Officer Matt Ruggiero is a third generation cop in San Diego. He always knew he wanted to join the force and says the job is as simple and profound as he imagined it would be when he was a kid, looking up to his father and grandfather.
Yet in the past few months, the hallmarks of moral, upstanding police officers are becoming harder to rely on.
Former San Diego police officer Daniel Dana, whose locker was next to Ruggiero’s at the Western division department, is currently on trial for allegedly kidnapping and raping a prostitute. Other local cops have been arrested for crimes including DUI, sexual battery and excessive force.
So what separates Ruggiero from the so-called “bad” cops?
It’s a matter of judgment, he says.
“If any of those charges are true, whether it’s a cop or an average citizen, I wouldn’t call that corruption, I would call that poor judgment,” Ruggiero said, adding that he does believe the crimes some of his fellow cops are accused of are truly serious risks to the public.
“I think there’s a difference between being a bad person and making a bad decision. From what I know of the investigations, I see a lot of poor judgment, but I wouldn’t say we have corrupt cops.”
The Toll of Bad Decisions
The spike in investigations has clouded Ruggiero's optimism and tarnished the SDPD's reputation. Police Chief William Lansdowne has publicly apologized for the charges. Lansdowne has also talked with every officer and civilian department employee about his expectations and standards for the department, beefed up internal affairs employment, established an officer conduct hotline and reviewed the current policies and procedures available to the police.
But the recent allegations have caused Ruggiero to wonder if any of his fellow cops could make the same slip of judgment.
“Do I trust my partner? My sergeant? Other cops I work with? Yeah, nothing has changed there. I trust them fully. I do kind of wonder, but I don’t see any indicators that make me think they might be the next one.”
Loyal, Critical Following
He also says the public has been surprisingly supportive through the investigations, and though he hears an occasional drunken slanderer while on duty from time to time, no one has told him that he or his coworkers are corrupt.
Some San Diegans agree.
San Diego resident Dymond Monet says the incidents of alleged crime by officers are humbling, and have perhaps even put police on the same level as citizens.
“They’re human – they made human mistakes. I think I trust them more because of that because I can see that they’re being treated just like us.”
Karen Graham of North Park says regardless of the allegations, she will still – as she has many times before – call the police for protection.
But those affected by the alleged crimes are not so willing to trust the SDPD. Attorney Kerry Armstrong represents two women who accused former officer Anthony Arevalos of sexually assaulting them. Arevalos has pleaded not guilty to the 18 felony counts that have been brought against him.
“[My clients] really don’t trust cops now,” Armstrong says. “How can they? I get at least 2 or 3 complaints each year from women who have been treated inappropriately. Most of the time they don’t report it because they know no one’s going to believe them and they’re afraid of being punished.”
Unlike Ruggiero, Armstrong also believes that among the general public, there’s a large amount of mistrust, and that the District Attorney's office generally treated police as if they're above the law.
“An emboldened cop is a dangerous cop,” Armstrong said. “In so many of these [police misconduct] cases, if there’s not DNA evidence, the DA’s office doesn’t prosecute.”
Since the Arevalos case is pending, the DA’s office declined to comment on Armstrong’s claim.
The Case for Self-Policing
Both Ruggiero and Armstrong say the newly hired internal relations staff will take officer misconduct more seriously. Already Armstrong says he’s noticed a difference.
The two also disagree with Lansdowne’s claim that stress may have been a factor in the cases of misconduct.
“Stress is no excuse for this behavior,” Ruggiero said. “It’s nothing new to be a city of San Diego employee and have some stress. Every city worker is going through the same thing.”
And the stress, he says, will hopefully no longer be a feeble excuse for criminal behavior.
“It has been a wake-up call though – if that mindset was ever there.”