By Carlos Avalos
As you walk down the grey, dimly lit halls of the Fontana Police department, you are immediately plummeted back to the pre-civil rights era, where minorities were not treated fairly in American society. While some people are not made particularly uncomfortable by this ambiance, it is hardly welcoming to people of color. Predominant in the historic photographs of the department and its personnel displayed throughout police headquarters are white, that is Caucasian, officers. Some of the more modern photographs on the walls are scenes of officers engaged in detentions and making arrests. Other pictures project a sort of Humphrey Bogart glamour, as officers are seen fraternizing with women. As you approach the rollcall room of the station, you can’t help but be reminded that you are surrounded by an old, white male-dominated police force. There are few photos of African-American officers. There is one police ID card of a black officer, amid those for dozens of white officers. If you use a magnifying glass, you may be able to see one civilian, a black female employee standing in police formation, in a crowd of Caucasians.
Over the decades, diversity within the Fontana Police Department has changed imperceptibly and at a glacial pace. Fontana remains the least diverse police agency in the Inland Empire. Out of the department’s 197 sworn officers, there are only two recently-hired African Americans. This recruitment only came after several other minority officers were forced out of the police department. Simultaneously, African Americans represent roughly 12 percent of the city’s population.
While the city of Fontana is approximately 60.2 percent Hispanic, Latinos represent 16 percent of the police force. Most of the police officer positions are reserved for white males, many of whom have a familial association, by blood or marriage, with other white members of the department. Nepotism within the Fontana Police Department has for some time been an issue, and continues to flourish. Meanwhile, other people, specifically minorities, find themselves trying to penetrate what has been characterized as the department’s “good ol’ boy” culture that has traditionally dominated much of American government and its law enforcement agencies.
With considerable frequency, minority youth join police-sponsored programs like the Explorer and Cadet programs, only to be washed out or skipped over for recruits who are well-connected. One recent instance of this occurred in 2018, where two captains’ sons were recruited just after two minority, senior officers were forced out of the department. One of these well-connected recruits was recently arrested for a sexual assault on a minor.
In the department’s hallway of fame, you can see numerous photos of white officers performing their jobs and some standing in common police formation. Even the most eagle-eyed observer will not find any African-American officers depicted separately. This is partly because Negro officers scarcely existed and the few that did exist were simply left out of station décor.
As is often the case in people’s homes, where personal photos, memorabilia and knick-knacks allow guests or visitors to immediately size up what is important to the occupants, the photos and décor in a police department lobby or gracing the walls of its hallways or offices can give department outsiders a glimpse of the organization’s culture and values.
Most minority officers within the so-called Fontana police family are treated like forgotten stepchildren or bastards. Over its 68 years of existence, the Fontana Police Department has only employed a handful of African-Americans. As often as not, once the Fontana Police Department has hired black officers deemed to have met the organization’s standards, those officers’ careers end abruptly, as they have been forced to resign or they were terminated for less than clear, questionable, indefensible or frivolous reasons. There has been no shortage of black applicants for positions with the department, but for reasons that remain unexplained, the vast majority of them are screened out during the hiring process. Increasingly, as more and more potential black and minority candidates for positions on the Fontana force have heard of the difficult and biased hiring process, they refrain from applying, considering doing so to be futile or a waste of their time and effort.
There have never been more than four black police officers at any given time employed at the Fontana Police Department. In recent years, this number has dwindled to one or two black officers. In the history of the Fontana Police Department, there have been four black officers who surpassed the rank of basic police officer or patrolman. The promotional ceiling for three of those four was the rank of corporal, considered to be a non-investigatory patrol-or-basic-enforcement-officer supervisor roughly equivalent in status to that of detective. A single black department employee was able to promote above the rank of corporal. While those four officers were highly decorated and rare, their photos are not displayed on the walls at police headquarters. Out of the scores of photos the department features showing a single officer, none of those is an African-American officer. There are some photos of the department’s few Hispanic officers, and those looking carefully or employing a magnifying glass can discern one or two or three black officers standing in police formation. These photos are located just outside the detective bureau, near the internal affairs office. These photos are used at times to identify officers during investigations of police misconduct.
It is perhaps noteworthy that the department chose to honor one deceased white officer who died off duty out of uniform but opted to not honor two African-American officers with the department who died while in uniform. The department accorded that particular deceased white officer – Aaron Scharff – with the honor of naming the department’s special enforcement detail’s training center after him.
Sergeant Aaron Scharff died in his residence off duty. His photo is displayed at different spots throughout the police station, and the department’s administrators dedicated the special enforcement detail (SED) training center where the special weapons and training team, known by the acronym SWAT, hones its skills, to him.
As you walk further down the station hallway, a turn of the corner brings you to the SMASH unit’s area of the station. SMASH is an acronym for San Bernardino Movement Against Street Hoodlums, implying officers assigned to that division deal primarily with hardened thugs. Indeed, in large measure that is how the officers act when they put on their green polo shirts and cargo pants to patrol the streets of Fontana. Citizens in the community report that SMASH officers act in ways that are indistinguishable from the gang members they are assigned to control. SMASH officers evince a militaristic attitude toward many of those they encounter when in this mode, at times treating citizens as if they are common criminals. On patrol, the SMASH unit, collectively and as single officers, find it challenging to role shift from dealing with gangsters to interacting with the community’s residents who are simply going about their business in territory where the department believes gang members are active. This has provoked a hostile attitude towards the police. Many citizens have complained that SMASH officers take their personal information during questionable detentions and store it in law enforcement databases, which are used inappropriately for gang identification at a later date. This information is used nationwide, as it is by extension reposited into the Cal-Gangs law enforcement database. This blurring of the distinction between bona fide gang members and their victims is doubly disenabling for law enforcement, entailing unnecessary future delays when investigators must sift through a too-numerous suspect pool as well as triggering an uncooperative response from potential witnesses.
The photos on the walls in the SMASH unit area suggest enforcement is primarily focused on minorities. Virtually all of the photos displayed there depict officers detaining and arresting people of color. Meanwhile, there are other volatile, active white gangs in Fontana such as; NLR- Nazi Low Riders, Skin Heads, AB-Aryan Brotherhood, Peni (Public Enemy Number 1) and the Hells Angels. None of the FPD station photos depict these active white gang members being detained or arrested. Conspicuously absent are photos showing positive interactions with the police.
Whereas the bias inherent in the Fontana Police Department’s past operations and culture was open and overt, today it is institutionalized and covert. The department strategically employs a smattering of minorities in a way that successfully obscures the department’s traditional white-dominated structure, using these minority officers as racial camouflage. This allows the department, or elements within it, to carry out unscrupulous acts against other unsuspecting minority members of the community. Some of those minority officers, perceiving that they are tokens being utilized to propagate the agenda of the regime, have rejected the ethos of the department and broken with its command structure. In many of the cases where the department administration has encountered this dissent, those officers have been ostracized, extending to assaults on those officers’ careers.
On the second floor of police headquarters is the department’s traffic division office. The vast majority of the photos in that area show white traffic officers conducting field sobriety tests on Hispanic men. The faces of these Hispanic men are not concealed, a demonstration that the reputations, feelings and dignity of those citizens are insignificant.
The department’s halls are visited by the public during station tours and community events. When the station was freshly renovated in 2013, then-Chief Rodney Jones and Mayor Acquanetta Warren, toured the station with members of the community. Some community members voiced their concern with the militaristic and 1960s-like nostalgia that emanated from the remodel. The early 1940s and into the late 1990s was a time in Fontana where racism was rampant and minorities were accorded cold welcome. Fontana history is replete with the horrific experience of the African-American Short Family, whose members in 1945 were burned to death in their home. In 1980, an African-American man was shot in the back for merely working as a telephone repairman. These incidents were perpetrated by white supremacists affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan. To the media, the Fontana Police downplayed racial issues, despite crosses being burned on minorities’ lawns. KKK rallies were launched at City Hall. There were heated protests resisting the Klan in Fontana. During many of the public encounters between the Klan and their detractors, it was not the police but rather the Hells Angels, to their credit, who inserted themselves between the differing parties to preserve the peace.
One photo displayed at the police station, dated August 9, 1980, shows the Fontana Police SED – Special Enforcement Detail – dressed in full riot gear, with a police dog, surrounding an anti-KKK demonstration. The following day Fontana police also responded in full riot gear as the KKK arrived to host their rally in front of City Hall. Buried in the Fontana Herald News’ newspaper archives is a photo not featured in any of the displays on the headquarters hallway walls. That photo accompanies a story about the KKK rally, showing a Fontana police officer standing in close proximity to a Klan member. The officer is holding a confiscated dagger. Possession of such an item is a felony. The caption for the photo reads, “Fontana police officer confiscates knife found in possession of Klan supporter.” No arrest was made. One wonders whether an arrest would have been made if the dagger had been found in the possession of one of the minority anti-Klan protestors.
While members of the general public do not commonly have access behind the locked doors of the police department, officers, police volunteers, civilian employees and Explorer and Cadet program youth do. The depictions in those photos, many embodying a militaristic image of the police department, reinforce an attitude toward minority community members in which they are represented as unwelcome and insignificant, an ethos at odds with the theme of respecting the members of the public the department is sworn to serve.
A photo of one African-American man that circulated in the bowels of the FPD documented the desecration of a black man’s corpse. A Fontana Police Department evidence technician placed an eaten chicken bone in the deceased man’s hand as his corpse lay filleted on the San Bernardino County Coroner’s autopsy table. The photo was taken as some order of a racist joke, based upon the murdered man having been found behind the Kentucky Fried Chicken operation on Sierra Avenue. This crime – the alteration of evidence – was not properly investigated and Fontana Police Department administrators concealed the crime from the survivor’s family, as well as the public. When white Police Corporal Ray Schneider reported the incident, his previously promising career plateaued and he was forced out of the department. The 1994 murder of the victim went unsolved.
Now-retired FPD Lieutenant Bob Morris in 2006 carried out a mock lynching of Martin Luther King Jr. He constructed a makeshift noose and hung an MLK doll in the presence of other officers. The department made denials and resisted any disclosure of the incident when word about it leaked out.
In 2003, three minorities died at the hands of the same group of SMASH officers within 5 months. None of the officers was disciplined or subjected to corrective training to prevent further deaths. All of the officers involved in those deaths were eventually promoted to high ranking positions. Current Police Chief Billy Green is one of those officers. A lawsuit relating to the three suspicious deaths was settled out of court for undisclosed amounts of money. There were two versions of what happened to these three minorities. One version was submitted in official police reports, while another version was told around the police station which suggested the men, after having been identified as priority SMASH targets, were subjected to excessive force that played a role in their deaths.
The city engaged a team of high-priced lawyers to clear Green and the other SMASH officers. The deaths were eloquently explained away as routine police work in a city where in excess of 80 percent of the population are classified as minorities.
By Carlos Avalos