Brian Johnson’s two-and-one-half year tenure as Upland police chief is at an end.
The atmosphere surrounding his exodus is radically different from the air of confidence that attended his assumption of the leadership of the department in March 2015.
Many in the Upland community hailed Johnson’s hiring at the time it occurred, characterizing him as a “cop’s cop,” whose career with the much larger, more prestigious, more sophisticated, more cosmopolitan and more storied Los Angeles Police Department would add dimensions to the smaller and parochial Upland PD. And Johnson appeared to have a genuine affinity and deep concern for the officers he commanded. On the evening of his introduction to the community at a March 2015 city council meeting that took place technically before he was officially police chief, a report of an injury to an officer came in and Johnson made a hurried departure into the field to ensure assistance was rendered, delaying only long enough to apologize for his abrupt leaving with a terse explanation of urgency. Upon assuming the post of police chief, Johnson initially earned kudos and appreciation from a cross section of residents and the business sector for stepping up patrols and the visibility of the department’s officers.
Johnson, however, was the first Upland police chief who had not promoted from within the ranks since Eugene Mueller, who would later go on to become San Bernardino County sheriff, was persuaded to leave his position as a captain with the Pasadena Police Department to take on the position of top cop in Upland in 1941.
Thus, Johnson was foreign to much of the culture and tradition within the Upland Police Department from the outset, and with the passage of time the degree to which he was out of step with the men and smaller complement of women he was commanding became more and more apparent.
The recruitment drive that brought Johnson to Upland was launched in 2014 with the looming retirement of Jeff Mendenhall. After Mendenhall’s departure in December 2014, Captain Ken Bonson, a 30-year veteran, had assumed the position of acting police chief. Bonson had been in the running to accede to the position of chief, and remained as captain in the immediate aftermath of Johnson’s hiring. A year after he was passed over in favor of Johnson, Bonson retired. Bonson’s exit marked the beginning of a wave of departures of experienced and advanced officers during the second year of Johnson’s primacy with the department. That mass exodus intensified as his third year as chief started this spring. To date since Johnson became chief, 28 officers left the Upland Police Department. Seven of those involved personnel who were within or very near the standard age range for retirement among law enforcement officers. The loss of 21 other officers in that time frame falls far beyond the typical two-to-seven percent annual attrition a department normally experiences in terms of lateral transfers or promotions to higher positions in other departments.
Perhaps the most noteworthy of those departures were the ones not voluntarily taken but imposed on captain Anthony Yoakum and sergeant Marc Simpson.
Yoakum was a 29-year law enforcement veteran who at one point had risen to become Johnson’s second-in-command in charge of operations. Simpson was a 23-year member of the department who was the Upland Police Officer Management Association president.
A key battleground for the heart and soul of the department was the cultural metamorphosis relating to marijuana. For nearly two decades, as in the majority of cities elsewhere in the state, the political establishment in Upland had resisted accepting the new ethos that had its rise with the passage of Proposition 215, or the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, which allowed marijuana to be used for medical purposes by those obtaining a prescription. Upland had maintained ordinances prohibiting the operation of dispensaries in the city and had spent a considerable amount of money over the years on enforcement efforts to keep ones that cropped up shuttered, as well as on legal fees against the more persistent medical marijuana purveyors who had the sophistication and the financial wherewithal to remove the issue to the courts. The city was stymied by two of those cannabis kingpins – Randy Welty and Aaron Sandusky, the operators, respectively, of the Captain Jacks and G3 Holistics dispensaries in Upland. Well before Johnson arrived in Upland as police chief, both Welty and Sandusky managed to keep their operations up and running while their medical marijuana business competitors in Upland consistently, after either short or medium term runs, would be closed down. At last, after consistently losing in their legal efforts against Sandusky, city officials made a breakthrough when they succeeded in getting the federal government – in the form of the Drug Enforcement Agency, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office – to unleash their firepower on him. In 2012, Sandusky was prosecuted in Federal Court, convicted and given a ten-year prison sentence, which he is yet serving.
It was against that backdrop that Johnson came into Upland. Relatively early on, he came to understand that three members of the city council as it was then composed – mayor Ray Musser, councilwoman Carol Timm and councilman Glenn Bozar – were intent on holding the line against marijuana liberalization. In an effort to please them, he angled to use the police department’s authority to help hold that line. In 2016, for example, when advocates of medical marijuana availability in Upland began circulating a petition to legalize marijuana sales in the city, Johnson detailed the department’s detective bureau to monitor the signature gatherers and give them the third degree if the opportunity presented itself. Many of the officers felt such an approach bordered on or actually crossed the line into interfering in the political process. At the same time that the pro-medical marijuana availability petitioners were active on the doorsteps of Upland homes and in the parking lots of local shopping centers, a statewide initiative – Proposition 64 – aimed at legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes had been put on the ballot. Ultimately, Proposition 64 would be approved by California voters. Simultaneous with Proposition 64’s success statewide, it had failed with voters in Upland that November. Johnson took that as a signal to continue with the department’s efforts to shutter the dispensaries that continuously sprouted at new locations within the city.
For many of Upland’s officers, including ones who earlier in their careers had enthusiastically involved themselves in enforcement of the penal code relating to the prohibition of marijuana, an element of the absurd had crept into the perpetuation of the die-hard effort to eradicate marijuana clinics in the face of a two-decade old law that allowed marijuana use for medical purposes and the more recent passage of Proposition 64, which essentially ended, at least in California, marijuana’s run as an illegal narcotic and transformed it into a legally and socially acceptable intoxicant on the order of beer and wine. To them, the department’s policy was tantamount to swimming against the tide of history. And in an age of austerity with the drop off in revenue coming into government in general and budgetary and staff cutbacks to the police department, a growing number of officers felt it was time to put the department’s limited resources to work on other areas relating to crime in the city rather than chasing after the coming generation of cannabis entrepreneurs, whose numbers would eventually be winnowed and profits diminished through the principal of onerous competition among themselves.
Johnson, however, did not quite see it that way. One of the duties that had been entrusted to the department shortly before his arrival was responsibility over the city’s code enforcement function. He had taken the community’s pulse and it was clear a majority of Uplanders wanted their city to remain off limits to the marijuana profiteers. He saw that as authorization to double down on the marijuana clinic eradication effort. It would be one such undertaking, which Johnson somewhat inexplicably sought to carry out on his own, that ultimately, hindsight now reveals, was the catalyst for the series of events over the next nine months that led to his resignation as police chief.
On January 18, 2017 officers, with Johnson monitoring the operation, served a warrant at a dispensary at 1600 W. 9th Street. All marijuana, cash, weighing devices, display shelves, equipment and office supplies on the premises were confiscated. The following day, however, the dispensary was back in operation. Another warrant was obtained and the plan was to serve it either on January 25 or 26, the following Monday or Tuesday, when manpower was available. Impatient with that delay, Johnson on January 21, 2017 went to the dispensary unassisted and without notifying any of the officers on duty or dispatch of his intentions, detained everyone inside at gunpoint and ordered them to the ground. He then called the department, requesting assistance. Johnson was unable, however, to give his correct location and was only able to say he was at 9th and Benson. He could not leave the inside of the dispensary, as the dispensary’s entry and exit were controlled, as is common with commercial cannabis operations, by an electronic locking door manually controlled by an armed security guard. When the first responding officer, Anthony Kabayan, arrived on the scene, he was not able to gain entry into the business. Kabayan then initiated an effort to kick the door down. Ultimately, Johnson was able to have the door opened, allowing the arriving officers into the business. Johnson had at least six people – customers and employees of the dispensary – detained, handcuffed, transported to the Upland Police Department headquarters and put into holding cells and then transported to the West Valley Detention Center where the county’s jailers initially resisted booking them because they had not been arrested on a bookable offense. Ultimately, Johnson was able to convince the sheriff’s employees to accept the prisoners into the detention center on a municipal code violation, which technically could not be used to justify the incarceration and which ultimately the district attorney’s office declined to prosecute. This has left the city subject to a potential false arrest lawsuit from at least six of those individuals. Subsequently, in an apparent effort to get the city out from underneath the liability of those yet-to-be-filed civil suits, Johnson began to cast about for some justification of the arrest that could be applied after the fact. He attempted to do this roughly a month after the arrests by requisitioning the laptop computer and DVR seized from the dispensary that were part of the surveillance system of the premises. He then ordered the department’s information technology specialist to make copies of the video contents and computer data. That, however, constituted an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment and a violation of SB 178, a 2016 California law governing the search of electronic items. A separate search warrant was required to search those items and could not have been obtained because the original crime was a misdemeanor and not a felony.
For several of the department’s officers, Johnson’s action on January 21 and its aftermath was what one of those officers described as “the last straw,” in that Johnson’s actions violated officer safety protocol, did not take into account that since he was not easily identifiable as a police officer that the on-site security guard could have thought that the business was being robbed, thus resulting in an armed confrontation, and that he placed the officers responding to the location and citizens at danger. With the three highest ranking department members below Johnson who were involved in the response to the dispensary – a patrol sergeant, the watch commander and the patrol division commander – concurring, a collective decision involving multiple officers was made to proceed with an official complaint against Johnson. That complaint, in slightly different format, was lodged by at least three department members in early February. Detective Lon Teague, the president of the Upland Police Officers Association, played a central role in taking the issue forward, ultimately to Upland’s acting city manager, Martin Thouvenell. Thouvenell was himself a former Upland police chief, and was one if the three panelists that evaluated the applicants to replace Mendenhall in late 2014 and early 2015, which ultimately selected Johnson.
Upon learning that Teague had gone out of department channels in lodging the complaint – channels that would have ultimately reached Johnson and have required that he pass judgment on his own action – Johnson suspended Teague, pending an internal investigation. At that point, captain Yoakum, then the department’s second ranking officer behind Johnson as the operations commander, and Simpson, the department’s senior sergeant and the president of the Upland Police Management Association, moved to back Teague. As both Yoakum and Simpson were considered members of the department’s management team, Johnson deemed their action to be insubordination. They too were suspended.
In the meantime, Thouvenell, at an expense to the city of $30,000, had a management consultant look into the complaint against Johnson. That inquiry was completed by late May.
The Sentinel has acquired an internal city communication from Thovenell to one of the complainants. Dated June 1, 2017, it states, “The complaint(s) set forth alleged that chief of police Brian Johnson committed a violation of California Penal Code Section 1546.1 (SB 178) when material contained on a DVR was viewed without first obtaining a search warrant. Based on the allegations provided in these documents, a formal investigation was conducted. Pursuant to California Penal Codes section 832.7(e))(1), you are hereby notified that this allegation was sustained.” The communication continues, “Pursuant to California Penal Code Section 832.7(a) concerning the confidentiality of peace officer personnel matters, the city is precluded from providing additional details of the investigation or the nature of any discipline which may have been imposed.”
The Sentinel has learned from a reliable source that Thouvenell imposed on Johnson what was referred to as “informal counseling.”
Johnson at that point remained police chief, with what was essentially full autonomy over the department.
For slightly more than six months, the investigation of Teague was ongoing, and the suspensions of Yoakum and Simpson continued. During that time, all three remained in limbo and on paid leave, representing a cost of roughly $270,000. Taken together with the $30,000 spent on the management consultant’s inquiry into Johnson’s action, the cost to Upland’s taxpayers growing out of the January 21 incident approximated $300,000 monetarily, and the loss of Yoakum’s, Simpson’s, and Teague’s services throughout the six-month plus duration. Ultimately, it was determined that while Teague’s action had deviated from the normal protocol and lines of authority within the department and had “improperly” challenged Johnson’s judgment and authority, his status as the department rank and file’s union authority would make firing him highly problematic. He was given a 40 hour suspension as his official discipline with a notation of reprimand by the chief placed into his personnel file.
Even though Yoakum and Simpson outranked Teague, they were in an even more delicate situation. Indeed, as members of the department’s management team, they were answerable to the police chief and subject to his discretion. Both were charged with disparaging the chief of police and making unauthorized disclosures about the investigation. Given the nature of the chain of command and their direct links to Johnson, it was Johnson’s judgment that the working relationship he had with both of them was irrevocably sundered. On that basis, they were terminated earlier this month.
With Yoakum and Simpson’s sackings and Teague’s reinstatement pursuant to his 40 hour suspension, the paralytic stasis that had persisted within the Upland Police Officers Association came to a close. The Sentinel was informed earlier this week that the Upland Police Officers Association had called for, and held, a vote of no confidence against Johnson. The Sentinel was told that 78 percent of the association voted against Johnson or “no confidence.” Ten percent voted that they yet had “confidence” in Johnson’s leadership of the department. The balance, some 12 percent, rendered a verdict of “undecided.”
On Wednesday, a former law enforcement officer with a direct pipeline to several members of the department told the Sentinel that with regard to Johnson, “Word on the streets is he’s a ‘Dead Man Walking’ and will submit his resignation ‘soon.’”
Early Friday morning, Johnson announced to his command staff that Monday, October 30, will be his last official day on the books.
Persistent efforts to contact Johnson this morning and early afternoon prior to press time reached only the recording device on his desk telephone and the day watch commander, who told the Sentinel he had attempted to relay the interview request to Johnson but had been unable to reach him by mid-afternoon.
Brian Johnson’s two-and-one-half year tenure as Upland police chief is at an end.