Just 11 months into his job as a Los Angeles police officer, Sergio Arreola had a choice to make: resign or be fired.
The day before, April 11, 2012, he had been handcuffed and booked by Pomona police for allegedly assaulting them during a traffic accident investigation and resisting arrest. Arreola’s captain had issued the ultimatum after getting word of the incident from Pomona officials.
The 25-year-old Marine veteran, who had dreamed about becoming an LAPD cop, felt his world crumbling around him.
For a moment, the young officer considered resigning. Doing so, the captain told him, would spare him the black mark of being fired and give him a chance at finding another job. But Arreola dismissed the idea just as quickly. Resigning would signal that he had done something wrong.
He told the captain that he hadn’t done any of the things the Pomona officers alleged. Arreola asked the captain to investigate the situation before signing the paper that would boot him from the force. He offered the captain the phone number for a tow truck driver who had witnessed the incident and told him that at least one other witness, his brother-in-law, had recorded a video of it.
“With all due respect, I have done a lot for this country and I’ve worked really hard to get here — to get to this position as a police officer,” Arreola said. “I’m not going to resign. If you want to terminate me, go ahead.”
The captain was unmoved. The Pomona officers’ description of the incident made it clear that Arreola was not LAPD material.
Arreola turned in his equipment and left the station for what he assumed would be the last time. Once out of earshot in the parking garage, he dialed his wife.
“He fired me,” Arreola told her, tears streaming down his face.
Arreola had been on the way to his in-law’s house in Pomona after having finished an overnight shift when his wife called. A relative had gotten into a minor traffic accident nearby, she told him. She gave Arreola the location and asked him to meet her there.
Pomona police Officer Eric Hamilton, who first responded to the call of a single car accident in a quiet neighborhood, said in his arrest report that Arreola immediately was aggressive and belligerent when he arrived, refusing to obey Hamilton’s commands.
When Arreola identified himself as an off-duty LAPD officer, Hamilton demanded to see his badge. Arreola went to his trunk to pull out the rain jacket where he had pinned his badge and lifted it up for the officer to see. Hamilton had an audio recording device running.
On the recording, a copy of which The Times has obtained, Hamilton is heard telling other officers after the arrest that he was so suspicious of Arreola that he “broke leather” — cop lingo for unclasping the safety lock on his gun holster — as he saw Arreola move toward the trunk and kept a grip on his gun in case he needed to draw it quickly.
Worried that he was losing control of the situation, Hamilton put out a call over the radio, asking for assistance to deal with a combative LAPD officer. Officer Chris Tucker heard the call and rushed to the scene. Both officers described Arreola’s demeanor as “extremely angry,” and, within minutes of arriving, Tucker attempted to handcuff Arreola. He tackled him to the ground when Arreola “began to twist and tense up, pulling his arms from our grasp,” Tucker said in his report. Hamilton quickly came over to assist. The officers alleged that Arreola tried to punch Hamilton in the face as they restrained him.
But, according to Arreola, it was Hamilton who was hostile from the outset. As he approached the intersection, Arreola recalled seeing Hamilton yelling at this wife. Confused, Arreola said he got out of his car and, from about 30 feet away, called out to his wife, “What’s going on, Erika? Let’s go.”
Hamilton responded angrily, swearing at Arreola and telling his wife to “shut up” while pulling her back by the elbow, Arreola recounted in his official account of the incident to LAPD officials. Arreola acknowledged that he told Hamilton a few times that he shouldn’t be talking to his wife “like a criminal” over something as minor as a one-car traffic accident. Hamilton, he said, responded with more profanities and threatened to arrest Arreola. At that point, Arreola said, he asked Hamilton to call for his supervisor.
Arreola denied ever resisting the officers. Tucker, he said, intentionally pulled him off balance while he was being frisked and, when Arreola stumbled, the officer used it as an excuse to take him to the ground.
On Hamilton’s recording, the officer is heard telling Arreola repeatedly to “stop resisting” and Arreola saying that he is not resisting. Arreola is also heard pleading with onlookers to record the scene. Once on the ground, Arreola said, the officers punched him repeatedly. Hamilton, he said, bent his left arm back violently and Tucker attempted to subdue him by using a choke hold.
Through the head of the union that represents Pomona police, both Hamilton and Tucker declined to be interviewed for this article. The union official cited an ongoing internal investigation by the Pomona department into the officers’ conduct, which he said bars them from speaking publicly.
Based on the officers’ account of Arreola’s behavior, prosecutors in the L.A. County district attorney’s office charged Arreola with three misdemeanors for resisting arrest, assaulting Hamilton and obstructing the officers’ work. Although they eventually dropped the assault charge, Robert Rico, Arreola’s attorney in the criminal trial, said prosecutors refused to discuss any sort of deal on the other two accusations. Their only concession, Rico said, was to spare Arreola time in jail if he pleaded guilty to the charges.
The hard line that prosecutors took was moot, since Arreola wouldn’t consider a deal. “They’ve ruined my life, they’ve ruined my name,” he recalled saying when Rico gave him the option to plead guilty. “What’s the worst they can do? Send me to jail?”
In the months leading up to his trial, Arreola struggled to keep himself and his wife afloat. He ran his credit card to its limit and refinanced his house and car loans. He borrowed money from his wife’s father to keep them going while he studied at a local college hoping for a degree that would help him land a new job. Peter Casey, an LAPD lieutenant who had supervised him, wrote a check to help cover his legal fees.
Arreola’s chances at trial appeared bleak. The tow truck driver did not testify, telling Rico he had been harassed by a Pomona detective, the attorney said. And Pomona police claimed they found no video of the arrest on the brother-in-law’s phone, despite his insistence that he recorded it, according to Rico. But several of Arreola’s supervisors and old partners testified on his behalf, describing him as soft spoken and respectful. Arreola himself took the unusual step of testifying. And, at one point, the judge told the jury to disregard the testimony of a Pomona sergeant because it was factually wrong.
Rico said he used the audio recording to show that Arreola had followed the officer’s orders and not been combative. On the recording, jurors heard Arreola telling Hamilton, “You know I didn’t do anything,” and Hamilton retorting by calling Arreola “a fool.”
Later in the recording, as Hamilton tells Arreola’s wife that he’s arresting her as well, Hamilton said, “I’m going to make sure your husband is never a police officer in the state of California again. I’ll talk to Chief Beck myself personally,” referring to the LAPD chief.
And jurors listened as Hamilton and Tucker recounted the arrest for other officers. “I just about broke his left arm. I wanted to break his arm,” Hamilton said.
“I had my arm around him to choke his ass out,” Tucker said.
The jury found Arreola not guilty.
The acquittal was important, but it wasn’t everything.
Earlier this month, Arreola once again was summoned into the captain’s office where he had been told his career with the LAPD was over. This time, the captain, who declined to be interviewed, wanted to welcome Arreola back to the force — a result of months of negotiations between department officials and Matthew McNicholas, an attorney representing Arreola in a lawsuit against Hamilton, Tucker and the Pomona Police Department.
“It feels good,” Arreola said of returning to the job. “I want to show the LAPD that the people who supported me and believed in me were right all along.”