By Carlos Avalos
Within the span of two months in early 2004, two men who were colleagues on the Fontana Police Department came to what those in the law enforcement profession refer to as the “end of watch,” a phrase that connotes finality. It is a term of art that is substituted for death, one that is meant to be a reminder that in life these individuals stood guard, as civil centurions, as the thin blue line separating the good and the civilized people of the community from the sociopaths that prey upon them, ensuring order and the rule of law, and that their time on duty has now passed. Both died while they were yet young and vital, each only halfway through, at most, what each anticipated would be a rewarding career keeping Fontana safe. One of those two Fontana Police Officers – Aaron Lloyd Scharf – is celebrated and commemorated by the department in the form of a key police training facility having been named in his honor. On a constant basis, his legacy is reinforced such that the newest generation of officers with the department – and succeeding ones – will come to know his name and legend. In contrast, there is nothing that stands in tribute anywhere at the police station to the other officer – Mario Ujimo Nelson – whose contribution to the department, in life, was no less intense or sincere. That discrepancy tells much about the department, yesterday and today.
Separate but equal grew to become a legal doctrine in United States constitutional law, an interpretation by which it was held that racial segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1868, which guaranteed equal protection under the law to all citizens. Under the doctrine, as long as the facilities provided to each race were equal, state and local governments could require that services, facilities, public accommodations, housing, medical care, education, employment, and transportation be segregated by race.
The phrase “Separate but equal” was derived from a Louisiana law of 1890, although the law actually used the phrase “equal but separate.”
Jim Crow laws were also implemented, enforcing racial segregation throughout the Southern United States. Enacted after the Reconstruction period, these laws continued in force until 1965. They mandated “De jure” or rightful entitlement to equal public accommodations, but legally reinforced racial segregation in all public facilities in states of the former Confederacy.
In practice, the separate facilities provided to African Americans were rarely equal; usually they were not even close to equal, or they did not exist at all. The doctrine was overturned by a series of Supreme Court decisions, starting with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
The overturning of segregation laws in the United States was a long process that lasted through much of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, involving federal legislation (especially the Civil Rights Act of 1964), and many court cases.
Sadly enough, while laws are in place to protect people from racial discrimination and bias, people of minority descent and women are treated differently than their white colleagues in many cases.
As pointed out in many other journalistic venues, the Fontana Police Department lags behind all others in the nation when it comes to racial diversity. In the August 28, 2015 edition of the online magazine Governing, an article by Mike Maciag entitled “Where Police Don’t Mirror Communities and Why it Matters” states that “Out of all the police departments in the United States, minorities are the most underrepresented in the Fontana P.D; with 26 percent of its 188 full time officers as minorities, compared to roughly 86 percent of the total population.” Because this article is more than a year old, the Fontana Police Department might have a better ranking on the list, but it might also still be dead last in the nation when it comes to the racial diversity ratio on the police force vis-a-vis the population it polices.
A troubling fact mentioned in the article is that Fontana was not the only city in the Inland Empire to make the list. Ontario made the list with 36 percent of its police force qualifying as minorities, with an 83 percent minority population. Rialto had 44 percent of its force of minority descent, with 88 percent of its total population being minorities. San Bernardino had a minority police force of 39 percent, with a total city minority population of 82 percent. This lack of minority presence in police work is a national problem; it is especially pronounced in the Inland Empire. Some might catalog this as a coincidence. Facts point to another reason why this lack of racial diversity is a calling card of the Fontana Police Department and many other police agencies in the Inland Empire.
According to the Sentinel’s sources from within and outside the Fontana Police Department there have been and currently are complaints from minority officers regarding the bias they say both they and the citizens the officers are expected to protect and serve encounter.
That the department’s minority officers are met with bias and disrespect by a predominantly Caucasian command staff raises questions as to whether the department as a whole can be fair and impartial toward the community the department serves, which is predominantly comprised of minorities.
The Fontana Police Department has come under the limelight over the past few months and is currently involved in a civil lawsuit with two decorated employees, one African American and one Hispanic, having sued the department and the city for racial discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment. Officers David J. Moore Sr. and Andrew Anderson, represented by attorneys Bradley C. Gage and Milad Sadr, filed a lawsuit in San Bernardino Superior Court against the City of Fontana and its police department, alleging discrimination, retaliation and failure to take corrective action. That case is to go to trial next month, at which time it will be determined if there is any truth to Moore and Anderson’s allegations and, if so, how this behavior went unnoticed for so long. There have been several articles written about the lawsuit, in-custody deaths, and questionable actions by Fontana’s successive chiefs of police. Information with sinister overtones relating to the department has emerged of late, even as there are indications that the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office have interested themselves in multiple allegations of civil rights violations, the abuse of prisoners and unethical behavior at the hands of law enforcement agencies in San Bernardino County.
In certain cases, the department’s discriminatory actions against minorities are not overwhelmingly direct, but rather subtle, detectable less from what exists and more from what does not exist.
When new Fontana police officers are asked about Mario Nelson, the vast majority draw a blank. Typical responses are something along the lines of “He sounds familiar” or “I’m not sure.” The fact is Mario Nelson was employed by the Fontana Police Department as a police officer from 1999 until his death in 2004. Nelson was liked and he was a kind officer. He had recently been chosen to be a part of the canine unit and was assigned K9 Oscar as his partner. In January 2004, Officer Nelson had been assigned to work the graveyard shift. After getting off of work, he drove home in his full police uniform in his marked black and white patrol vehicle. As with all K9 teams at Fontana PD, Oscar accompanied his handler home that morning, where Nelson’s ex-fiancée was lying in wait. While nobody knows exactly what transpired, Officer Nelson was shot in the head.
Shortly thereafter, officer Summer Ing, who has since retired after having achieved the rank of corporal, was flagged down by a Rialto police officer requesting her assistance with conducting a welfare check at Nelson’s residence. Upon their arrival, Officer Ing found Mario Nelson’s lifeless body along with the body of his ex-fiancée who, it would later be determined, had taken her own life. Officer Ing frantically called for help over her police radio. Medical assistance arrived too late; Mario Nelson was dead.
Mario’s partner Oscar was later found hiding in Mario’s room. The death of Officer Mario Nelson not only shook the patrol officers of the department but also the community. Officer Nelson’s funeral was held in a Baptist church in Riverside. Many of the Caucasian officers who attended the service were critical and cruel about the service. Some even made racial remarks about how Mario’s family and friends were acting during the service, according to officers in attendance. The police administration at the time ruled Mario’s death to be an off-duty incident, resulting in his family being denied the benefits that are awarded to officers killed in the line of duty. Under at least one interpretation, officer Nelson should have been considered on-duty during the initial stages of his arrival home that morning. According to department policy, as long as an officer is in uniform, he or she may be required to take police action on the way home or within the officer’s neighborhood or within the officer’s house.
Officer Mario Nelson was an officer killed while in the Fontana uniform and then found by another Fontana officer. A walk around the Fontana Police station partially illustrates why newer Fontana officers do not know who he is. There is not one photograph of Officer Nelson hanging on the walls. Nor is there a plaque with his name or a badge or name tag belonging to him to commemorate him. This treatment suggests that to the Fontana police administration, officer Nelson was of little note and therefore does not need to be recognized.
At the privately owned Fontana Police K-9 field, there are plaques hanging on the walls in honor of past donors and sponsors. Among those is a 3×5 photograph of Officer Nelson and K9 Oscar hanging on the wall, mixed in with other photographs, a lone and relatively obscure testament to Mario Nelson’s time as a Fontana police officer.
This is in stark contrast to the department’s reaction to the death of Fontana Police Sergeant Aaron Scharf. Scharf, a Caucasian male, died while sleeping on his couch of a heart attack. He was in his 30s when he died, and his passing was a shock to the department. The Fontana police administration was so upset and disconsolate over the loss of Aaron they fought and succeeded in having Scharf’s death ruled to be work related. Scharf, a member of the special enforcement detail, had the department’s shoot house name after him and a large plague bearing his name hangs on it to this day. The city named a street after him and established a trust fund for his family. Currently there is an 8×10 photograph of Aaron Scharf in the Fontana Police Department’s investigations briefing room.
According to sources from within and outside of the department, this is the same Aaron Scharf who was accused by other officers of illegal searches and surveillances. The same Scharf who would tell his patrol teams to go and look for “ninjas” (a derogatory term used to describe African Americans at night) and report back to him. The same Aaron Scharf that was reportedly involved with thousands of missing ephedrine pills. Aaron Scharf had been sued more than once for excessive force against minorities. This is the man recognized to the exclusion of another officer by the Fontana Police’s leadership.
The question as to whether the different treatment of these two officers was because one was a minority and one was not has surfaced. Of note is that sergeant Scharf was a so-called one percenter and on the S.W.A.T team. The term one percenter refers to a group of department members, all of them Fontana S.W.A.T team members and close friends, who consider themselves to be the department’s elite, a police force within a police force. Within the last year, evidence that has been buried in decades of dust, deceit and lies has come forth. That evidence tells a very different story than the popular conception lionizing the one percenters as heroic personages, dedicated to the protection of the community and justice. Some of that evidence suggests the one percenters had and continue to have dark secrets and have not always been fair, dispassionate and courageous in upholding the law.
More than three years after the earthly departure of officers Nelson and Scharf, officer Miles Franks, an African American policeman, died of a heart attack while off-duty. Franks had tried for years to become a police officer and when finally hired by Fontana Police he had fulfilled a dream of a lifetime. Officer Franks was so proud to be a Fontana officer he reportedly had over 20 uniforms. He never wore the same uniform two days in a row, which is practically unheard of in law enforcement. As an extension of that demonstration of pride, officer Frank’s family had the Fontana Police Department badge engraved on the top of his casket. Officer Franks’ funeral was held in a large Christian Church. Officer Franks, known for his kindness and courtesy, prayed before every meal. These mannerisms earned him the sobriquet, bestowed upon him by Caucasian officers, of “Whitewashed” or “Carlton,” the latter after the character Carlton Banks from the TV sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Based on his popularity in the community and among rank and file members of the department, Franks’ service was filled to capacity. Toward the end of the ceremony the pastor invited people to go up on the stage and say some words to Franks’ family. This was an opportunity for Fontana Police Chief Rod Jones to come forward and thank Frank’s family for his dedication to the organization and offer some kind words about him. However, Jones did not budge from his seat. Not one captain went up, not one lieutenant, not one sergeant. In fact not one person from the Fontana Police administration went up to speak on Miles Franks’ behalf. The only person from the department who spoke was a friend of his, one who had not planned on speaking, but knew somebody from the organization had to say something kind about Franks. And again as with Mario Nelson, not one photograph of Franks hangs in the Fontana Station. Not one plaque, not one badge or name tag. Franks no longer exists at the Fontana Police Department and his memory is dead to the organization he was so proud to serve.
There has been a disparity in the treatment of these individuals in life and after death. Based on the actions of the Fontana police management, the separate and not equal treatment is apparent. The Fontana police administrators seem unconscious of the discrepancy. And while all the deaths, Nelson’s, Franks’ and Scharf’s, are keenly felt by their families and friends, within the organization they served, one is held higher than the others Some see in this a good old boys club of systematic racism alive and well at the Fontana Police Department. And while officer Nelson and officer Franks are gone, they are not forgotten to all. In their community, they are remembered for their kindness, generosity, devotion, and caring personalities. May officers Nelson and Franks and sergeant Scharf rest in peace, all three embraced by death, the great equalizer.
By Carlos Avalos