/Dozens of Police Officers Across San Diego County Have Been Convicted of Crimes

Dozens of Police Officers Across San Diego County Have Been Convicted of Crimes

SDPD Chief David Nisleit held a press conference in July to announce the arrest of Sgt. Joseph Ruvido. “Police officers should and must be held to a higher standard, both on-duty and off-duty,” he said. / Photo courtesy of NBC San Diego

This project is a collaboration of news organizations throughout California coordinated by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and the Bay Area News Group. Reporters participated from more than 30 newsrooms, including MediaNews Group, McClatchy, USA Today Network, Voice of San Diego and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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By the time sheriff’s deputies arrived at her Imperial Beach home, Deborah Tungcab was lying motionless on the floor.

During an argument in 2011, her husband, Roel Tungcab, had broken her cell phone. The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office later alleged that Deborah had been attempting to console her crying children when Roel knocked her off her feet. Her tailbone struck the ground first. Then her head. She went unconscious.

Roel and the officers who arrested and charged him that day with domestic violence-related crimes had something in common: They all wear badges for a living. That fact would become significant in the courtroom weeks later as Roel, a San Diego police officer, was being arraigned, and a judge was weighing the next steps.

The prosecutor had requested a full protective order, which would have barred Roel from coming within 100 feet of Deborah or from contacting her remotely. But after meeting privately in the judge’s chambers, Roel’s attorney argued that the court should go easier on his client. He urged Judge Kathleen Lewis to settle on a “no negative contact” order.

“That’s what I’m going to do,” she ruled, “based on the defendant’s occupation.”

Because of his status as a police officer, the court allowed Roel to keep his firearm at work while it determined whether he’d resolved a dispute in his own home with physical violence. But it never got that far.

Months later, prosecutors dropped the assault, corporal injury and vandalism charges in exchange for Roel pleading guilty to one count of tampering with an electronic device — a property damage crime stemming from the broken cell phone. He had been facing three years in prison but walked away with fines and an order to receive counseling.

Roel Tungcab remains a sworn officer with SDPD. But the allegations of domestic violence didn’t end there.

San Diego County Sheriff’s Department dispatch records show that since the case was resolved, authorities have been called multiple times to the Tungcab home to investigate disturbances. Twice in July, deputies concluded that the disputes between Deborah and Roel were not physical.

But in March 2017, Deborah told deputies that her husband had “tried to choke out” their 16-year-old daughter. There’s also mention in dispatch records of a similar incident from 2018, but no evidence that authorities were called to investigate it. That incident is described as “UNREPORTED.”

Members of the Tungcab family either declined to be interviewed or did not respond to requests. When reporters approached Roel outside his home in late July, he rolled up the window of his SUV and sat in silence.

SDPD confirmed that in the years following his arrest and conviction, Tungcab would have likely responded to domestic violence-related calls like any other patrol officer. He’s employed now as a front counter officer in the Southern Division, meaning his job duties include greeting the public.

The List That Should Not Exist

The details of Roel Tungcab’s case may be unique, but his experience in the criminal justice system is not.

Hundreds of law enforcement officers over the last decade in California have been convicted of crimes. Some lost their jobs, some didn’t — and most avoided jail time. Many took plea deals that allowed them to stay on the force and keep their firearms. More than 80 are still working for police agencies.

Through a public records request last year, two reporters from UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program obtained a list of nearly 12,000 cops and applicants who’d been found guilty of all categories of offenses, ranging from disorderly conduct to sexual assault to manslaughter. The list came from the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training, or POST.

In response, California’s top law enforcement officer threatened to take legal action against the reporters if the list wasn’t destroyed. Attorney General Xavier Becerra said it had been released by accident, and he asserted that merely possessing a copy was illegal.

Tungcab’s name appeared on that list, as did other cops in San Diego and Imperial counties. But the list was also missing several of the most high-profile cases over the last decade — at least 10 locally and more than 150 across the state.

Combined with the refusal of state officials to explain their methods of collecting information, the omissions on the POST list suggest that the state is not keeping a close eye on problem applicants and officers.

In the absence of a complete and publicly accessible database, VOSD joined an unprecedented statewide media collaboration to produce one. Collectively, dozens of journalists reviewed nearly a thousand criminal case files at courthouses up and down California, and set out to confirm that the defendants on the list were in fact members of law enforcement.

The group identified more than 600 members of law enforcement and found that more than a quarter of their cases had never been publicized. The seriousness of the charges varied. But generally, cops whose convictions didn’t catch the attention of the media appeared more likely to keep their jobs. As the transcript from Tungcab’s arraignment shows, the court often took a defendant’s law enforcement background into consideration before deciding how to rule.

Cops Admit to Disturbing the Peace

The POST list contained 53 cases in San Diego County over the last decade involving 48 defendants, nearly all men. VOSD found that 33 of them served as law enforcement officers at some point in their lives. About two dozen were charged with crimes while serving in law enforcement. The others were charged after leaving the profession or before they became officers.

Most of the cases involved misdemeanors, and most were handled by the DA’s office. They ranged from domestic violence to drug possession to trespassing to theft.

Among the cases for which records were available, half ended with a reduced charge through a plea deal, often for a lesser misdemeanor or an infraction. Thirteen of the defendants — five of whom worked in law enforcement at the time of their arrest — pleaded down to a Penal Code 415 violation, also known as disturbing the peace.

That’s not uncommon. In fact, some defense attorneys around Southern California openly market their ability to get more serious charges knocked down to a disturbing the peace violation. The cases of cops convicted in San Diego suggest police officers are striking deals like any other member of the public who winds up in court.

One such case involved Michael Lalanne, who’s worked as a San Diego County sheriff’s deputy since 2007.

In 2014, SDPD accused Lalanne of soliciting a prostitute after he drove an undercover detective to a location in North Park on El Cajon Boulevard. He quickly cut a deal. The city attorney’s office dropped the prostitution charge in exchange for Lalanne pleading guilty to a disturbing the peace violation for using “offensive words in a public place which are inherently likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction.”

Lalanne and his attorney didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. As recently as June, he was still on the job, working in detention and court services, according to a Sheriff’s Department roster.

Only one defendant on San Diego’s POST list took his case all the way to trial — and it appears to have flown under the media’s radar.

In 2010, Victor Hugo Gutierrez had been working in the prison transportation unit of the Sheriff’s Department when he busted down Jerrlyn Hike’s door in San Diego with a firearm in hand. Hike was Gutierrez’s girlfriend at the time, and another man inside the home later testified that he feared for his life as he watched the door concave with each kick before it finally broke. A deputy city attorney said Gutierrez entered through the bottom half of the broken door and immediately went to Hike’s bedroom.

Hike, who also worked for the Sheriff’s Department, can be heard screaming in a 911 call that Gutierrez was going to kill her. But when it came time for her to testify, Hike made clear on the stand that she didn’t want to be there. She said she didn’t recall numerous details of the incident.

Gutierrez had been initially charged with aggravated trespassing, vandalism, exhibiting a firearm and false imprisonment. A jury found him guilty of all but the last charge.

Before sentencing, two of his coworkers offered letters of support. They portrayed Gutierrez as a hard worker and committed family man who was courteous and even-keeled.

“In the six years that I have worked around Victor,” one deputy wrote, “I have never seen him involved in a use of force. That’s not to say it hasn’t happened but I have never witnessed it.”

A judge sentenced Gutierrez to three years’ probation. He lost his job with the Sheriff’s Department.

There’s Still a Lot the Public Doesn’t Know About Police Crime

POST sets the bare minimum of hiring and training standards for police officers in California. Although participation is voluntary, local police agencies in San Diego County typically abide by their instructions.

Candidates, for instance, cannot have been convicted of a felony or domestic violence-related charge. They must also pass an extensive background check and be cleared of “any physical, mental or emotional conditions.” Those background checks — which are performed by the local agency — can involve looking into the applicant’s character by talking to neighbors, old employers, relatives and ex-spouses.

Once an applicant gets his or her badge, the process of identifying red flags can vary.

In a city like Chula Vista, an officer can be disciplined for failing to report another for misconduct. If the behavior rises to the level of a potential crime, an investigation is supposed to be handled separately from a police department’s Internal Affairs unit, and the chief of police is supposed to be notified as soon as possible.

What qualifies as a fireable offense is less clear. The major police departments in San Diego County don’t spell out in their public manuals when a cop should be relieved of duties or what’s an appropriate punishment for specific crimes.

Still, many of the cops on San Diego’s POST list did lose their jobs after being convicted of criminal offenses. Some were even arrested by their own employers.

California’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, based in West Sacramento, was one of the country’s first agencies to accredit police officers and departments. But it’s one of only five in the country that does not decertify officers for misconduct. / Photo by Lezlie Sterling, Sacramento Bee

That included Roman Granados, a former Chula Vista police officer who pleaded guilty to child cruelty and disturbing the peace in 2014. He’d been accused of choking and punching his girlfriend’s 16-year-old son at a sixth-grade graduation ceremony.

Capt. Phil Collum declined to talk about Granados’ case, but said CVPD takes allegations of criminal behavior “extremely seriously” because they put the integrity of the law enforcement system at risk.

At the same time, he cautioned against any conclusions about law enforcement’s ability to hold its own accountable.

“The reality is, every single one of those cases has different circumstances and involves different personnel, evidence and information,” he said. “It doesn’t indicate to me an automatic presumption that those cases indicate any level of wrongdoing on those agencies.”

In California, cops and other public employees who are convicted of felonies, or who’ve been found not guilty by reason of insanity, are disqualified from serving. But many other states set higher bars and will decertify officers for misconduct and less severe criminal offenses, including misdemeanors.

Georgia, for instance, can revoke certification if an officer engaged in sexual harassment, drunk driving and undue force. Florida can boot someone from law enforcement for possession of cannabis and perjury.

Lt. Shawn Takeuchi, a spokesman for SDPD, said cops make mistakes like everyone else and local jurisdictions should be able to determine for themselves whether that person is worthy of continuing to carry a badge. Some cops who’ve gone through the judicial process for minor offenses, he said, may actually have an advantage on the street because they empathize better with the community — they know what it’s like to be arrested.

Takeuchi also argued that rules requiring cops convicted of more minor offenses be automatically fired don’t take costs into consideration. The “soft cost” of training and backgrounding an individual officer is $190,000, he said. The public would need to ask itself whether dumping that same person for, say, an alcohol-related offense is fiscally responsible.

“In some cases, we may have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars and experience into an individual, and I don’t think it would be reasonable for us to have a policy that says everyone who commits a crime gets terminated,” he said.

What the Research Says

Determining the true nature and extent of police crime — as well as the degree to which police convictions correlate with other forms of police misconduct — is difficult. There is a lack of research across the United States.

The most in-depth study comes from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where researchers primarily reviewed news articles about the arrests of non-federal officers between 2005 and 2011 and came to a few general conclusions in 2016.

Police crimes are not uncommon — the arrest rate was 0.72 per every 1,000 sworn officers. But it is also “an occupationally-driven phenomenon,” the researchers found. “Police work is conducive to all sorts of criminal behavior, largely because of plentiful opportunities provided by the nature of the work and police-citizen interactions.”

In other words, cops are surrounded by crime and can veer into criminal behavior themselves.

The most common offenses were for assault and DUI, followed by forcible fondling and rape. DUIs were highlighted as a particularly distressing problem because, the researchers noted, cops don’t often arrest other cops for intoxicated driving unless there was an accident or someone got hurt.

Slightly more than half of the arrests studied by researchers resulted in officers losing their jobs. The researchers advocated for greater transparency and for requiring annual backgrounds checks to maintain the integrity of local departments.

“Cases in which sworn law enforcement officers act as criminals — whether dealing drugs, or driving drunk, or sexually molesting a vulnerable citizen — strike a direct blow to the law enforcement enterprise and the essence of what it means to be a law enforcement officer: protect and serve,” the report concludes. “These cases threaten to undermine public trust in both the authority and legitimacy of state and local law enforcement organizations, and the work of law-abiding sworn officers who go about their job selflessly, efficiently, and professionally every day.”

A ‘Complete Freakin’ Witch Hunt’

Much of what VOSD learned about police convictions in San Diego and Imperial counties came from public records and from former officers who were willing to be interviewed. A common theme emerged: They are still bitter about how their cases went down and about losing their jobs.

Perhaps more than anyone else, Matthew Tobolsky believes he was the victim — of his former employer.

In 2016, the Sheriff’s Department charged him with corporal injury and accused him of harming his then-wife. He was placed on desk duties, according to prosecutors, and he refused to cooperate with Internal Affairs. So did his ex. And without her cooperation, the case suffered.

Tobolsky pleaded down to a misdemeanor vandalism charge and was sentenced to three years’ probation.

Tobolsky denies that his conduct rose to a criminal level. He told VOSD that there’s no such thing as a “real genuine victim” of domestic violence. He and his wife, he said, had a “toxic relationship.”

While the case was still making its way through the court system, Tobolsky filed a workers’ comp insurance claim. He said he’d hurt his back lifting five-gallon water jugs.

When Internal Affairs requested a meeting to talk about his domestic violence case, Tobolsky said he was still too injured to travel. The Sheriff’s Department had hired a private investigator after receiving an anonymous tip that the deputy’s claim was bogus.

Court records later showed that nearly every day Tobolsky claimed he was in too much pain to work, he was actually at 24 Hour Fitness. He was spotted dead-lifting 315 pounds and doing 600-pound leg presses. The District Attorney’s Office filed a second criminal case against Tobolsky roughly a year after the first.

Tobolsky also maintains that his injury was real and that the Sheriff’s Department stopped trusting him after the domestic violence allegation.

“I’m branded as a liar, a liability, a piece of crap, a loose cannon, a bad person from the people that make the decisions in the department. So when I hurt my back,” he said, “it was absolutely taken as, ‘He’s a liar, he’s trying to get us back because he feels wronged.’ I was definitely pissed at the department, that goes without saying, because I knew the reality of the whole situation. But I didn’t fake an injury.”

The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office saw it differently. Prosecutors charged him with insurance fraud and perjury-related crimes.

He called the whole ordeal a “complete freakin’ witch hunt.” Still, he pleaded guilty to one felony charge of filing a false or fraudulent statement and was sentenced to 180 days under a work furlough program.

He’s not the only cop convicted of a crime who harbors bad feelings.

Daniel Dana, a former SDPD officer, made headlines in 2011 when he was charged with four felony counts that included rape under color of authority. Jane Doe, a sex worker, alleged that Dana had threatened to take her to jail if she didn’t perform oral sex. Doe was scared, she later told authorities, because she was on probation at the time.

Doe also said she was afraid to report Dana because he was a cop.

In an interview this summer with VOSD, Dana said a superior had “tried to squash” the complaint, but a lieutenant wouldn’t budge.

In the leadup to trial, both sides acknowledged that oral sex had occurred, but offered conflicting accounts of whether it had been consensual. His defense strategy centered on portraying Doe as an unreliable witness due to her criminal record and sex-work history.

Dana said the media attention caused such a stir within the department that he felt he never had a chance. In 2011, nearly a dozen SDPD officers had come under investigation for criminal misconduct during a three-month time span. In the end, SDPD made six arrests for a myriad of alleged crimes, including sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking.

Former San Diego police officer Daniel Dana appears in court in May 2011. / Photo courtesy of NBC San Diego

“I was drug through the mud, and made to look like an absolute freakin’ monster, and unfortunately that’s not the case,” Dana said. “Everybody in the union knew that wasn’t the case. But at the time the department was looking to throw someone under the bus and make an example of somebody, and I was one of the ones they made an example of.”

Dana pleaded down to engaging in a lewd act in public. He took a plea deal, he said, because he would not receive a fair trial in San Diego due to the public’s “grudge against law enforcement.” He blamed the press for giving officers everywhere “a black eye.”

Tobolsky, the former Sheriff’s deputy, argued that the perception of officers sweeping crimes under the rug to protect their own is “the exact opposite” of what happens.

“They don’t want to look like they’re protecting one of their own,” Tobolsky said. “So they’re not any easier on cops, they’re actually harder — much, much harder.”

Reformer Accused of Being ‘Against Cops’

Not all the people on the San Diego POST list were employed by law enforcement agencies in San Diego or Imperial counties. Some worked for departments in Riverside or Los Angeles but were arrested locally. The highest percentage of confirmed officers on the list — nearly a third of the total — were members of SDPD at some point in their careers.

For years, the city has grappled with police officer arrests and convictions and taken steps to reform the internal process for flagging behavior that might later manifest into something criminal.

After the rash of police officer investigations and arrests in 2011, then-Police Chief Bill Lansdowne apologized to the city and called it an opportunity to reinforce SDPD’s values.

With his backing, the U.S. Justice Department tapped the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF, a nonprofit based in D.C., to diagnose any structural problems within the department. While that report was being prepared, a second wave of officer arrests followed, and their cases exploded into the headlines.

PERF ultimately concluded that SDPD’s system for detecting and tracking problem officers was in major need of reform. It wasn’t incorporating negative performance reviews or civil litigation filed against individual cops. Sergeants weren’t keeping a close enough eye on their subordinates — in part because so many of those management positions were being filled by “acting sergeants” who lacked the same training and authority of permanent sergeants.

Lansdowne had retired by the time the PERF report was published in 2015, and his replacement, Shelley Zimmerman, agreed publicly that the department needed an overhaul — she just wanted it coupled with more money. She wound up firing 11 officers, but was slow to implement reforms.

“We would have monthly updates about her progress with complying with these recommendations and it was just like molasses,” said former City Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who chaired the public safety committee. “She accused me of being against the cops and I said, ‘No, I support our police, but I provide an oversight role. That’s my job. And your job is to make sure the public can trust in the police department again.’”

Marti Emerald / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Zimmerman declined to comment for this story.

Emerald agreed that the department needed more money and argued that the city wasn’t doing enough to provide cops suffering from trauma with mental health benefits. She believed that SDPD wasn’t just missing its problem officers — it wasn’t properly supporting its good officers.

“It was a constant battle, but it was worth it,” Emerald said. “I want to believe our department is better now.”

Takeuchi pointed to a number of programs that SDPD offers its officers who may experience stress and trauma on the job, including a wellness program that was established in response to the high-profile arrests and convictions in recent years. A unit made up of both sworn-officers and civilian staff reach out after particularly gruesome events — or a death in the family — to see if that person is OK.

The department wanted to know if there was a correlation between misconduct and mental health, he said, and although they haven’t drawn a clear connection yet, the unit has been able to connect cops in need of services with health care providers.

PERF also advocated that SDPD relaunch an anti-corruption team known as the Professional Standards Unit. Its members would work within the department but independently of Internal Affairs to investigate suspected crimes. Lansdowne had quietly disbanded the team shortly after his arrival in San Diego in 2003. He cited budget cuts, but civil rights attorneys thought the department’s leadership had another motivation.

One lawsuit argued that the elimination of a unit dedicated to sniffing out misconduct encouraged a two-tiered system of justice and sent a signal throughout SDPD that officers who abused their powers “would not be investigated, prosecuted, pursued or punished for their actions.”

When reached for comment, Lansdowne hung up on a reporter.

The Professional Standards Unit exists to this day, and it was instrumental in the arrest this summer of Sgt. Joseph Ruvido, who was accused of enticing a minor for sex online. After a tip came in, he’d been placed under constant surveillance.

Nisleit told reporters at a news conference that he was disappointed and embarrassed.

“Police officers should and must be held to a higher standard, both on-duty and off-duty,” he said.

As coverage of Ruvido’s arrest — and subsequent suicide — has noted, he’d been assigned for the past year to the watch commander’s office, putting him in a position to review reports and jail bookings from a desk in the basement of police headquarters.

SDPD officers are expected to immediately report themselves and fellow officers who’ve been arrested or charged, or knowingly under investigation, to a supervisor or the watch commander’s office. Allegations of misconduct are supposed to be treated in a similar way.

That means an officer whose job involved fielding complaints about possible crimes committed by cops was himself suspected of committing one.