The Fullerton Police Department, already reeling from criminal charges filed against two officers in the death of a homeless man, has been reprimanded by a federal judge for allowing a police officer to return to patrol after he was accused of groping women.
Seven women have accused Officer Albert Rincon of sexually harassing or groping them during arrests.
In a strongly worded opinion, U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford refused last week to throw out a lawsuit by two of the women. After the ruling, the city of Fullerton tentatively agreed to settle the case, according to attorneys and court records.
Guilford questioned why the department gave the officer a "weak reprimand" despite accusations from multiple victims that raise "disturbing allegations of police misconduct."
"At the end of the day, the city put Rincon back onto the streets to continue arresting women despite a pattern of sexual harassment allegations. A reasonable juror could conclude based on these facts, that the city simply did not care what officers did to women during arrest," Guilford wrote.
The judge said the city's action "suggests a tacit authorization."
Rincon is now on administrative leave, said Sgt. Andrew Goodrich, the department spokesman. Sources familiar with the settlement, but not authorized to discuss it, said the settlement totals about $500,000. Neither Rincon nor his attorney could be reached for comment.
The judge's opinion was issued two weeks after Orange County prosecutors filed second-degree murder charges against one officer and lesser charges against a second in the July death of Kelly Thomas.
The Thomas case has sparked outrage in the city, with activists and some city officials questioning the actions of officers and department brass.
The Rincon case began in 2008, when Kari Bode and Gina Nastasi accused Rincon of groping them and exposing their breasts. They sued the department in 2009.
Investigations by the city and district attorney's office revealed similar accusations from a total of seven women.
Although the Orange County district attorney chose not to file criminal charges against Rincon, Guilford said the evidence was overwhelming.
"Taken together, the accounts of the seven women reveal a pattern of misconduct. Rincon would arrest or detain a woman. He would then either make sexual propositions to them, touch them inappropriately or both," Guilford wrote.
Department protocol requires that female officers pat down women who are detained and that all contacts between police and suspects be recorded on a department-issued recorder. The judge found that neither happened in the seven cases involving Rincon.
The judge also faulted the department for failing to adequately punish the officer.
"Most shocking is the city's weak 'reprimand' of Rincon," Guilford wrote. "Requiring Rincon to attend 'pat-down' training is weak sauce that does nothing to hide the unpleasant taste of complicity."
Fullerton City Councilman Bruce Whitaker said that based on the judge's opinion, he has asked for further examination into how the department conducted the investigation.
"When I read Judge Guilford's opinion, I was alarmed at the extent to which he believed the Police Department mishandled this issue."