At first glance, high-profile police controversies each generally present themselves as isolated events. Various police shootings have been in the news, and have sparked angry protests. The Associated Press reported recently that officers use confidential “databases to get information on romantic partners, business associates, neighbors, journalists and others for reasons that have nothing to do with daily police work.” Then there are myriad misbehavior and corruption scandals. It’s hard to draw conclusions about disconnected events.
But there are common and obvious threads among them all. Lord Acton was right when he said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Some people misuse power, which speaks to the need for independent checks and balances. The public gets upset, too, when police descriptions of events don’t jibe with what we later see on the video; such examples raise concerns about whether departments can be trusted to level with the public in any type of scandal.
And it feels that we rarely see justice done when powerful people—police included—do bad things. The problem in policing comes from union protections, the Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights, the code of silence within police culture, and the camaraderie that exists between district attorneys and police agencies. I’ve covered many cases from beginning to end, and the public is right to be skeptical about the level of accountability within any government agency, police agencies included.
The idea that justice might be done is what’s heartening about the latest news from a disturbing law-enforcement-related case in Costa Mesa. Private detective Christopher Joseph Lanzillo, a former Riverside police officer, pleaded guilty last week (reversing his previous not-guilty plea) to four felony counts, including false imprisonment related to a 2012 scheme allegedly to set up City Councilman Jim Righeimer and Mayor Stephen Mensinger. A second detective, Scott Impola, awaits trial. He has pleaded not guilty to the same charges.
At the time, the Costa Mesa Police Association was involved in a nasty political battle with the City Council’s majority, which was trying to reform Costa Mesa’s overburdened pension system and outsource some public services. Righeimer and Mensinger were leaders of the reform movement. On Aug. 22, Righeimer had just spoken to a community meeting and then headed to a pub owned by another political ally, Councilman Gary Monahan.
Righeimer had a couple of diet sodas and drove home. After he got there, he said he received a knock on the door from a Costa Mesa police officer asking him to step outside for a DUI test. Righeimer, who wasn’t drunk, was detained for a while and released. According to prosecutors and news reports, the police response was sparked by a 911 call from Lanzillo. The call reportedly claimed Righeimer stumbled out of the bar and was “just swerving all over the road.” Surveillance video showed no such thing.
Lanzillo worked for a law firm that was then employed by the local police union. Prosecutors say Lanzillo was trying to catch the union’s political foes in an embarrassing situation. The scheme also included allegations of placing a GPS tracking device on Mensinger’s car. The Costa Mesa Police Association admits hiring the law firm that employed the private detectives to do “candidate research,” but adamantly denies knowing about any illegal behavior.
It’s not so easy to chalk this up as a bad-apple situation. As Righeimer told the Register, “We must remember what this case is about.” It’s about the police union “hiring private investigators to get information to extort elected officials for the benefit of their members’ salary and pensions … Mr. Lanzillo and Mr. Impola worked at a law firm that represented over 130 police-officer associations.” The now-defunct firm of Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir of Upland represented 19 unions in Orange County.
The most shocking aspect of the story was on the internet for everyone to see. The firm had published a “playbook” that detailed how police unions should intimidate local city councils into caving to their compensation demands. Tactics include employing “blue flu” (work slowdowns) and having police go around neighborhoods and knock on doors looking for suspects—a way to scare people about crime waves and build support for police demands. The playbook’s language was amazing—a Register reporter referred to it as “part swagger, part braggadocio and all insult.”
Amid billing-related allegations, the law firm closed its doors. The Lanzillo plea is good news, too. The wheels of justice are turning. But the firm had represented so many police unions. (As an aside, the Costa Mesa Firefighters Association recently hired Mike McGill, former partner of that firm, to represent them in contract negotiations, according to Mensinger.) How many police officials and union members spoke out about the political tactics that were advertised—indeed bragged about—before the Costa Mesa situation brought attention to the playbook? It seems obvious, but police will have better luck handling all types of controversies if they put public service above political hardball.