Claim Rejected, APD Officer Preparing Lawsuit Against City

Thursday, January 31, 2013

APD Officer Kevin Stonebarger. Photo by Terrence McNally | Arcata Eye

Kevin L. Hoover

Eye Editor

CITY HALL – The City of Arcata may face a lawsuit from an Arcata Police officer who claims the department has it in for him.

At its last meeting, the City Council rejected a claim for damages from Officer Kevin Stonebarger, asserting that actions of Chief Tom Chapman and Lt. Bart Silvers caused him lost earnings, wages, benefits, embarrassment, annoyance, emotional distress and more.

The claim has to do with Stonebarger’s termination as a firearms instructor at College of the Redwoods’ Law Enforcement Academy last fall, which Stonebarger, through his attorney, Peter Martin of Eureka, claims was due to improper communication by APD Chief Tom Chapman and Lt. Bart Silvers.

The council’s claim rejection lays the groundwork for a civil lawsuit against the City which Stonebarger said will “look a lot different than the claim.”

Within the rejected claim are internal personnel documents, the like of which are rarely seen publicly due to their confidential nature.

The troubles began last Feb.  22, when Stonebarger, then serving as the Arcata Police Department’s member of the Humboldt County Drug Task Force (DTF), went to lunch with other agents at the Pho Thien Long restaurant in Eureka.

Chapman assigned Silvers to conduct an internal investigation over the matter. Statements from multiple participants depict a heated confrontation, with variations.

About 20 minutes into their meal, Stonebarger noticed a tow truck backed up behind a truck which had been driven there and parked in a numbered space at Seventh and F streets by another DTF member, Agent Blake Massaro.

According to statements from participants, Stonebarger, Massaro and another agent then rushed out of the restaurant to confront the tow truck driver, Leroy Hoffman, and the individual who had rented the parking space, Kevin Sweet. Sweet is the owner of nearby Partrick’s Candy.

Statements made by Hoffman and Sweet depict Stonebarger’s behavior during the confrontation as inappropriate.

An argument ensued over the pending tow. Several witnesses state that Stonebarger flashed his badge and loudly claimed that the vehicle was there on police business. Massaro displayed his badge as well, but Stonebarger apparently took the lead in taking Hoffman and Sweet to task.

Stonebarger, according to accounts, expressed concern about guns and other police gear in the truck and demanded that it not be towed. Hoffman said he tried to defuse the escalating tensions by extending his hand to Stonebarger, but that he refused to shake it and told him he was in “a lot of trouble.”

Hoffman said he told Stonebarger he didn’t have to yell, and Stonebarger told him not to make fun of his “disability.” Others said Stonebarger was talking loudly because of the noise the tow truck was making.

Possibly exacerbating the confrontation was Sweet, who, fed up with people using his parking space, demanded that Stonebarger identify himself and used his phone to record the clash. He stated that Stonebarger said he would “throw [him] in jail” for recording the incident.

Sweet called 911 and two Eureka Police officers were dispatched. Sweet also had heated words with Massaro.

Stonebarger’s version of events casts his involvement in a more conciliatory light. He states that he was trying to resolve the situation quickly lest it spiral out of control. He says that he was concerned for the security of the vehicle to be towed as “tow companies do not employ the most honest or law-abiding citizens.”

He said he took control of the situation because he was the senior officer on the scene, had been admonished for “failure to act” during his service with APD.

Hoffman said that as the officers returned to the restaurant following the confrontation, someone in the group “said something about there being a lot of windows in that candy store.” He said he thought Stonebarger said it, but he wasn’t sure.

Hoffman later called Chapman to advise him to talk with the officers and counsel them about the bad impression they were making.

Silvers’ investigation, dated March 28, 2012, found multiple violations by Stonebarger, including use of his status as an APD officer to gain influence, discourteous treatment of the public, unauthorized use of a badge and exceeding peace officer powers.

On June 25, Chapman endorsed the findings and removed Stonebarger from DTF duty, saying that “the evidence clearly shows that Officer Stonebarger was rude and antagonistic. Further, Officer Stonebarger exceeded his lawful peace officer authority when he threatened to arrest Leroy Hoffman and Kevin Sweet.”

An Aug. 28 “Skelly Response” – a review of pending disciplinary action  on behalf of Stonebarger from San Francisco attorneys Mastagni, Holstedt, Amick, Miller & Johnsen – states that “it is clear that Officer Stonebarger acted appropriately by ensuring that the people on scene knew that they were law enforcement officers and that the truck is a law enforcement vehicle and needs to be secured immediately. Officer Stonebarger acted professionally in a stressful situation.”

The document deconstructs the statements of Sweet and Hoffman as “unsupported fantasy.” It states that Sweet’s credibility is “beyond repair” and that his testimony should be ignored. It says that Hoffman’s statements are “unbelievable and conflict with all other witnesses on the scene. The response cites Sheriff Mike Downey as saying that Stonebarger “did a great job (referring to the parking incident).”

Concludes the response, “Officer Stonebarger should not be disciplined in any way.”

But on Sept. 7, Chapman issued a “Notice of Disciplinary Action, detailing contradictions in Stonebarger’s testimony, stating that Stonebarger has no documented hearing impairment justifying his loud voice and  “admittedly abrasive” behavior.

“I continue to have concerns of your ability to perform within departmental expectations and represent the department in the manner necessary in this assignment,” Chapman states, removing Stonebarger from his DTF assignment.

Chapman goes on to praise Stonebarger for “many talents and contributions you have made to the department.” It also notes that Chapman had previously counseled Stonebarger over concerns about “your interpersonal communications and judgment.”

The Notice states that Chapman had made Stonebarger’s service on the DTF conditional on more-frequent-than-usual 90-day performance reviews and on resolving standing disputes he had with two DTF agents.

“To my dismay, the incident above occurred within only six weeks of you assuming the DTF assignment,” Chapman wrote.

Stonebarger, who has been on medical leave since August when he sustained an on-duty injury, is still a member of the Arcata Police Department.