By Carlos Avalos
During the 1990s and into the 2000s, the city of Fontana was plagued with criminal activity. Methamphetamine, PCP, heroin and crack cocaine had a strong hold on the economically challenged parts of the community. Several police officers and community members expressed the opinion that the Fontana Police Department had to be heavy-handed in order to clean up the streets.
This approach, however, had dire consequences for some; specifically for three men who suspiciously died in Fontana police custody in a matter of six months in 2002.
Ismael Banda, David Michael Tyler, and Fermin Rincon died while being taken into custody by the “San Bernardino County Movement Against Street Hoodlums” – Fontana Police’s “SMASH” unit. That the deaths occurred as the consequences of action by the same unit made them both peculiar and more questionable than they might have been otherwise. Reports conflict as to precisely which officers had a hand in those deaths. One persistent report is that at various levels in the action that led to or followed those deaths, the same three officers were involved.
Extensive investigative research, which included speaking with several Fontana Police Department officers who requested anonymity, indicates the deaths of the three men were most likely due to an unjustifiable use of force under the circumstances.
As it turned out, most of the evidence including police reports pertaining to the deaths of these three men was withheld from public view. The Sentinel requested copies of the police reports, medical reports, or anything related to deaths of these men. The Fontana Police Department did not relinquish any of the pertinent documents requested.
Elements within the department report that the three Fontana Police Department officers involved in these deaths consisted of those then of sergeant, corporal, and lieutenant rank – Robert Ramsey, Obie Rodriguez, and Billy Green. According to individuals within the department, Green was actually personally and physically involved in the three deaths while Rodriguez and Ramsey were involved through their administrative roles.
Ramsey, who has since risen to the position of police chief in the department, told the Sentinel, “I would like to clarify that I was not involved in any of the three cited in-custody deaths. While captain Rodriguez and lieutenant Green were cleared of any wrongdoing in the Rincon case, they had no involvement in the Banda and the Tyler incidents.”
Since these deaths, all three officers have moved significantly up the chain of command in the department. As noted, Robert Ramsey is the current chief of police in Fontana.
There have been numerous documented reports of brutality and complaints of excessive force at the hands of Fontana Police Department officers by members of the community and fellow police officers, as well as reprisal against anyone who speaks about it within the police department.
For example, Fontana Police Department officer Chris Burns and corporal Paul Martin were tormented and ostracized for telling the truth about the brutality they witnessed. The two officers have said they witnessed lieutenant Billy Green and his SMASH crew violently beat a citizen. They were ordered by captain Tim Ousely to tell what they had witnessed. When they complied, they were retaliated against.
When Burns and Martin told the truth about the police brutality they witnessed, the internal affairs investigators reported back to Billy Green and his colleagues. Corporal Martin and Officer Burns were labeled as rats. The Fontana Police Department used corporal Martin and officer Burns as examples to show the department what happens when officers break the “code of silence.” Paul Martin, who had qualifications that would have made him eligible to be sergeant, was never promoted above the rank of corporal.
Chris Burns was hazed out of the department and forced to laterally transfer to the Claremont Police Department. The rumor created by the Fontana Police Department that Burns was a turncoat followed him to Claremont. Burns had no other choice but to return to the Fontana Police Department. When Burns did so, the command staff humiliated him by stripping him of his seniority and ranking him below the newest recruit.
This week, Ramsey told the Sentinel, “The allegation of current and former members being retaliated against for reporting brutality perpetrated by their peers is patently false and would never be tolerated by me, or my staff. All allegations of misconduct reported by the public or from within the department, are taken seriously and fully investigated.”
Excessive force and the use of brutal tactics is nothing new to the Fontana Police Department, and their reputation precedes them. Since 2009 there have been 55 cases against the Fontana Police Department concerning use of force. Most of these filed complaints were made by people of minority descent. And since 2005 there have been 14 fatalities involving the Fontana Police Department.
In a lawsuit, Smith v City of Fontana, it is alleged that two Fontana Police Department officers, Larry Smith and Robert Mejia, responded to a domestic disturbance call at the apartment of Ruffus A. Smith, Sr. on May 27, 1982. The two FPD officers encountered Smith in the parking lot and told him to put his hands on his head so they could question him about an alleged kidnapping incident. Mr. Smith attempted to comply, and without provocation one of the officers clenched Ruffus Smith in a chokehold while the other officer brutally kneed Smith in the groin and struck him in the face. Officer Smith then pulled out his revolver and shot Mr. Smith in the back. Ruffus A. Smith Sr. died an hour-and-a-half later.
The court found that Mr. Smith’s family properly stated a Section 1983 Title 42 of the U.S Code under the Civil Rights Act. This provision was enacted as part of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and was originally designed to combat post civil war racial violence. It is ironic that Fontana, which is notoriously known for their KKK image and presence, broke Section 1983 of the U.S Civil Code, which was created for a problem that has not just plagued the Fontana Police Department but the City of Fontana historically. The court found that Mr. Smith’s fourth, fourteenth amendment substantive due process, and fourteenth amendment equal protection rights were violated by the Fontana Police Department.
On January 12, 2005, Olivas v City of Fontana was filed. In February of 2004 Randy Perchez was fatally shot and killed by Officer Richard Guerrero of the Fontana Police Department. Guerrero was conducting a patrol check for reported gang activity in Fontana, during this altercation; Guerrero shot Perchez after a chase and scuffle. Police claimed Perchez and a friend fled from the Olivas home after officers entered the residence looking for gang members. Perchez was shot when he refused to stay on the ground and grabbed for Guerrero’s flashlight. A witness in the suit stated that Perchez went for Guerrero’s flashlight because Perchez was unable to breathe when the officer used the flashlight to apply a chokehold. The city of Fontana ended up paying the family of Perchez one million dollars for the death of their son.
The Sentinel reached out to the Perchez family for comment. Randy’s mother stated her son was not a gang member and only had a minimal juvenile record; he was asthmatic and had a hard time breathing normally, let alone with a flashlight used as a choking device. She also stated that the so-called gang activity that the Fontana Police Department and officer Guerrero were looking for was actually across and down the street from her residence at a house where known gang members lived.
She went on to say that the Fontana Police Department and officer Guerrero falsely identified her son and the house where he was, and is unimpressed with their ability to collect information, their professionalism, ethics, and respect for human life. She said she found it extraordinary that San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos said the shooting was unjustified but didn’t prosecute because his office felt there was not enough evidence for a jury to convict the officer.
With regard to Ismael Banda, Fermin Rincon, and David Michael Tyler, the Fontana Police Department stated that on February 5, 2002, Ismael Banda was arrested by police while driving his motor vehicle for allegedly failing to stop at a stop sign; he was taken into custody and died in jail of a ruptured spleen. David Michael Tyler died on March 14, 2002. The Fontana Police Department was called to his home where officers were asked to remove him from a truck that he was sleeping in; Tyler resisted, fought with police and was subdued. He later died of asphyxiation. On June 27, 2002, Fermin Rincon ran from police when they tried to question him; allegedly Rincon was struck with a baton and was tasered.
According to police chief Ramsey, “The Fontana Police Department experienced three in-custody deaths in an approximate six-month span, around 14 years ago. All three incidents were fully investigated by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, then the case was reviewed by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, and the department employees were cleared of any wrongdoing. Under the leadership of then-chief Frank Scialdone, the department proactively hired outside force experts to conduct a holistic review of the training, policies, and procedures associated with use-of-force. This review resulted in a comprehensive 240-page report which included 31 suggestions for improvement. While many of the suggestions were implemented and improvements were made, the department has had additional in-custody deaths since then. We are continuously reviewing our training regarding the handling of suspects and arrestees to prevent these incidents from occurring. Despite following proper procedures, some of these deaths will occur regardless of the best efforts of law enforcement because they can be caused by factors beyond our control.”
Credible sources within the department report an extremely different chain of events surrounding these deaths.
Current Fontana Police Department officer Scott Snyder, who was a paramedic on duty the day that Fermin Rincon died, told several people at the Fontana Police Department he did not believe Fermin Rincon died of natural causes, but of trauma to his trachea. He indicated that when he arrived on scene the night of the incident he tried to insert a trachea tube down Rincon’s throat, but his wind pipe had been crushed severely.
This type of injury is commonly sustained by a powerful chokehold, such as the carotid choke, a deadly force tactic which is taught to officers. When a copy of the autopsy was requested by the Rincon family’s attorney, the biopsy of Rincon’s throat mysteriously disappeared.
Several Fontana officers also reported that they were working within sight or earshot of the front desk when Rincon’s family came into the station and directly accused lieutenant Billy Green of promising to kill Rincon if he did not turn himself in. One officer said that he distinctly remembered Rincon’s sister screaming, “Billy Green said he was going to kill my brother and he did.”
Many Fontana Police Department officers believe Ismael Banda’s spleen in did not just rupture while in the custody of the Fontana Police Department but was in fact ruptured by being beaten severely. David Michael Tyler died from an obliterated larynx.
Fontana City officials paid to have an investigation conducted by former Los Angeles Police Department Assistant Commander Ron McCarthy and former Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department lieutenant and SWAT commander John Kolman. These two tactical police squad experts delivered a report that stated the force used was within training and policy guidelines and that the deaths of Ismael Banda, David Michael Tyler, and Fermin Rincon were justifiable homicides.
Chief Ramsey disputed that after he, Rodriguez and Green were re-assigned following the Banda, Tyler and Rincon deaths, there were no further in-custody deaths involving the Fontana Police Department. “The department has had additional in-custody deaths since then,” Ramsey told the Sentinel.
Ramsey did acknowledge Rodriquez and Green took on different assignments after the Banda, Tyler and Rincon deaths, but he characterized these changes as promotions.
“Captain Rodriguez and lieutenant Green were both promoted while assigned to the SMASH Unit and assigned to patrol, which is entirely consistent with organizational practice,” Ramsey said. “As for me, I was never assigned to the SMASH Unit, and never worked in the SMASH Unit with Green or Rodriguez.”
There has never been a formal inquisition or investigation by the FBI or Department of Justice with regard to the Banda, Tyler and Rincon deaths. Elements within the Fontana Police Department have told the Sentinel that if an outside agency like the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the FBI were to look into these deaths along with dozens of others, there are Fontana Police Department officer willing to offer evidence and testify against members of their own department. There does not appear to have been an internal departmental investigation into allegations that Robert Ramsey and Obie Rodriguez protected Green or otherwise hid evidence with regard to the in-custody deaths.
Despite the department’s official assertions that the Banda, Tyler and Rincon deaths were justifiable homicides that in no way tarnish the department or implicate its officers in the use of brutality, uncertainty yet hovers over that chapter of the department’s history and the legacy it represents, even up to the present.
Longtime Fontana resident and political activist Oscar Zambrano told the Sentinel, “In order for us to find out what really happened, the Fontana Police Department needs to release all police and medical reports about these cases and three men. Witnesses need to be re-questioned along with the three officers. Most importantly, these three deaths need to be reopened and evaluated with honesty and integrity to find the truth about the events that took place. The deaths of these three men need to be carefully looked at without Fontana Police Department administrative leaders trying to cover up the truth.”
A more reliable determination of what actually occurred might have been had, some Fontana police officers have told the Sentinel, if Rodriguez and Ramsey in their administrative roles did not thwart the investigation and condone threats that prevented the truth about what really happened to three men from surfacing. The clean bill of health given to the department hinged upon the findings, not of an independent fact-finding body, but rather on the findings of Kolman and McCarthy, two paid consultants hired by the City of Fontana and its police department, both of which entities had potential liability in the millions of dollars with regard to those deaths. Indeed, the actual contents of the analyses of the deaths and their attendant reports was never released by the Fontana Police Department because at that time they were labeled as pertinent to an ongoing investigation.
“It is evident that there is and has been something terribly wrong and sinister in the city of Fontana and its police department, including its policies, tactics, nepotistic culture and integrity,” said Zambrano, a former 47th District Democratic delegate. “People’s constitutional rights are being trampled on, police officers are blatantly breaking the law; and this immoral, unethical, and corrupt behavior by the Fontana Police Department is going unchecked. There is no telling how many people have been brutally murdered, harassed, scared, falsely imprisoned, and how many lives have been forever negatively rocked to their core because of the Fontana Police Department. Putting these three deaths aside, the Fontana Police Department needs to be looked into from top to bottom from the past until the present for an array of issues. These three deaths are only the tip of the iceberg.”
Ramsey disputed that.
“The Fontana Police Department utilizes properly vectored force,” the police chief insisted. “However, I am aware of the reality officers under my employ are humans and can make mistakes. I promote an environment of accountability, which is fostered throughout the ranks of the Fontana Police Department. When a mistake is made, we will own up to it, ensure proper discipline is administered, provide training to mitigate recurrences, and in those severe instances, work to remove individuals from the organization incapable of upholding our obligation to the community. I ask for the public’s support in this endeavor by bringing questionable behaviors of officers to the attention of my supervisory staff.”
By Carlos Avalos