Two former Pittsburg police officers sued the city and department on Thursday, charging that the department obscured its violent crime rate and use of force by officers and forced out the two officers for pointing it out.
The separate lawsuits, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, seek unspecified damages, including back and future lost wages, for retaliation.
Michael Sibbit and Elisabeth Anne Terwilliger both joined the Pittsburg Police Department on the same day in September 2012. Sibbit was hired from the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office, where he had worked since 2007.
The two officers frequently worked together, despite driving separate vehicles, because they were assigned to the same shift and geographic area. Other officers in the department even referred to them as “Sib-beth,” according to the suit.
They soon learned that higher-ups in the department were instructing officers to falsify crime reports by not documenting use of force and recording crimes as less serious than they were in order to keep the city’s crime statistics low, according to the suit.
Supervisors at the department instructed them not to record a report as a felony unless an arrest had been made and, preferably, witnesses were available and willing to testify. They were instructed to record other crimes as “suspicious circumstances” or misdemeanors, particularly if they were “wobblers,” crimes that can be charged as either felonies or misdemeanors, according to the suit.
The practice would artificially keep the crime rate and the department’s solve rate low, the officers allege.
Sibbit and Terwilliger discussed the practice with each other. Sibbit found the policy significantly less stringent than similar policies at the sheriff’s office.
In one case, Sibbit was investigating a shooting in 2013 when a home was hit by gunfire while a young girl was sleeping inside. Because he couldn’t find a witness, he was instructed to classify the crime as the negligent discharge of a firearm, a misdemeanor.
Both officers tried to bring the practice to the attention of their superiors, but were ignored, the suit alleges.
Sibbit also found that the department was improperly assigning police resources, such as assigning street crimes unit officers to patrol a pest control business on East Leland Road.
When Sibbit inquired with his supervisor, Sgt. William Hatcher, why they were patrolling that particular business when no crimes had reported there, he was told that the business owner had been reporting the crimes directly to Capt. Michael Perry, according to the suit.
Sibbit said that wasn’t a good use of resources, particularly since other businesses in the area were frequently victimized by crime.
According to the suit, Hatcher told him it was “above his pay grade.” In late March and early April of 2014, Sibbit learned that a suspect in a Pinole shooting had been staying in Pittsburg. Hatcher told him Pittsburg police wouldn’t use their resources to arrest the suspect because he wasn’t wanted for any crimes in Pittsburg, according to the suit.
That person was later suspected of a shooting on April 28, 2014, in Pittsburg, and Sibbit complained the crime could have been prevented if they had followed up on his lead.
The officers were also told not to record uses of force, even when justified. On April 19, 2014, when he came upon a suspect struggling with another officer, Sibbit hit him with a flashlight to help subdue him. Another officer later smashed the restrained suspect’s face into a car door, use of force that Sibbit didn’t think was reasonable.
When Sibbit turned in his incident report, he was told to redact both uses of force by Sgt. Brian Matthews.
On April 27, 2014, Terwilliger was involved in another use of force incident at the Meadows Mobile Home Park. While making a vehicle stop, she noticed a gun in the car between the driver’s seat and the door.
“Gun! Gun! Gun!” she yelled, and ordered the suspect out of the car. He tried to flee, but she wrestled him to the ground as he flailed his legs and tried to stand again. Sibbit found them there and helped subdue the suspect by hitting him with his flashlight, according to the suit.
The gun turned out to be a replica with the orange tip removed.
Hatcher told them not to document the incident, not to arrest the suspect for resisting and instead to release him. They confiscated the replica gun but classified it “found property” and otherwise documented nothing, according to the suit.
Other officers in the department found nothing unusual about their behavior. But two months later, both officers were placed on administrative leave. The department didn’t specify why, but a few days later Terwilliger was interviewed about the Meadows Mobile Home park incident.
Eventually, both officers allege that they were threatened with criminal charges if they didn’t resign. Since then they say that Pittsburg police have prevented them from getting employment with other agencies that contact the department for background checks, according to the suit.
Some of the allegations made by the two officers were addressed in an audit released in July, which found that Pittsburg police did misclassify some crimes as suspicious circumstances in 2015, it would not have significantly affected the city’s crime rate.
Pittsburg police requested the audit from the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Office to address the officers’ allegations, which first were reported in May.
However, the audit was only for 2015 and did not cover the other methods for misrepresenting its crime rate that are alleged in the lawsuit.
Asked to comment on the officers’ lawsuit, Pittsburg police Capt. Ron Raman said:
“… due to the pending litigation and personnel issues we can’t comment at this point.”