Couple Says SP Cops ‘Traumatized’ Them

Homeowners Kristin Cheney (left) and Richard Cheney stand for a photo near a back house on their property on Fairview Avenue where South Pasadena police officers detained Richard in February. Officers were responding to a 911 call of a suspected burglar on a roof. Richard said he was making repairs to his own roof. Photo by Skye Hannah

A city husband and wife are seeking police body-camera footage of an incident at their home in February that, they say, left them feeling disrespected by South Pasadena Police officers — an allegation at least partially acknowledged by Police Chief Joe Ortiz, who was not running the department at the time.

Ortiz, in separate but identical Sept. 3 letters to Richard and Kristin Cheney of 1126 Fairview Ave., acknowledged that, through an internal investigation, the couple’s allegations of disrespectful conduct by Corporal Joseph Johnson and Officer Carlos Pech in the Feb. 14 incident were “a sustained finding.”

However, the Cheneys’ allegation of illegal detention of Richard was unfounded, Ortiz’s letter said.

On Monday, the Cheneys detailed their side of the story, which they say started when Richard was making roof repairs in the early evening of Feb. 14, when it was dark. Apparently, a neighbor called 911, fearing a burglar was in the neighborhood.

“We were rather traumatized by it,” Richard said of the encounter with officers that followed.

The Cheneys said they were hosting guests when a roof leak started in a back house on their property. At around 6 p.m., they said, Richard climbed atop the roof with a headlamp and a work knife in his pocket in order to secure a tarp ahead of incoming rain.

When he finished his work, he said, he was met with a flashlight in his eyes.

“I was backing down the ladder and I heard somebody yell, ‘Hey!’ and then I couldn’t understand anything else they said,” said Richard. He said he assumed it was his brother-in-law messing with him at first. He said he asked several times for the person to identify himself and lower the light, but he was met with silence.

Kristin said she came out the back door of their main house with guests to find out what was going on. She said it was hard to identify the person at first and she was concerned. Eventually she recognized the person was wearing a uniform. She asked the officer, identified in the investigation report as Pech, if he was a police officer, and Pech confirmed that he was.

“At that point, I put my hands out to my side, open palms facing out, so he could see I had nothing in my hand,” said Richard. “At that point, I started telling him, ‘I’m the homeowner, I live here, I was on the roof.’ ”

Richard said that Johnson then entered his backyard, asked Richard to step over to him, frisked him and removed the work knife from his belt.

The Cheneys said that despite their guests and several neighbors yelling at the officers that Richard was the homeowner and him offering to show his ID that was in his pocket, Johnson instructed Richard to put his hands behind his back.

“He grabbed my wrists and he marched me out to the front,” said Richard. “As soon as I came out of the gate, there are four or five cars with lights on, the big SUVs, there’s a helicopter overhead, of course all the neighbors are out looking.”

Once in front of his residence, Richard said, Johnson released his hands and allowed him to reach his wallet and ID.

“After he gave me back my license, he (Johnson) said, ‘You’re lucky you’re not on the ground covered in pepper spray,’ ” said Richard. “When my wife came out screaming at them, because she finally got released from the back, he said, ‘You need to get your wife under control’ and I just looked at him and said, ‘Why should I?’ ”

When Pech walked out of the backyard, Richard said, Johnson “grabbed Pech and shoved him out of the way from us as far as he could and said, ‘You (Pech) get out of here,’ or something along those lines. Basically it was obviously he didn’t want us talking to or interacting with Pech.”

Richard said the assembled officers eventually all left, save for Officer Randy Wise, whom he knew. Richard then called the police department’s main non-emergency number to report that an officer had taken his knife and not returned it. He said Wise returned later with the knife.

The Cheneys said they later reached out to Council Member Michael Cacciotti to detail their concerns on how the situation was handled. Cacciotti passed it onto the police department. They also filed a complaint, alleging misconduct by Johnson and Pech.

In July, the Cheneys received a letter from Ortiz — who was hired in April, taking over for Interim Chief Brian Solinsky. That letter informed them that Sgt. Jim Valencia had completed his investigation of the issue and submitted findings to his office June 18. In the Sept. 3 letter, Ortiz told Richard that “a review of the digital audio and video recordings helped to validate the eventual finding in this investigation.”

Their allegation of disrespectful conduct was found to be sustained and allegation of illegal detention was determined to be unfounded.

“The detention was determined to be both legal and justified pursuant to case law (Terry v. Ohio),” Ortiz wrote to Richard.

On Thursday, Ortiz released a prepared statement to the Review on the incident,  a statement first reviewed by City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe and City Attorney Teresa Highsmith.

The statement said the officers responded to the area of 1129 Windsor Place (a home behind the Cheney’s residence), after a 911 call from a resident of the home who reported an unknown subject who looked to be on her roof with a flashlight.

“Additionally, the caller reported that the subject was clearly seen, was believed to be on her property, and that there was fear over the safety of the children inside the home as it was confirmed the subject seen was both unknown and unauthorized to be there,” Ortiz’s statement said.

Ortiz’s statement also said officers “considered different possible scenarios (ex. safest approach, armed suspects, multiple suspects, avenues of escape, etc.) and prepared a mental operations plan, deploying and taking different positions in order to prevent escape of any possible suspect(s).”

When Pech reached the back house at the Cheney’s property, he found the subject to match the description given by the caller and “detained him until additional officers arrived to assist,” Ortiz’s statement said.

In the statement, Ortiz noted that the officers were sent to “investigate what appeared to be an attempt residential (hot-prowl) burglary during dark hours.” He said the time of day, with the darkness, complicated the situation and required Pech to use a flashlight. Environmental factors can also play a role in the “timing or audible understanding of verbal identification of officers,” Ortiz’s statement said.

The report noted that “Mr. Cheney was eventually identified, corroborated and released. The duration of the incident was negatively affected by the emotional resistance of Mr. and Mrs. Cheney in cooperating with the police investigation. Coupled with uninvolved other persons who were present along with their verbal barrage toward the officers only served to complicate matters and delay a more timely disposition to the incident (actual incident was 11 minutes).”

Ortiz called the internal investigation “very, very thorough.’’

As for the officers’ behavior, Ortiz told the Review, “We can always do better and we take these opportunities where we could have done better to heart and we make sure that our employees are provided training so that they can do better next time.”

Ortiz would not discuss whether any officers involved were disciplined, calling it a personnel matter.