's doctor, Alfred Bloch, who said his patient has post-traumatic stress disorder, has ruled out an interrogation.

Sergeant's Visit Called 'Clearly Threatening'

Rodriguez, who had taken more time off, said he was told to return to work March 28. But two days before that, at 10:15 p.m., Sgt. Preece showed up at Rodriguez's house, 20 minutes outside the city limits of Riverside, with a baton in one hand and the written order to return to work in the other, Rodriguez said. Rodriguez said that his wife and children were sleeping and that he considered the visit "that late at night as clearly threatening."

"At this point, [he] was not only concerned about his own safety, but also the safety of his family," his statement said.

Preece's lawyer did not return calls Tuesday and Wednesday for comment.

Rodriguez said the racial discrimination he witnessed did not begin with the Miller shooting but was an integral element of the daily practices of the police force. He said training officers instructed rookies to routinely stop minorities--such as Latinos with old cars or black men with their hair in corn rows--and invent after-the-fact justifications, such as a cracked windshield.

Rodriguez said a white training officer who kept his marriage to a black woman a secret told him Rodriguez would "be surprised how they talk about black people in the locker room when black officers aren't there." The officer told him that some officers who wore long sleeves in the summer were covering up racist tattoos and that there were "a lot of racist people in the department," Rodriguez's statement said.

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Times staff writer Tom Gorman contributed to this article.

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