COSTA MESA — On top of negative campaign mailers, a website and mobile billboard decrying Costa Mesa City Council candidate Jim Righeimer, on-duty police are also trying to intimidate his supporters out on the streets, Councilman Eric Bever asserted at a news conference Saturday.
In what Bever called a "chilling" incident, he and a fellow Righeimer supporter Chris Eric said two officers in a police cruiser drove by them three times on Thursday, gave them dirty looks and possibly took pictures of them while they put up signs supporting Righeimer at 17th Street and Superior Avenue.
"They gave me hard look," Eric said. "The stink eye."
Bever said this was the first time he thought he was under surveillance and felt intimidated by officers.
"I've really only been following (Costa Mesa) politics since 1998," Bever said. "I don't recall anything quite this drastic. Certainly, there have been different factions that pull a last string during election time, but I've never seen the unions get so nasty."
The Costa Mesa Police Assn., representing rank-and-file officers, sergeants and non-sworn employees, has focused all of its attention this campaign season on opposing Righeimer's run for a council.
Months ago, Righeimer, a planning commissioner, flatly told police and fire employees during a debate that he would go after their pay and pensions should he get elected because he blames them for state and local budget woes.
If officers in uniform, in a city vehicle and using a city camera were trying to intimidate Bever and Eric, they would be breaking the law, said attorney Mark Bucher, who is representing Bever and is Righeimer's brother-in-law.
But police denied any on-duty politicking.
"I've told them 'if you're going to do anything, if you're going to talk to somebody, you're going to do it off-duty,'" Assn. President Allen Rieckhof said. "'You're not going to conduct politics on duty'…they all know not to do it."
Righeimer's camp called a news conference at the scene of the alleged incident Saturday. Standing on the vacant lot on the southwest corner of 17th and Superior, Bucher called for an investigation into who the officers were, who the camera belonged to, and why they were in the area at that time.
Righeimer said if the allegations are true, they're disturbing.
"You cannot have people not trusting your police officers," he said.
"Maybe it was Bever's perception that this occurred and not the officers' intent," Rieckhof countered.
Bever and Eric did record the number of the police cruiser. Police aren't assigned specific vehicles when they go on patrol though, so just knowing which car it was won't immediately reveal the officers' identities.
Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach backed up Bever and Eric's call for an investigation, saying he's experienced intimidation and mudslinging from the Sheriff's Department's unions during campaigns. He pledged that if he's not satisfied with how the department handles the complaint, he'll support launching a county investigation.
"If you're going to do it in uniform on my dime, that needs to call to question," Moorlach said.
Bever said once he got home from putting up the signs Thursday, he immediately called Police Chief Christopher Shawkey.
"Councilman Bever did share that account of the incident with me," Shawkey said. "The department is currently looking into what happened that afternoon."
Bucher pointed out that it could be a conflict of interest for police to investigate their own association and department members.
Shawkey said he's aware of that concern and will take it into account as department officials decide what to do.
Bever said he supports the city's police and Thursday's alleged intimidation does more damage to the department's reputation than good for their campaign against Righeimer.
Eric, who has lived in the city since 1949, said he's concerned if his politics would affect how officers respond if he's in trouble.
"I'm thinking twice about phoning police," he said.