An off-duty officer fled DUI crash, then let his mom try to take the blame, records show

Shootings by police have generated protests and heated debate in California and the rest of the nation in recent years. A collaborative of media organizations from across California is reviewing internal police records released under a state new law.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

South Pasadena Police Cpl. Ryan Bernal realized he was in trouble.

Dazed from a night of drinking, he was jolted awake when his pickup truck smashed into a pole that fell on the patio roof of an occupied house in Duarte, internal police records show.

So the off-duty officer drove his truck around the block, walked to a nearby Walmart and slipped away in a ride-hailing service vehicle. The next morning, he showed up at a Los Angeles County sheriff’s station with his mother, who falsely claimed she had been behind the wheel, investigators said.

Bernal resigned in July 2017 after police moved to fire him for making false statements, committing a hit-and-run and attempting to obstruct an internal affairs inquiry. Prosecutors declined to charge him with a misdemeanor hit-and-run charge. A sheriff’s investigator said two of Bernal’s department colleagues who had crucial evidence declined to cooperate with the criminal investigation.

Former Cpl. Ryan Bernal resigned in 2017 after Pasadena police moved to fire him.
(South Pasadena Police Department)

The South Pasadena incident is one of hundreds of cases being examined by the newly created California Reporting Project, a collaboration of 33 news organizations including The Times that is analyzing internal police records released under the new law.

The collaborative has filed requests with more than 600 law enforcement agencies and so far received hundreds of records from incidents in which officers used significant or deadly force, or were disciplined for dishonesty or sexual misconduct.

The documents provide a glimpse into how California police agencies evaluate misconduct, force and shootings by their officers — issues that have dominated a national debate over policing and fueled criticism that law enforcement agencies aren’t transparent enough with the communities they serve. Those concerns helped drive efforts to pass the new law, Senate Bill 1421.

READ MORE: 4 questions we can’t answer yet about California police »

Details of Bernal’s misconduct recently became public under the landmark transparency law, which requires the release of internal police records of shootings, use of force and confirmed cases of sexual assault and lying on duty.

“The public finally gets to see inside one of the key institutions of our community, the police force,” said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who teaches criminal law at Loyola Law School. “For too long it was very difficult to try to pierce through the departments to see who these officers were and what they were doing.”

So far, The Times has obtained dozens of files on misconduct and use of force. The records provide details about:

  • A Cathedral City detective suspended for three days for falsifying his time sheet in 2017
  • An Inglewood Unified School District police officer fired for lying during an internal investigation after his service weapon was stolen from his car in 2015
  • A Chula Vista police officer fired last year for having sex while on duty and in uniform in a public area

Still, a dozen police agencies have refused The Times’ requests to release records of incidents that happened before Jan. 1, when SB 1421 went into effect. Some argue the law does not explicitly allow access to the older files and that releasing them would violate long-standing protections on officer personnel records.
In Los Angeles, Orange, Contra Costa and other counties, judges have rejected similar arguments by police unions seeking to block the release of older records. The state Supreme Court also declined to consider an appeal by one of the unions.

Some officials have nevertheless sought to destroy records that would otherwise be public under the law.

In Downey, the police union asked a court to order the city to destroy disciplinary records older than five years, as the city’s record retention guidelines allow. The cities of Long Beach and Inglewood recently destroyed years worth of records.

But at least 134 agencies have begun releasing records under the new law, revealing misconduct previously kept hidden from the public.

Award-winning officer

Ryan Bernal had been on the South Pasadena Police Department for about a year when Mothers Against Drunk Driving gave him an award for “assiduous patrolling of DUI suspects culminating in arrests.”

Four years later, he was out drinking with colleagues after work — downing as many as nine Old Fashioned cocktails, a shot of tequila and a beer — when he got behind the wheel of his Toyota Tundra around 12:45 a.m. Feb. 7, 2017, according to an internal affairs report.

Bernal’s vehicle struck a utility pole that broke from its foundation and landed on the patio roof of a house, leaving behind exposed wires, according to investigators. No one was hurt.

Several hours later, the records show, Bernal was with his mother when she told sheriff’s officials she was the one who hit the pole and fled the scene. Later that day, Bernal called a South Pasadena police sergeant and admitted that he had been drinking that night, crashed his truck and left the scene but said he had not been drunk, according to the internal report.

Bernal told investigators he dozed off while driving due to a lack of sleep. The 31-year-old said he left the scene so that he could “deal with this on my own time,” believing he would be responsible only for property damage, the records show.

‘Don’t tell anyone’

But internal investigators concluded he was driving under the influence. They also found text messages that showed Bernal told a dispatcher in the department that he had been involved in the traffic collision just after it happened and directed her not to report it.

“Don’t tell anyone. If I need 2 ditch my truck I will,” he wrote the co-worker as he was driven away by a ride-hailing service. Later that morning, he followed up: “Hey, this convo and the one last night never happened.”

Bernal denied directing his mother to lie for him, but investigators noted that he did not intervene when she confessed to the hit-and-run.

Efforts to reach Bernal and his attorney were unsuccessful.

The criminal probe

While the disciplinary inquiry resulted in Bernal being fired, a separate criminal investigation by the Sheriff’s Department was stymied when two key witnesses at the South Pasadena Police Department declined to cooperate, according to a district attorney’s memo.

Robert Bartl, the sergeant to whom Bernal first confessed, told a sheriff’s deputy he would not testify in court, the memo said. And the dispatcher who had exchanged text messages with Bernal did not provide access to those records, according to the memo.

In a phone interview, Bartl said he doesn’t remember a sheriff’s deputy contacting him for a statement. “I would have never told a sheriff’s detective I wouldn’t go to court.” said Bartl, now an acting captain.

The dispatcher, Janee Hannible, declined to comment for this story.

L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputy William Holverson, who investigated the crash, told The Times that Bernal and his Police Department colleagues declined to give statements.

Without being able to bring Bernal’s text messages and admission into court, there was little chance of prosecuting him, Holverson said.

“The guy resigned … so he’s out of everyone’s hair,” Holverson said.

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