OFFICER FRANK LOPEZ FIRED IN AUGUST 2012
WILL GET ALMOST 6 YEARS BACK PAY
Officer Frank Lopez and Officer Jamey Teng had disagreement on how an incident with juveniles was handled and Lopez called Teng a “snitch” and a “bitch”. Then Chief West initiated an IA that April and West later moved to terminate Lopez in May 2012. He was served his termination notice Aug. 22, 2012. (more on the incident in the judge’s ruling)
Lopez had an arbitration hearing in Feb 2015 and the arbitrator ruled on May 21, 2015 in Lopez’s favor that the termination was excessive, and that Lopez be reinstated with a 30-day suspension. In Aug 2015, the school board refused the arbitrator’s decision requiring Lopez to take the case to SJ Superior Ct. In Nov. 2015 Lopez filed his case in SJ Superior court, Case# STK-CV-UWM-2015-0011015.
The tentative ruling gives all the details of the case but Judge Kronlund comments regarding West and the district’s actions, “This fly’s in the face of common sense and reason”.
Here are the details in the judge’s ruling:
It’s a statement of decision and judgment granting writ of mandate.
Dated October 17, 2016
Ruling was made by the Hon. Barbara A Kronlund. San Joaquin County Superior Court.
Judgment is entered in favor of petitioner, a peremptory writ of mandamus is issued from the court, remanding any previous proceedings to set aside any decisions upholding petitioner’s termination. A new decision is imposed with reasonable discipline consistent with the court opinion as contained the statement decision entry of judgment.
The court noted the encounter with a juvenile identified as J.S. Constituted unreasonable force in violation of the law and SUSD policy.
Ofc. Teng had arrived on the location of call prior to Ofc. Lopez who had been originally dispatched. He had encountered between seven and 10 male adult size juveniles at the scene of the school basketball court, seated on the ground. It was nighttime, and the students were trespassing. Upon arriving Lopez did a check of the perimeter and entered the school grounds to join Ofc. Teng, and noticed Ofc. Teng was involved in a physical altercation with the juvenile who appeared to be getting the better of Ofc. Teng in the struggle. Teng is attempting to put the juvenile on the ground, so Ofc. Lopez goes to the aid by holding the suspects legs still as they were flailing as paying handcuffs the juvenile. The subject was then placed in the back of a patrol car record checks were then ran. The check revealed that you juvenile had a prior resisting an officer charge but no outstanding warrants.
Ofc. Lopez had noticed another juvenile on scene approaching from the back of the officers. The subject was cursing at the officers and would not stop and told to get back on the ground they were sitting. After three or four warnings Ofc. Lopez ordered to the subject to the ground with him refusing to comply. Ofc. Lopez then told him to get back on the “fucking ground” and advised the subject that he would tase him if he continued noncompliance.
The subject then squared up with Lopez, indicating with his body language that he was about to physically fight the officers. Lopez told the subject “if you fucking hit me you know I’m going to tase you”. After that threat the subject decided to comply and went back and sat down on the ground.
A short time later the subject was told to stand up and go to the back of the patrol car in order to be searched. The subject turned away and told officers you’re not going to fucking search me. Again Ofc. Lopez removed his taser from its holster and then the subject complied peacefully to a search.
The judge noted that a use of force expert, Don Cameron, testified in officers Lopez behalf. Mr. Cameron trained post certified Academy recruits throughout California and is a certified trainer in the use of force and has been providing hands-on training the classroom for more than 30 years. Mr. Cameron was also accepted as an expert in the use of force.
Mr. Cameron reviewed the investigation information along with the department rules and regulations and determined that Ofc. Lopez’s tactics and use of force during the incident were objectively reasonable.
She also noted that reasonable force is to be judge from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene rather than with 2020 vision of hindsight afterwards.
The expert also noted that harsh language is an appropriate tool for officer use to gain compliance to their directives. And the use of Taser is a proper tool to gain compliance which includes the displaying of that Taser.
She also noted that Ofc. Lopez’s conduct was not in violation of the Stockton unified school District police policy.
The juveniles father had come to the school after being notified of what was occurring with his son. He was agitated pacing back and forth and had his fists clenched. The father had engaged Ofc. Lopez by cussing and swearing and accusing the officers of roughing up his son. He also moved in to the safety zone close to the officer.
Ofc. Lopez had made several attempts to calm the father down, and when he refused to comply, he advised him to put his hands on his head as he is going to be searched. The father immediately “responded you ain’t fucking searching me”. Ofc. Tang had testified at the arbitration that he thought the father was trying to instigate a fight with Lopez, but Lopez had eventually persuaded the father to walk off campus. The father had immediately returned back to the campus to check on a second son that was on scene and engaged Ofc. Lopez once again. A verbal altercation occurred with both officer and the father cursing at each other, ending with officer Lopez displaying his taser and threatening to use it. The father then backed off without a fight and became compliant after that point.
The judge noted that expert Cameron had testified that harsh language is an appropriate tool to gain compliance as is a verbal threat to use a Taser. The officer was able to gain compliance without the actual use of force. He also noted he would have been appropriate for the use of his baton or pepper spray under the situation, but the officer had chosen to go with a threat of even lower force.
Judge Kronlund then went into whether officer Lopez’s conduct with the father constituted unreasonable force in violation of law and SUSD policy.
Again, she talked about the encounter at the school with the father and it appeared that he was getting ready to physically fight the officer.
Officer Lopez had tried to calm him down repeatedly in the father refused to comply until the threat of the Taser was used. Again, she noted expert Cameron testimony about the threat of use of force.
Addressing the accusation of violating Stockton unified school district policy of reporting the use of force, he noted these type of actions often go undocumented absent a specific policy requiring their being documented. She also referred to the expert again saying this is a training issue not a misconduct or discipline issue.
The altercation with taking the juvenile to the ground was documented, as he was assisting officer Teng. In the court found in its independent judgment in reviewing the findings that Lopez failed to report his use of force as to his respect to threatening with the Taser, was not supported by the weight of the evidence in the administrative record.
She also noted whether the petitioner’s conduct violated SUSD policy, unauthorized fighting or threatening to fight with another. This is regard to the altercation that occurred with the juvenile, the juveniles father, or the altercation that occurred with officer Teng afterwards.
The judge noted there is no evidence in the administrative records that officer Lopez was involved in any unauthorized fighting or threatened or attempted to inflict unlawful bodily injury on another. He did not engage in unreasonable use of force with either the juvenile, the father, and never threatened or attempted to fight or inflict bodily injury upon officer Teng.
She found in favor of the petitioner and was not in violation of district policy as a respondent’s claims are not supported by the evidence in the administrative record.
The judge noted she needed to determine whether an abuse of discretion had occurred, and the underlying facts of the misconduct itself and the circumstances involved must be taken in to account.
The court found that the district did not meet its burden of properly determining that the termination was appropriate. Ofc. Lopez did not have a record of past discipline or any other similar acts or conduct. The policy that officer Lopez engaged in are not such that a summary termination is warranted. The district did not have just cause to terminate Lopez under the circumstances.
Officer Lopez did concede that he violated some policies with his behavior in regard to calling Teng a “bitch” and a “snitch”. Lopez acknowledged that he was angry that Teng had complained to a sergeant instead of directly coming to Lopez to work out their differences, the officers had known each other for many years, were friends and partners.
In reviewing the administrative record, the court finds that Lopez to be a credible witness, in fact, as between Lopez and Tang, the court finds Lopez to be the most credible.
So, she did fine that Lopez was in violation of some policies due to the name-calling with the other officer. But she did not find that the district’s actions were supported by the weight of the evidence.
The court went on to note that after reviewing the record that it appeared officer Tang was a cause of this unfortunate situation from the very start. The original call was officer Lopez’s call and officer Tang was not even dispatch but chose to interject and in fact got there first. Officer Lopez it also attempted to cancel Tang’s participation prior, but Tang would not have it he insisted on going and in fact being first on scene. By the time Lopez had gotten to the Basketball Ct., Teng was already involved physically with a juvenile. Officer Lopez did not have time to inquire was going on as his partner was involved in a physical altercation and assisted in taking the subject down. He had every reason to believe that officer Tang was involved using lawful force on the subject, in addition there were other multiple subjects on the scene and Lopez had to secure his partners back.
The judge also noted that officer Lopez use of profanity on the scene, that was directed to the juvenile and his father was used effectively to defuse the situation. The judge also noted that he used affective law enforcement procedures by gaining compliance without actually having to use any other force.
The judge was also concerned that at the end of the incident, Lopez assent away from the scene by officer Teng after he had voiced his disagreement with Teng for being lazy and not wanting to fill out the booking paperwork to arrest the two juveniles. In addition, after officer Lopez is gone from the scene, officer Teng proceeds to discuss how Lopez was out of control with the juvenile’s family members on scene. Officer Tang never mentioned that he started the whole thing by trying to take down the juvenile on the basketball court before Lopez ever stepped out of his patrol car, or even was on scene. It appeared Tang was flipping the situation, and getting the parents worked up about Lopez’s conduct, presumably to protect himself from the wrath or later complaints.
In the end of the ruling the judge noted this entire situation was handled very poorly by officer Teng. It started out badly because of Teng and ended badly because of Teng. Then officer Tang manages to complain about officer Lopez bullying and Lopez gets terminated, and Teng gets 10 days suspension. The judge noted this flies in the face of common sense and reason. A highly respected police officer, Lopez, with a good employment record and no record of prior discipline and superior’s compliments throughout his file, was fired over this one incident? A mountain was made out of a mole hill, is a close analogy that the judge said came to mind.
This incident occurred in April 2012, there was no formal complaint filed by any of the subjects or the father, to my knowledge, just internally by officer Teng, the judge’s ruling was made in November 2016. It was brought to my attention that today February 14, 2018 that Frank Lopez had finalized his paperwork to receive his backpay, minus a 30-day suspension, and reinstatement of his job effective immediately.
One final question that I did ask was if officer Teng was still working for the school district, and the answer was yes.
Though I don’t know the details, I was advised that SUSD had to shell out close to $500K to a former Sgt in April due to the same type of activities but with different players involved.
If officer Teng wants to air his side of the story, he is more than welcome to contact me on this website and do an interview.