The Upland Police Department has cashiered two veteran officers, including a captain with 29-year’s experience who up until six months ago was the highest ranking officer in the department below the police chief.
The sackings come as the result of apparently deep-seated personal differences between the chief of police, Brian Johnson, and both captain Anthony Yoakum and sergeant Marc Simpson.
What occurred played out against the backdrop of a municipal police department steeped in the tradition and ethos of loyalty up and down the chain of command in which officers have been rewarded for their career-long commitment to the City of Gracious Living and its department with promotions from within. Johnson cut across that grain. Having spent the previous 26 years rising through the ranks with the Los Angeles Police Department before he was hired in March 2015 as the full time successor to former police chief Jeff Mendenhall, Johnson vaulted into a command position over more than five dozen men with greater, and in several instances far greater, experience and knowledge of the streets and institutions of Upland than he did. Two of those were Yoakum, a 29-year department member who at one point had risen to become Johnson’s second-in-command in charge of operations, and Simpson, a 23-year member of the department who was the Upland Police Officer Management Association president.
Johnson appears to have outmaneuvered Yoakum and Simpson, functioning from a position of strength on the basis of his authority as police chief and with the solid backing of the city manager and city council.
At the outset of his tenure in Upland, Johnson strove to establish good relations with all members of the city council, despite the sometimes spirited differences between several of its members who were in place when he was hired. Johnson was lauded by many of the city’s outspoken residents and other department outsiders who reside or own businesses in Upland for his having prompted stepped-up patrol and enforcement activity upon taking the department’s helm. And with only a few false steps that were predictable in a newcomer, he seemed to navigate around the potentially hazardous political whirlpools in Upland.
One of those political hornets nests consisted of a seemingly insoluble dilemma brought on by Upland having the dubious distinction of hosting the county’s third largest homeless population despite being the tenth largest city population-wise overall among the county’s 24 incorporated municipalities. Another was the contentious, indeed often vituperative, battle over vice activity in Upland, which consisted of the proliferation of brothels under the guise of massage parlors and adult entertainment venues, unlicensed gambling operations in various venues including residences, and a brisk trade in all order of narcotics.
Before Johnson’s arrival, sharp differences had manifested between citizens intent on ensuring the availability of marijuana to those using it for medical purposes and others conversely determined to perpetuate Upland as a municipality in which medical marijuana dispensaries were banned. This battle between the strict marijuana prohibitionists and those at the forefront of the rapidly unfolding era of cannabis tolerance that came to ultimate fruition with the passage of the recreational marijuana use legalizing Proposition 64 in November 2016 was made more treacherous still by yet another Upland peculiarity. While by municipal ordinance the operation of medical marijuana dispensaries were prohibited in Upland, would-be marijuana entrepreneur after another cropped up in the city, willing to set up shop and test the city’s resolve, profiting in the interim until the city and its code enforcement division succeeded in spotting them, mounting an operation to target them, citing them and closing them down. Thus, the life expectancy of a marijuana clinic in Upland might run anywhere from a few weeks to several months, while its owner/operator might reasonably expect to make sales in excess of $100,000. One clinic, however, that one known as Captain Jack’s run by vice kingpin Randy Welty, the wealthy de facto owner of the Tropical Lei nightclub at the gateway into Upland and San Bernardino County on Route 66/Foothill Boulevard near the city limits/Claremont border, has remained in continuous operation at its location adjacent to the Tropical Lei for well over five years. Despite the city’s willingness to aggressively shutter other marijuana operations, its officials, ranging from the city council to city management, to the city’s community development and code enforcement divisions and its police department simply do not have the will and/or wherewithal to take on Welty’s operation.
Adroitly, Johnson chose very early on what public battles he would join and which ones he would not. Some major property owners and proprietors of commercial or professional concerns that are in highly visible and publicly accessible locales said they were under siege by the homeless population who were squatting upon their land. Johnson was responsive to them, endeavoring to have his officers run the vagrants off. While that gained for him the support of some wealthy, influential and vocal business interests, he simultaneously moved to effectively blunt the criticism of the department being made by homeless advocates by making an ostentatious show of compassion toward many of those unsheltered living in the city, cooperating with the incipient homeless assistance programs that were sprouting up, assigning two officers, at least temporarily, to function as homeless population liaisons, and supporting other efforts in that vein, in particular programs aimed at finding homes for homeless military veterans. From time to time, his department moved against the illicit sex trade being run out of certain establishments. Upon doing so, he had his department issue press releases to bring attention to the action, always emphasizing that the efforts were aimed at eradicating, or at least reducing, the scourge of human trafficking. And he played it politically safe, or relatively so, on the marijuana issue. He became an ally of that faction working to maintain the city’s existing ban on the operation of marijuana clinics. He also continued to enforce that ban, with the lone exception of continuing to honor the hands-off treatment of Welty, about whom there persisted reports of underworld connections that might prove nettlesome to those who interfered with him, and who was known to employ some topflight attorneys capable of embroiling the city in litigation if enforcement action against him was taken.
Thus, externally, Johnson appeared, and yet appears, to be in good shape. Rather it is internally, within the police department, that Johnson faced his greatest challenges. In the aftermath of Mendenhall’s retirement 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. A year after he was passed over in favor of Johnson, Bonson retired. Johnson was the first Upland police chief not to have promoted to the top spot from within the department in over 70 years. The last time an outsider took over was in 1941, when Eugene Mueller was persuaded to leave the Pasadena Police Department to become Upland police chief.
Aside from being an outsider, Johnson faced some other challenges. Years of too-generous salaries and commitments to even more generous pensions when those employees retired drove the city to the brink of bankruptcy by 2011. In response, the city began to shed staff positions across the board. In the single month of June 2011, the city handed out pink slips to 27 municipal employees. City officials said they would seek to spare the police and fire departments from those reductions, but by 2015, the police department had 70 positions for sworn police officers funded, with four vacancies. Ten years before, it had 91 officers.
Johnson enjoyed something of a honeymoon, which lasted for close to a year. By early 2016, while there were few outward indicators of dissent within the ranks, discontent among officers was growing.
Early this summer, the Sentinel received a letter from an anonymous source, one clearly identifiable as a sworn member of the department, who claimed to be “writing on behalf of the men and women of the Upland Police Department.” The letter states that within the department “the work climate has been extremely bad” and that Johnson “has lied to us, lied to the public and committed several violations of the law in his short time as chief.”
According to the letter, officers became alarmed about Johnson consigning department personnel to engage in political activity and use department resources to thwart a signature gathering effort by some Upland residents to put an initiative relating to medical marijuana on the ballot. Three of the five members of the city council were strongly opposed to permitting marijuana sales in the city.
“In 2016, Johnson learned of the existence of a marijuana initiative that was gathering signatures to legalize the sale of marijuana in the City of Upland,” the letter states. “He ordered the detective bureau to go out on a Saturday and do surveillance of signature gatherers in front of local stores. Johnson wanted detectives to contact the signature gatherers and ask them about the initiative they were supporting to see if they would lie about the facts. When questions were asked of Johnson about the legality of the police being involved in election issues, Johnson got extremely mad that he would be questioned.” According to the letter, even though legal clearance was provided for the continuation of the operation, a review of the more than 3,700 signatures that were gathered on the petitions “involved hundreds of man hours that were taken away from investigating crimes in the City of Upland. In the end it was learned that even if the signatures were fraudulent they could not be removed from the count by law. This was a huge waste of time and in the end cost the city tens of thousands of dollars in wasted investigation hours. We still question the perception that is created when the police are involved with an election. It seems shady to us that we would be drawn into an election investigation to try to sway the outcome in the city’s favor.”
On other occasions, according to the letter, Johnson had allowed his personal crusade against marijuana use to overreach the limit of the law and potentially put the city into legal risk, and both himself and members of the department into harm’s way. “Johnson spearheaded a campaign to eradicate marijuana dispensaries from the City of Upland,” the letter states. “Several administrative warrants were served on dispensaries and Johnson told the officers to take everything from the dispensaries – marijuana but also every piece of furniture, display shelves, cash, office supplies etc. On January 18, 2017 a warrant was served at a dispensary at 1600 W. 9th Street (Case #17018018) and once again all property was taken. The next day we learned the dispensary opened up again and Johnson was furious. Another warrant was obtained and the plan was to serve it the following Monday or Tuesday when manpower was available. Johnson could not wait and on January 21, 2017 he went to the dispensary by himself and detained everyone inside at gunpoint (Case #17021018). Johnson was now by himself with a room full of people and did not know what to do. He requested several police units respond code 3 (lights and sirens) to assist him with the emergency he had just created. This tied up at least 6 units plus the supervisors, which left the city with no police coverage for several hours. The on-call detectives were called in from home and paid overtime at a very expensive hourly rate to clean up the mess. Johnson had at least six people detained and handcuffed. They were transported to Upland PD and put in jail cells. Johnson was then trying to figure out what he could arrest them for and was asking the detectives on scene if he could arrest them for violation of a court order, as there was a court injunction against the dispensary prohibiting their operation. He was told ‘No,’ because there was no proof the people who were detained knew about the injunction. Johnson was told by detectives and supervisors as well as a captain who was there that the people could not be arrested. Johnson detained the people for about eight hours and decided to book them on a misdemeanor violation of the Upland Municipal Code pertaining to operating a dispensary within 1,000 feet of a school. The issue is that our municipal code states that no one shall be physically arrested for these violations. Johnson ordered officers to book them anyway and convinced the jail to take the arrestees. The supervisors on scene did not agree with what happened and even stated that any of us would have been fired for doing what Johnson just did. The detention of the individuals was a clear violation of the Constitution and the booking was a violation of police department policy. During a meeting with detectives in March of 2017 Johnson was informed that no arrests could be made for violations of the Upland Municipal Code. He said he was changing that immediately, which he does not have the authority to do.”
Another Upland officer indicated that Johnson’s action on January 21, 2017 at the 1600 W. 9th Street dispensary was for many of his colleagues the last straw. “Chief Johnson had previously been to the dispensary during a warrant service and was aware there was an armed security guard protecting the business,” the officer said. “As with all dispensaries the entry and exit are controlled by an electronic locking door. The lock is manually controlled by the security guard. Without notifying any of the officers on duty or dispatch of his intentions, Chief Johnson walked into the dispensary and at gunpoint ordered every person in the business to the ground. He then contacted the Upland Police Department dispatch and asked for units to respond to assist him. Chief Johnson was not able to give his correct location and was only able to say he was at 9th and Benson. It was at this point that Chief Johnson realized that he was locked inside of the business. He requested units to respond with their lights and sirens to assist him. The first officer on scene, officer [Anthony] Kabayan, attempted to kick the door down because he was not able to gain entry into the business. Chief Johnson, realizing his mistake, was able to open the door and allow officers into the business. The officers on scene, including a patrol sergeant, the watch commander and the patrol division commander, were all extremely concerned with Chief Johnson’s tactics. The concerns were a lack of communication; lack of situational awareness; not taking into account that since he was not easily identifiable as a police officer that the security guard could have easily thought that the business was being robbed, thus resulting in an armed confrontation. His actions violated every officer safety protocol that first year officers are aware of. In addition, he placed the officers responding to the location and citizens at danger.”
According to the officer, “Initially, Chief Johnson wanted to arrest all of the employees for several penal code violations. He had to be told several times that the codes that he wanted to arrest for we’re not applicable. The on-scene officers, some with as little as a year on the force, didn’t want to be involved because they knew Chief Johnson had created an ethical dilemma for them. The problem: obey the chief and risk a violation of rights or question the chief and risk termination.”
The officer said, “Initially, Chief Johnson refused to write a report detailing his actions. Instead he gave his statement to Officer Kabayan. The report written by Officer Kabayan was unsatisfactory, according to the detectives handling the investigation. They requested Chief Johnson write a report. Eventually after seeking advice from the city attorney, Chief Johnson agreed to write a report. Chief Johnson never completed the report and placed it in the department’s report writing database. The case, minus Chief Johnson’s report, was initially submitted to the district attorney’s office. Realizing the numerous errors, a detective had to quickly take the case back from the DA. The arrest of approximately six citizens at the dispensary was never filed with the district attorney and no charges were ever filed because of Chief Johnson’s numerous tactical errors and ethical violations.”
According to the letter, Johnson has abridged the rights of subjects through illegal searches and seizures. “A month or so after the warrant service on the dispensary, Johnson asked for a laptop computer and a DVR from the surveillance system be brought to him from evidence,” the letter states. “He had our IT people make copies of the contents of those items. This is an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment and it violates SB 178, which is a 2016 law governing the search of electronic items. A separate search warrant is required to search these items and could not have been obtained because the original crime was a misdemeanor. That is not one of the misdemeanor exceptions for the issuance of a search warrant.”
According to the letter, Johnson cavalierly took possession of equipment belonging to a rental company that an electrical contractor was using at a site where renovation work that was not authorized by the city was taking place.
“An expensive generator on a trailer was impounded during a warrant service at the old Buffalo Inn, located at 1814 W. Foothill Blvd,” the letter states. “The generator was rented by an electrician while he was updating the breaker box and the rental company was unaware of the use of their equipment at an illegal business. When Johnson was asked under what authority we were taking the generator, he replied, ‘Everyone is gonna feel the pain.’ Johnson was told by other supervisors that he could not impound the equipment. That piece of equipment was worth about $100,000 and was impounded at UPD for several weeks until the rental business started lawsuit proceedings against the police department. The generator was returned to the owner about a month later. This is just one example of Johnson’s reckless behavior.”
One of the officers told the Sentinel, “It is common knowledge within the rank-and-file that Chief Johnson is just an administrator and lacks basic law-enforcement skills. It has been said numerous times that Chief Johnson has theoretical knowledge of police work and very little practical application of law-enforcement.”
In March, detective Lon Teague, who has been with the department for 21 years and is the president of the Upland Police Officers Association, and Marc Simpson, in his capacity as the head of the Upland Police Management Association, approached acting Upland City Manager Martin Thouvenell, who had been Upland police chief from 1988 until 2005 and had been a member of the three-person panel that had evaluated the police chief candidates in 2015 and recommended that Johnson be selected. Teague and Simpson asked Thouvenell to undertake an examination/investigation of Johnson’s conduct and address the concerns of several officers with regard to policy and procedures propounded by the police chief. At issue were more than ten complaints against Johnson, a primary one of which was his conduct on January 21 in initiating on his own and without any forewarning, assistance or back-up an operation at the 1600 West 9th Street dispensary.
Teague also contacted the city’s human resources director with regard to those concerns, and expressed the view that seeking to have the issues addressed within the confines of the police department’s senior staff, which included Johnson, would have little prospect of success. Thouvenell retained an investigative firm to look into the issues raised by Teague and Simpson. Based upon the findings of the investigation, Thouvenell elected to take no action against Johnson, other than having the police chief submit to what one officer said was “a minor informal counseling session.”
Roughly four weeks after Teague and Simpson approached Thouvenell, Johnson opened an internal affairs investigation on Teague. Simultaneously, he put Yoakum and Simpson on administrative leave, pending termination. Some five months later, i.e., within the last fortnight, Yoakum and Simpson’s severance from the department has been completed.
One unconfirmed report which came to the Sentinel from a source outside the department is that both Yoakum and Simpson invoked the so-called Skelly process in which they were apprised in detail of the grounds being cited by Johnson for their termination, and that both challenged the justification for the firings on factual and procedural grounds. According to that report, both were able to establish that the narrative behind the grounds as well as the justification given for terminating them was subjected to considerable contradiction. Nevertheless, according to the report, their termination was ratified on the grounds that each of their working relationships with Johnson had deteriorated to the point that they were no longer salvageable. According to the report, Yoakum and Simpson were separated from the department but a provision was made to adjust their retirement benefits so that the formula for their pensions they will be eligible to receive at age 55 will reflect that they accrued the same number of working years with the department had they remained employed until reaching minimum retirement age. The Sentinel was not able to confirm that report before going to press.
Repeated efforts to reach Johnson had not garnered a response by press time today. A call made today to Lieutenant Marcelo Blanco, who serves as a spokesman for the department, was fielded by another officer who said Blanco would not be available until Monday.
The Upland Police Department has cashiered two veteran officers, including a captain with 29-year’s experience who up until six months ago was the highest ranking officer in the department below the police chief.