.Chief Was Last Word on Riders

One of the four Oakland cops accused of rampant brutality was demoted by the prior chief but reinstated by his successor.

As a field-training officer for the Oakland Police Department, Clarence “Chuck” Mabanag wanted to make sure his new recruit knew the rules for being a cop — the real rules, not the written ones. According to 23-year-old rookie Keith Batt, before their first graveyard shift together on the drug-plagued streets of West Oakland his new partner and supervisor told him “What goes on in the car, stays in the car.” Mabanag also allegedly warned Batt not to be a snitch.

But Batt became so repulsed by what he saw on the job that he quit after only nine shifts and broke the rules — he snitched. He told investigators an incredible tale of a rogue band of cops known as the Riders, who allegedly lied in police reports, framed suspected drug dealers, and beat the crap out of them.

On his second week on the job, Batt said he and the Riders tangled with an African-American man named Delphine Allen while he was walking on 32nd Street. The four Riders — Mabanag, Jude Siapno, Matthew Hornung, and Frank “Choker” Vazquez — kicked, punched, and beat Allen while he was handcuffed and down on his knees, Batt later testified. Batt himself admitted to kicking Allen twice to impress the other cops, especially the field-training officer who would ultimately write his performance evaluation.

But when it was all over, Batt later said, Mabanag seemed disappointed in his trainee; he wondered why the rookie only kicked Allen twice. “Why did you stop?” Batt recalled his supervisor asking him. Batt added that Mabanag lectured him “that he had never seen a trainee … hold back as much as I had.”

It’s a chilling thought that Chuck Mabanag might never have seen a trainee hold back as much as Batt. It’s also a chilling thought that a cop now facing such charges spent so many years teaching rookies how to become cops on the mean streets of Oakland. Mabanag served as a field-training officer for five of the eleven years he worked for the Oakland Police Department. A training officer typically supervises about nine recruits a year, which means Mabanag probably trained about 45 junior officers in his day.

Among the recruits on Mabanag’s list of past trainees is his codefendant in the upcoming criminal trial, Matthew Hornung. Unlike Keith Batt, Hornung apparently followed “the rules.” During his second week as a cop in November 1998, he and Mabanag arrested a man who later accused the two cops in court of planting drugs on him. The city of Oakland agreed to pay the man $195,000 earlier this year to settle the case.

There’s a bit of irony in the Riders case that hasn’t yet come to light. If Keith Batt had never been teamed up with Chuck Mabanag, there probably would not be a criminal trial pending right now in Alameda County Superior Court. And Chuck Mabanag would never have been paired with Keith Batt if police chief Richard Word hadn’t come to Mabanag’s rescue the year before.

When the Riders scandal first made headlines two years ago, Chief Word worked admirably to restore public trust in his tarnished department. The Oakland police chief certainly was no Daryl Gates, the former Los Angeles top cop who stubbornly defended the officers who beat Rodney King. Word moved quickly to have the four cops fired. He even stood next to District Attorney Tom Orloff at a press conference supporting the DA’s decision to file criminal charges. And he aggressively distanced himself and the rest of the department from the Riders, whom he described as possible “bad apples.”

Police critics, however, have never bought into the “bad apples” argument. They contend that the core of the department — from the shift sergeants who supervised the Riders all the way up to the chief himself — must be rotten too. At least that’s what attorneys Jim Chanin and John Burris argue in a class-action lawsuit filed against Oakland and its police department on behalf of 116 mostly African-American plaintiffs who claim to have been victims of abuses by the Riders and other Oakland cops since 1995.

In making their case against the department’s top brass, Chanin and Burris argued that “The abuses in question were the product of a culture of tolerance within the City of Oakland Police Department. This culture is rooted in the deliberate indifference of high-ranking city officials,” including the police chief. But when it came to specifics, the trial lawyers offered little proof of “deliberate indifference” by police brass. That is, until last month.

On June 17, with settlement talks going nowhere, Chanin and Burris asked the court to set a trial date. As part of that filing, they noted that Chief Word had personally reinstated Mabanag to his position as a field-training officer, “even though he had been relieved of that position earlier because of his complaint history.”

It’s uncommon for an Oakland field-training officer to be “decertified” for misconduct. Lieutenant Jeff Loman, who manages the training section, says none of the department’s forty field training officers has been decertified for unacceptable conduct or performance in the last year and a half.

According to Michael Rains, Mabanag’s attorney, former chief Joseph Samuels ordered Mabanag decertified in the latter part of 1998 because of complaints leveled against the officer the previous year — two of which accused him of using excessive force. Rains said an internal-affairs investigation of the two force-related accusations neither exonerated Mabanag nor found him guilty. Instead, internal affairs issued a “not sustained” finding in each instance, meaning the allegations could neither be proven nor disproven.

Rains said one complaint stemmed from a December 1997 incident in which Mabanag chased down a fleeing suspect. “Chuck catches him, he turns around and squares away at Chuck to hit him, and Chuck hits him with his baton,” Rains said. The suspect had to be taken to the hospital but was not severely injured, Rains said.

Mabanag was then referred to the department’s early-intervention system program for cops identified as having “performance-related problems.” As part of that process, Rains said Mabanag had a half-hour meeting with his supervising sergeant, a deputy chief, and a psychologist, at which they discussed how Mabanag might avoid future complaints.

Around that same time, Word, a fifteen-year department veteran who rose up through the ranks, replaced Samuels as police chief. Samuels was forced out by Mayor Jerry Brown, who wanted to shake up the department and bring the crime rate down faster. Word took over on July 2, 1999 and made two bold promises: to cut the crime rate by twenty percent in one year, and to show no tolerance for police brutality and corruption. Police watchdogs applauded Word’s get-tough stance on misconduct, but wondered if a department insider like Word — who enjoyed the backing of the powerful police union — would keep his promise.

A few months after he became chief, Word’s pledge was tested behind the scenes by Mabanag, who wanted to be recertified as a field-training officer. Under department protocol, only the chief can recertify a field-training officer previously decertified for unacceptable performance or conduct. Rains said Mabanag wrote a memo to the new chief on September 14, 1999, requesting recertification. Word approved the officer’s request, Rains said, and Mabanag was returned to his training post about a month later.

“Some people can make a lot of hay out of the fact that he had complaints and he got decertified,” Rains said. “My feeling about this case is the truth needs to come out. I don’t think this is a truth anybody should duck. Chuck is what Chuck is. I think he’s a good officer, I think he’s an aggressive officer, and always has been, in a good sense.”

Rains added that Mabanag has never had a complaint sustained during his entire career with the Oakland police department. “The department has a good IA unit and they sustain a lot of complaints against a lot of cops and they didn’t sustain this stuff.”

But because internal-affairs investigations are done in secret by other officers, they are often criticized as being biased in favor of police accused of misconduct. “The fact that the internal-affairs bureau of the Oakland Police Department fails to sustain a complaint is unfortunately not indicative of whether the complaint is valid,” Chanin says. “The Oakland Police Department sustains practically no complaints, no matter what the facts are.” According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, in 1999, the department sustained only four of 188 complaints alleging officers used excessive force.

Other complaints against Mabanag have previously made their way into the public record. In one such case from 1994, a Burris client named Sean Louden filed a lawsuit accusing Mabanag of beating him. The city later settled out of court with Louden, Burris said. The attorney said he settled another case with the city in the early ’90s, in which Mabanag allegedly roughed up a fifteen-year-old boy. More recently, Mabanag drew a complaint of excessive force from 22-year-old Antonio Wagner. The young man accused Mabanag of fracturing his ribs and yanking him up by the handcuffs “like a yo-yo” during a September 15, 1999 traffic stop — just a day after asking Chief Word to recertify him as a field-training officer. In his statement to the Citizens’ Police Review Board, Mabanag denied hitting or hurting Wagner.

Word did not return several phone calls seeking comment. Police spokesman George Phillips referred all questions concerning the Riders to the city attorney’s office, where spokeswoman Karen Boyd refused to comment on what she described as a personnel matter.

Over the past two years, Chief Word has instituted departmental reforms aimed at preventing future scandals. For one thing, says Oakland police lieutenant Jim Emery, it’s now mandatory for officers who are referred to the early-intervention system program to participate in the program. Lieutenant Jeff Loman says the department’s field-training program also is supervised more closely. The department now has one person dedicated to coordinating and overseeing field-training officers and the training program.

But ex post facto reforms don’t change what happened before Keith Batt — now a Pleasanton police officer — resigned from the Oakland Police Department in July 2000 and told internal affairs what he’d witnessed. Exactly what happened and who in the department knew about the Riders’ alleged transgressions is still a matter of contention.

It would be a stretch to say Chief Word knew Mabanag or the other Riders were engaging in the kind of police tactics that would result in their own arrests. After all, before the scandal broke, Mabanag appears to have had a solid reputation among his peers. In 1997, he was awarded a coveted medal of merit for his narcotics work — an honor bestowed upon only about twenty of the department’s 700-plus officers each year. Even Officer Steve Hewison, who accused Mabanag of directing him to lie in a police report and say he had seen a suspect drop dope on the ground, testified at the preliminary hearing, “It was a given that Chuck was a good officer.”

Still, it’s now clear that Word knew one of the Riders had a troubled track record a year before Keith Batt set in motion what is widely considered the worst misconduct scandal in department history. And in spite of that record, Word felt confident enough in Mabanag to restore him to an influential position mentoring rookie cops.

Jury selection in the criminal case against Mabanag and his two codefendants — the third, former field-training officer Frank Vazquez, is a fugitive — will last through mid-August, said Judge Leo Dorado. The evidentiary phase of the trial is scheduled to begin September 4 and is expected to last for three months. During that time, witnesses from the department, probably including Chief Word, will be called to testify.

“I think Rich Word, when he hits the stand in this case — and I know he will — he’ll certainly indicate that before these charges surfaced he had every reason to believe Chuck was a competent guy who did a good job,” attorney Michael Rains predicted. “I really believe he’ll say that.”


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