Photo by Debra DiPaolo

For years, Culver City Police Chief Ted Cooke has run his department with impunity, ignoring outside critics and keeping a tight lid on internal ones. But in one episode at least, a nearby city and a state agency are saying that Cooke’s department has gone too far.

The city of Anaheim, with assistance from the state Department of Justice, has filed a motion seeking to stop the Culver City P.D. from obstructing an investigation into a former officer.

The former Culver City officer, Johnny Padilla, is under indictment in Anaheim for allegedly threatening another officer, and he’s also being investigated by state authorities for fixing a girlfriend’s traffic ticket. Culver City officers who were suspected of cooperating in the probe of Padilla — a management favorite — have allegedly faced harassment and intimidation from supervising officers.

Although the motion to prevent witness tampering was withdrawn in mid-January for revision, both city and state officials have confirmed the dispute between the agencies. All the key paperwork apparently has been filed under seal and is therefore unobtainable. But a recent notice, from Anaheim’s city attorney to Chief Cooke, formally signaled that city’s intent to ask the court for an order to “prevent witness harm, intimidation or an attempt to dissuade the witnesses in this pending case.”

The implicit allegation, that witnesses to a criminal investigation are being mistreated, is an incredible assertion for one agency of law and order to make about another. It’s the type of message more in tune with 1959 — when federal authorities were battling Southern sheriffs over desegregation — than with 1999.

But then Cooke, who is both widely admired and castigated, is something of a throwback. Critics have accused his department of harassing minorities and, in two cases, of causing the deaths of suspects by permitting his officers to use the hog-tie restraint. He’s brushed off allegations of sexual harassment and selective discipline within the force, while patrolling his low-crime community with patrol cars outfitted with submachine guns. He’s best known perhaps for handing out hundreds of concealed-weapon permits to friends, political allies and celebrities. All the while, he’s been maintained in office by an admiring and somewhat cowed City Council.

And, not surprisingly, a City Council member rose to his defense this time, too. “This isn’t the way cities deal with one another,” said Councilman Ed Wolkowitz. “It seems the Anaheim city attorney took a flying leap . . . Culver City got little notice, little opportunity to respond, and it’s somewhat unusual for the [state] Attorney General’s Office to get involved in local matters like this.”

The charges against ex-Officer Johnny Padilla stem from an incident last April when he was drinking at a bar in Anaheim with two other Culver City officers — all of them off-duty. Padilla allegedly pulled out his firearm and threatened Officer Sean Roberts.

This was not the only noteworthy scrape for Padilla, who could not be reached for comment. According to internal police documents, in July Padilla located and destroyed a traffic citation issued to a girlfriend. He even erased the log entry of the citing officers. The incident was brought to the attention of Padilla’s Culver City supervisors by an official at Corcoran State Prison, who recorded a conversation between the woman and another boyfriend — an inmate at the prison and a member of the Mexican Mafia. The woman was taped bragging that she was dating a Culver City police officer who could fix tickets. After being confronted by supervisors, Padilla admitted his actions — and received a one-day suspension.

To unhappy Culver City officers, that episode epitomized lax discipline meted out to favored officers. Soon after, an anonymous letter was placed under the office door of Assistant Chief Paul Moncur. The letter outlined other incidents of alleged misconduct by Padilla, including the gun-toting contretemps in Anaheim. A separate anonymous communication, presumably from a teed-off Culver City officer, also went to the state Attorney General’s Office in Sacramento. Padilla was forced to resign August 3 only after inquiries from the state Department of Justice.

The police department apparently then turned its attention to the “real culprits,” the officers who had dared to make trouble with the state. According to sources in the department, supervisors launched a relentless hunt for whoever had leaked information. Investigators located the time that a computer terminal at the station was used to print out copies of internal memoranda about the citation incident, and several Police Department employees were questioned. The letter placed under the assistant chief’s door was painstakingly fingerprinted, to no avail.

“It’s been like the Salem witch-hunts,” said one officer. “There’s been internal surveillance of officers, fingerprinting of letters and closed-door meetings after closed-door meetings. Everyone is being encouraged to inform on each other — there’s heightened paranoia everywhere.”

Meanwhile, a high-ranking supervisor allegedly passed on instructions that “officers did not have to cooperate with the [state] investigation,” which would directly contradict the department’s own long-standing policy on assisting other law-enforcement agencies.

After Sean Roberts, the officer allegedly threatened by Padilla, was questioned by the Department of Justice, his Culver City supervisors reportedly asked him to write down everything he told state investigators. Roberts declined to be interviewed by the Weekly, but colleagues say that Roberts’ performance was called into question for the first time, and that he was overly scrutinized when he subsequently applied for injured-on-duty status because of a faulty shoulder.

Alerted to possible witness harassment, the Department of Justice, in November, wrote to Chief Cooke asking that his department refrain from interfering with the investigation. That effort apparently fell short, prompting the motion for a court order.

After the motion was filed, Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert Keefe raised technical issues in its wording. At a hearing on January 11, the motion was temporarily pulled for revision while the parties engaged in settlement talks.

Culver City police officials and the city’s legal staff declined to comment on the motion.

As a result of the state probe, Padilla was recently indicted by the Anaheim City Attorney on six misdemeanor counts arising from the April episode in the bar. Pretrial proceedings begin February 11.

Some officers say the department remains remarkably out of touch regarding the seriousness of recent events. One anecdote couldn’t be more eloquent, they say. At the time Padilla was fired, his picture hung in the police station’s lobby as “Officer of the Month.” Several weeks passed before it was taken down.

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