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New chief named in intimidation suit

Published: Friday, July 13, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 16, 2012 at 10:07 a.m.

Petaluma's newly selected police chief was recently named in a $5 million lawsuit claiming that Desert Hot Springs officials harassed and threatened a police department detective in retaliation for blowing the whistle on alleged departmental abuses.

Andrea Heath, the detective who filed the federal suit with the U.S. Central District Court of California, claims this happened after she notified FBI investigators about alleged abuse of arrestees that she witnessed.

Allegations in the lawsuit appear to contradict numerous accounts of Chief Patrick Williams' high ethical and moral standards that poured in after he was announced Friday. In fact, City Manager John Brown cited Williams' “high ethical standards and courage” as a primary reason for hiring him.

When contacted by a newspaper reporter Thursday afternoon, Brown said he was not aware of the lawsuit. But he did say he felt confident that any potential issues would be uncovered during an ongoing background check which began after his selection was announced on July 6.

“We're going to do a very thorough background investigation that won't be finished for approximately three weeks,” he said. Brown declined to comment further until he had time to review the allegations.

Chief Williams, who was reached by phone at his office Thursday evening, also said he would not comment on the lawsuit. But Desert Hot Springs City Attorney Ruben Duran said that the city intends to defend itself vigorously.

Heath's attorney, Jerry Steering, said that Heath witnessed Sergeant Anthony Sclafani repeatedly Taze, pepper-spray in the face and kick in the stomach an arrestee who was in custody at the Desert Hot Springs Police Department in 2005.

Heath eventually reported this and other incidents of police officer abuse to the FBI in 2007. After that, she says she endured years of harassment, humiliation, demotion and eventual termination in retaliation for her whistle-blowing.

In the 81-page lawsuit Heath claims that about the same time she was demoted from detective to patrol officer, Sclafani was promoted to administration sergeant.

Heath also alleges that Williams tried to intimidate her into not testifying for the FBI against Sclafani.

In 2010, the FBI, after several years of investigation, formally indicted Sclafani on two charges of federal civil rights violations for using excessive force against two suspects in custody. Sclafani was found guilty on both counts in February and is currently awaiting sentencing.

-Jamie Hansen contributed to this story.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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