Despite flags, a bad cop evaded detection. How one case showed flaws in police oversight.
(page 1 of 3)
Former SDPD Officer, Anthony Arevalos
On a dark boulevard in Mission Valley, lined by department stores and spacious condos, the police officer spotted the suspected drunk driver. It was February 2010.
Someone had called police to report the 28-year-old woman. Officer Anthony Arevalos responded. For three years, he’d specialized in arresting drunk drivers for the San Diego Police Department. He measured up their slurred speech, dazed glares, and stumbling steps. A breath test sealed their fates.
And so it was with the woman in Mission Valley. Arevalos arrested her and put her in the back of his cruiser. They headed to the county women’s jail, the Las Colinas Detention Facility.
But they didn’t drive straight there, the woman later said. According to her story, Arevalos hit the brakes on another dark road, pulled over, and sexually assaulted her in the back seat, where no one could see them. Then he got back behind the wheel and took her the rest of the way to jail.
When the woman told the Police Department what happened, Arevalos was swiftly yanked from patrol. After weeks of investigation, police recommended criminal charges to prosecutors.
Arevalos, a 17-year veteran, had a reputation in the department. He targeted young, attractive female drivers. He arrested women more often than any of his colleagues. He sent lewd photos of women he stopped to fellow officers. He showed off women’s driver’s licenses like trophies. He had a nickname: “The Las Colinas Transport Unit.”
Even Arevalos’ supervisor, Sgt. Kevin Friedman, had taken note. “If someone was attractive, he would display it,” Friedman would later say.
Yet nothing happened. District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis declined to press charges and the Police Department sent Arevalos back to the same job, back to San Diego’s streets. There he stayed until March 2011, when another traffic stop ended his career.
This one was downtown. She was 31 years old. The woman later told police that Arevalos solicited bribes from her and sexually assaulted her in the bathroom of a 7-Eleven.
This time was different: Arevalos admitted to the crimes on a wiretapped call. And detectives quickly unraveled one of San Diego’s worst cases of officer misconduct in the last decade. As the news spread, more and more women stepped forward with allegations of abuse.
Seven women in all. Most said they’d been stopped after police first investigated Arevalos for sexual assault and then sent him back on patrol.
Prosecutors charged Arevalos with 21 felonies: sexual battery, soliciting bribes, false imprisonment. None of the charges were related to the February 2010 incident and it remains unclear why. Prosecutors have declined to explain.
In November, a jury found Arevalos guilty of eight felonies and four misdemeanors. While the verdict brought the high-profile case near its conclusion, it was only one of many misconduct allegations that surfaced at the San Diego Police Department this year. In an eight-month period, the department acknowledged 11 investigations into its own officers. Allegations ranged from off-duty drunk driving to on-duty rape.
The police chief publicly apologized and promised changes. After years of budget cuts, the department’s tools to monitor misconduct had been ignored, stretched, or dismantled. It added to a police culture that allowed bad behavior to fester.
But no case was more dramatic than Arevalos’. The Police Department missed numerous red flags. Warning signs went ignored. Though Arevalos was known to target female drivers, police kept him in a position of great power and limited oversight.
Downtown, patrolling alone, looking for drunk women.
Latitude for a Bad Cop to Roam
Officer Freddie Thornton had enough.
He was assisting Arevalos on a traffic stop one night, more than a year ago. Arevalos had pulled over a woman wearing a green dress and gave Thornton a dirty grin. Arevalos was all over the woman, Thornton would later tell prosecutors.
It wasn’t the only time Thornton saw Arevalos act unusually.