When I sat down with West Sacramento Police Chief Thomas McDonald in his office shortly after he was hired, he struck me, in almost stereotypical terms, as being LAPD. He was gruff on the exterior, and direct and to the point. He seemed sincere in his desire to make things better, but it was not clear he really understood the problems of his department.
For many, the Galvan beating could be dismissed as old news, Alvarez as an aberration. But in the last few months, new information and new cases have to raise questions to those contentions.
When the revelations of Officer Sergio Alvarez emerged and women came forward to allege sexual assaults, it was easy for then-West Sacramento Police Chief Dan Drummond to point the finger away from his department and toward the individuals.
“The victimization of vulnerable people is despicable, but the fact that these crimes were apparently committed by a police officer under the color of authority is reprehensible,” he explained.
He added, “The actions of one person should in no way reflect upon the outstanding performance and integrity of the men and women of the Department. I am proud of the way our officers carried out their duties in this investigation and every day in the protection of the community,”
“I’m personally just appalled and sick that someone who was put in a position of trust would violate that trust in such a despicable an egregious manner,” Chief Drummond added.
It is easy to be personally outraged at the conduct here. But if the lawsuit filed by attorney Stewart Katz is correct, the chief was dead wrong back in February when he said that this should “in no way reflect upon the outstanding performance and integrity of the men and women of the Department.”
The lawsuit that Mr. Katz file alleges that after one victim was raped and sodomized by an on-duty West Sacramento Police Officer, she attempted to complain to authorities – Officer Jason Mahaffey, Officer Chris Wright and Officer Lindsey Lam.
As the suit alleges, “While walking on West Capitol Boulevard she came into contact with two West Sacramento police officers, Officers Jason Mahaffey and Chris Wright, who were in separate, marked patrol cars. Plaintiff alleges on information and belief that neither of these officers took any steps to address her complaint until after Officer Alvarez was arrested.”
She then attempted to complain “when she was handcuffed and in the back of a patrol car and being taken to jail by West Sacramento Police Officer Lindsey Lam. This occurred after the second assault and after reporting Officer Alvarez’s assault to officers Mahaffey and Wright.”
The suit alleges, “(Officer) Lam did not respond to these seemingly shocking allegations. Plaintiff alleges on information and belief that neither of these officers took any steps to address her complaint until after Officer Alvarez was arrested.”
That is the same Officer Wright who was ultimately fired in the most recent allegations in the Kevin Hughey case for an officer-involved shooting.
The Hughey case is particularly instructive here because, for all intents and purposes, it was caught on tape. And so, while there are a number of unanswered questions, the ambiguity that made it difficult to get to the truth in the Galvan case simply does not exist.
The civil attorney for Kevin Hughey, Chris Moenig, told the Vanguard that he does not believe that authorities knew what was on the tape when they turned it over to the defense during the criminal portion of the trial.
The audio portion of the critical one-minute segment is difficult to hear, while Officer Markus is racing from his initial location to the door as Officer Christopher Wright attempts to make entry. Through the use of sound reducing headphones, we were able to confirm the transcript of the audio which shows very clearly that Officer Wright, upon shooting Mr. Hughey, concocted a false cover story.
What we see on the video is that Officer Markus and Officer Wright pull into the alleyway where Mr. Hughey and his wife and kid resided. His wife was nine months pregnant at the time and they acknowledge having a heated argument.
The first contact with the family, however, was a security guard who told them they had left their garage door open. You can see on the video the two officers talking to the security guard and then you can hear one of them say that’s not why we are here.
The first troubling question is why Officer Wright would be the one to approach the door without Officer Markus right next to him. They come in a single vehicle, suggesting that Officer Wright, as a new West Sacramento Officer, is being trained by Officer Markus.
The second question, of course, is why his gun was drawn to begin with.
What appears to happen on the video is that he pounds or kicks on the door demanding entry and as he is demanding entry, the door suddenly opens. Ms. Hughey claims she tried to open the dead bolt and when she finally did the door came flying open.
What is clear is that there is no sign of struggle here, and the shot is fired as he is in mid-sentence. “Police – Open the door. Let me see your fucking (BANG) right now.” That was three seconds of time between when he first said police and when the shot went off.
The stunning part of all of this is that, immediately, Officer Wright is concocting a cover story. His first words of explanation were, “Fired one shot and he fucking came at me.”
You can hear Officer Wright yelling very clearly on the audio now. His instructions were to “get down.” In contrast Officer Markus is calm, instructing Mr. Hughey to “stay there” and “keep your hands where we can see them.”
But Mr. Hughey is very seriously wounded, he has a bullet in his abdomen, lodged dangerously close to his spine. He’s also not wearing clothing other than an undergarment.
Officer Wright, however, is more concerned with keeping his story going, as twice he tells Officer Markus, “He tried to grab my gun.” Both times, Officer Markus almost cut him off to keep him from contaminating the testimony.
The audio seems to suggest is that the shooting happened as the tension of the door gave way, Officer Wright was probably not properly holding his weapon, and almost certainly, according to several experts we spoke to, should not have been standing alone in front of a resident with a gun, out of range from his field training officer.
However, it is probably the dishonest account that sinks him.
Defenders of the officer tried to turn the incident back onto Mr. Hughey and claimed that the story only has one side of the story. We do not disagree.
However, we have several pieces of information that corroborate Mr. Hughey’s account.
First, we have the sustained complaint of excessive force by Officer Wright and the subsequent forwarding of the case to the DA’s office.
Second, we know that shortly thereafter, West Sacramento ended Officer Wright’s employment.
Third, is the video and audio account that shows that there is really no evidence of a struggle; it shows Officer Wright immediately reaching to fabricate an explanation that, in light of all other available evidence, appears to be false.
Fourth, those who want to focus on Mr. Hughey’s conduct are forgetting that this is not a story about Mr. Hughey, this is a story about Christopher Wright and the West Sacramento Police Department.
Mr. Hughey had a criminal case to determine his conduct. It is notable that from seven charged felonies, he pled to a single misdemeanor domestic violence case. We will not speculate on his reasons for doing so, but we will point out that the DV case had nothing to do with the charges of resisting arrest or the ultimate finding of excessive force.
Finally, we remain troubled. We have an officer-involved shooting that was found to be excessive force by the investigating department. We have a man who was critically wounded and is fortunate not to have a severed spine or to have been killed.
And yet, for nine months, the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office has failed to file criminal charges against Officer Wright.
It reminds me of early 2011, when the jury had once again failed to convict Ernesto or Fermin Galvan. As Attorney Tony Palik told the story, they were meeting with Judge Fall in chambers with Deputy DA Carolyn Palumbo.
When Judge Fall finally turned to Ms. Palumbo, he apparently asked her why we are even here, why the DA is even considering a fourth trial for the brothers, one of whom was so badly beaten he suffers from dementia in addition to severe facial deformities.
Ms. Palumbo indicated that the defendants had filed a federal law suit against the West Sacramento Police Department. Judge Fall turned to her and asked, do you represent the People of Yolo County or the West Sacramento Police Department?
As Chris Moenig wrote in his suit, “WSPD Lieutenant David Delaini turned the matter over to the Yolo County District Attorney for criminal investigation on May 23, 2013. However, the Yolo County District Attorney has a history of refusing to prosecute police officers for crimes related to excessive force.”
The DA’s office had little choice but to prosecute Sergio Alvarez, as his conduct moved from excessive force into a clear criminal assault. Cases such as this remain more of a gray area. But an officer carries tremendous responsibility, when carrying firearms, not to shoot people, even if the discharge appears to be accidental.
As the Galvan, Alvarez, and Hughey cases show, Chief McDonald has his work cut out for him to change the perception of his department. The scary thing is that these are just the cases that we know about.
The DA’s office’s failure to prosecute officers, their insistence of filing charges to protect police departments from exposure to civil suits, and their maintaining trumped-up felony charges makes them complicit in the problems that have befallen the West Sacramento Police Department.
It is time for both agencies to clean things up and remember their first responsibility is to protect the public, not each other.
We are disappointed that, after numerous attempts to reach him, Chief McDonald has failed to return a call or email. We understand that with lawsuits and police officers’ bills of rights there are limited things he can say, but, at the very least, he needs to keep the lines of communication open.
—David M. Greenwald reporting