FUSD Police Culture In Stark Reversal

A cultural shift within the Fontana School Police Department appears to be in the offing, one that has resulted in what some have characterized as radical personnel changes that have materialized in the last year. Accompanying the makeover have been at least two instances of litigation, ones that carry with them cost considerations which at least some of the parents of the students who attend the district’s schools feel may be detracting from the Fontana Unified School District’s educational mission.
While district officials are unwilling to say whether those lawsuits precipitated the reorientation of the department, there are indications that the intense internal discord among the school police’s officers has created a circumstance in which the value of the organization has come into question. Consequently, for the first time since the school police force’s creation, the dissolution of the department, which employs 19 sworn police officers and 64 non-sworn personnel, has come up for earnest discussion.
In January 2020, after the November 2019 departure of Martin Sissac as the department’s police chief, the department took on Lee J. Powell Jr. as it police chief, what many considered to be the most significant step forward for the force since its inception. Arguably, Powell boasted the most impressive set of law enforcement credentials among any of its chiefs. Having begun his law enforcement career as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps’ shore patrol, Powell joined the Los Angeles Police Department after his military discharge. He then served as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Police Department, working assignments such as field patrol, undercover narcotics, detective, internal affairs, academy instructor, patrol watch commander, division commander’s aide and then coordinator of the department’s bureau devoted to gang activity, ultimately achieving the rank of lieutenant.
Early in Powell’s tenure as FUSD Police Department chief, it appeared the department was living up to, or at least striving toward, the potential many felt awaited it as the 34th largest of 38 distinct police departments in San Bernardino County, with more police officers than three of police departments that served the county’s 24 municipalities. The department had its share of successes and a few scandals in its past. Powell was defining standards and seeking a level of professionalism from those under his command.
Less than a year after his arrival, Powell for reasons that have never been spelled out publicly with any degree of clarity or definitude, came into conflict with one of the members of the Fontana Unified School Board, Adam Perez, who is currently a police officer with the Desert Hot Springs Police Department and was formerly employed as an officer with the San Marino Police Department and was a police trainee at the Newport Police Department while he was attending the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Academy. What has been vaguely alluded to in the course of depositions – statements taken under oath – is that Perez, in his own words, had concerns stemming from the time that Sissac was the district police chief relating to one of the department’s officers “conducting illegal traffic enforcement based off somebody’s race.” Though Perez said he did not speak directly with either Sissac or Powell about that perceived pattern of unjustified traffic stops and other improper activity on the part of officers, he believed that when officers in the department had informed first Sissac’s and then subsequently Powell about those improper uses of authority, that both had, more or less been involved in “covering up misconduct of police officers.”
Moreover, Perez is on record as being in favor of the district making more intensive use of surveillance drones and entering into a contract with either a probation officer or the probation department for the provision of police canine services, mentorship, additional officers and access to county resources. Perez, however, made no such pitch to Powell directly, but rather to the district’s then Superintendent, Randall Bassett. Instead, Perez, who was perhaps convinced that Powell would not embrace the concept of a contract with the probation department for the canine and other services, sought to have a proposed contract between the district and the probation department he had arranged to have drawn up introduced to school board through Bassett without prior consultation with Powell.
When Powell underwent shoulder surgery and was accordingly placed on leave, Sergeant Dennis Barnett was given a temporary appointment to interim chief. Perez second-guessed this appointment, which was done upon Powell’s recommendation, and he approached then-Fontana Police Chief Billy Green, who previously had served as the district police chief, to see if he could temporarily loan a lieutenant to the department to displace Barnett as the acting chief.
An attorney representing Perez, Milton E. Foster of the law firm Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost, at one point in response to a question posed to Perez by Powell’s attorney, Linda Scott, suggested but did not fully expound upon Perez’s hostility toward Powell possibly stemming from Powell’s knowledge about the circumstances relating to Perez’s departure or termination from the Newport Beach Police Department as a trainee and from the San Marino Police Department as an officer, which Foster referred to as “a confidential personnel matter.”
Reports emanating from the district held that Perez began pressuring Bassett to terminate Powell. Powell, sensing that his authority was being challenged, in December 2021 filed a complaint with the district, alleging a hostile work environment and related issues. Rather than acquiesce to the effort to fire Powell, the Sentinel was informed last year, Bassett allowed Powell’s complaint to be processed by the school district’s assistant superintendent of people, Douglas Staine. The investigation of the claim ended with Staine entering a determination sustaining the complaint, the Sentinel was told.
In late 2021 and early 2022, the department was carrying out a recruitment/internal competition for an open sergeant’s post to be created by the departure of Sergeant John Avalos. Among those competing were Detective David Wibert and Officer Norma Bautista. Ultimately, based upon his high score on the exam for the position and his favorable interview, Wibert was selected for the promotion.
In the meantime, however, with Powell’s authority as chief under seeming challenge by one of the members of the board, Bautista in conjunction with another officer, Christian Shaw, raised at both the district level and publicly by going to the press, allegations that in 2012 Wibert had punched an unruly Summit High School student. Furthermore, according to Bautista and Shaw, Detective Wibert had been in more recent years unreasonably aggressive/intimidating toward a student involved in the district’s Fontana Leadership Intervention Program. Those accusations against Detective Wibert raised – or reraised – last spring by Shaw and Bautista paralleled at least in some respects the claims made by Perez with regard to Powell.
An inference raised by the Shaw and Bautista allegations was that Powell, in promoting Wibert to sergeant, had purposefully ignored Wibert’s aggressive – indeed brutal – behavior. In a lawsuit that Bautista has subsequently filed against the school district and the district police department which employs her, she has alleged that women in the department are mistreated and that the predominantly male officers of the department exist as a bunch of “good ol’ boys” who have covered for one another and kept qualified women such as herself from rising in the organization. She maintains that Barnett serving as a member of the panel that interviewed Detective Wibert during her previous competition for promotion to sergeant to replace John Avalos constituted a “conflict of interest” because of the close relationship between Barnett and Wibert.
The public airing of the then-nearly 10-year-old accusations against Wibert relating to the physical assault on the Summit High Student created a mini-scandal that briefly rocked the district and the district police department. In its aftermath, Bassett was eased out as district superintendent.
Wibert and Barnett found themselves under a cloud. Chief Powell noting that the accusations of physical violence involving a student against Detective Wibert were a decade old and that they had been previously investigated, disclosed that they were determined to be without substance. Powell went on record as saying that Detective Wibert and Sergeant Barnett were decent and conscientious law enforcement officers who were being unfairly maligned.
Still, Powell had himself been placed on leave. Whether that was an extension of his December 2021 claim with the California Division of Workers’ Compensation that the “hostile work environment” and “constant harassment” he had been subjected to which resulted in a “stress-related…cumulative injury” manifesting in “constant headaches” has not been made clear by the district, which cites now ongoing litigation by Powell as the basis for declining making a clarification as to whether Powell is no longer employed by the district or is yet out on an extended leave. During Powell’s absence, Wibert’s promotion was never actuated and both he and Barnett were placed on leave, pending an investigation into Shaw’s and Bautista’s allegations of brutality against Wibert and Bautista’s suggestions that Barnett, based on his friendship with Wibert, had colluded with Powell and Sisson in hiding evidence of Wibert’s actions.
Without Powell in place as chief, the district in January 2022 went beyond the department’s ranks to hire Montclair Police Sergeant Steven Griffin, as interim police chief. Griffin, a 17-year veteran with the Montclair Police Department who previously spent more than seven years as a police officer and corporal with the Baldwin Park School Police Department and was a reserve deputy with San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department for two years previous to that, has spent 14 months as acting chief trying as best he can to stay on good terms with everyone at the district, including, most pointedly, Perez.
At this point, Powell remains in limbo. The investigations of Wibert and Barnett have been concluded and they have returned to work. Wibert, however, has not acceded to the sergeant position he had been promoted to. Rather, that entire promotional competition process was rescinded and was done over from scratch. Again, Wibert and Bautista sought the promotion, along with five others. This time, Bautista, just months after the filing of her lawsuit, came out on top. This week, the Fontana School Board ratified her promotion to sergeant.
The promotion of Officer Bautista to sergeant this time around has not sat well with some school district employees. They point out that she and Shaw went to the press with information relating to the accusations against Wibert, offering the newspapers a selective version of events that omitted that Wibert had been cleared in the investigation that took place nearly ten years previously. This ploy, they say, deprived Detective Wibert of a deserved promotion and has ultimately redounded to Bautista advancing in rank. The Sentinel is further told that when Officer Bautista competed for an interim corporal position against Officer Jon McMillan, she was likewise outperformed in testing done for that post.
The ranks of the department take special issue with the allegations contained in Officer Bautista’s lawsuit. They claim the accusations of prejudice and discrimination against women officers are false ones. They point out that Officer Bautista taking recourse in accusing Detective Wibert of intimidation and having an improper friendship with Barnett runs in the face of the consideration that Officer Bautista herself engaged in both an improper relationship with a former colleague, identified to the Sentinel as another officer, Nicole Hauptman, and then intimidated a former assistant principal at Summit High School as a consequence of that relationship.
According to the information provided to the Sentinel, Officer Bautista learned that Officer Hauptman, with whom Bautista was said to be having a relationship, was also involved with the former Summit High School assistant principal. In response, the Sentinel is informed, Bautista, while in uniform, confronted the assistant principal at work, interrogating her about her relationship with Hauptman. In the course of that exchange, the Sentinel is told, Bautista informed the assistant principal that she knew where she lived and that she knew the assistant principal was married and had children, telling the assistant principal that she needed to end the relationship with Nicole Hauptmann.
At one point, Sergeant John Avalos was working up, the Sentinel is informed, an internal affairs investigation into this matter, and told the Summit High School assistant principal that he would have to contact her husband. Ultimately, the Sentinel has learned, the department put the internal affairs investigation on hold when the Summit High School assistant principal pleaded with the department that the matter be dropped. Nevertheless, the Sentinel is given to understand, when the assistant principal was transferred from Summit High to serve as the principal at Palmetto Elementary School, the police department restricted Officer Bautista from responding to the school for any type of calls for service in her capacity as a police officer because of the incident at at Summit High.
In addition, there is unconfirmed word in the community that Officer Bautista, in the aftermath of having been passed over for promotion to corporal in favor of Officer McMillan and while in uniform, confronted Jurupa Hills High School Principal Antonio Viramontes, who was on the promotion interview panel, about that choice.
Bautista’s promotion to sergeant came in the aftermath of her filing of a legal action against the district alleging institutional prejudice against women police officers in the Fontana Unified School District Police Department. Some have drawn the inference that in the most recent competition for a sergeant position, Bautista’s test scores and oral interview ranking showed marked improvement over her previous performances. Conversely, it seems, Wibert did not fare as well this time around, having lost out to Bautista.
It is unclear now whether Sergeant Barnett remains as a sergeant or whether he has been busted to corporal or officer rank and whether Detective Wibert remains as a detective or if he is now reduced to officer rank.
Members of the department point out that the sergeants have exclusive access – including the keys and codes – to 14 assault-style semi-automatic high-powered Colt LE6940 rifles the department keeps as part of its arsenal.
Officer Bautista’s promotion to sergeant seems to signal that the ethos and regime that earlier prevailed under Chief Lee Powell no longer attains. Additionally, her promotion suggests but does not confirm that Chief Powell’s status, which is rather nebulous and seems to hang somewhere in the area between medical leave/short term workers compensation leave and administrative leave, has now been solidified into a determination that he is to be separated from the district, although no official action to that effect has been taken by the district.
The Sentinel sent similarly worded emails to all five members of the Fontana Unified School Board – Board President Marcelino Serna and members Adam Perez, Joe Armendarez, Jennifer Quezada and Mary Sandoval – and Superintendent Miki Inbody, seeking guidance as to the circumstances relating to the district police department and Chief Powell.
The Sentinel asked if the district’s personnel division, the superintendent and all five board members had examined the circumstance surrounding the performances of Detective Wibert, Sergeant Barnett and officers Bautista and Shaw.
The Sentinel asked whether Detective Wibert, and by extension Sergeant Barnett, were exonerated in the investigation that took place during their 2022 suspensions.
The Sentinel asked if there was a determination that there was substance to the allegations of physical violence/intimidation against students on Detective Wibert’s part or if, alternately there was a determination that there was no substance to the allegations of physical violence/intimidation against students on Detective Wibert’s part.
The Sentinel inquire if, indeed, Detective Wibert was cleared of the allegations of physical violence against a student in 2012, whether Officer Shaw’s resurrection of those allegations in 2022 was inappropriate.
The Sentinel sought from the district whether Officer Bautista participated with Officer Shaw in reraising those allegations.
The Sentinel asked if the district had conducted an investigation into Officer Bautista’s alleged intimidation, while in uniform, of the former Summit High assistant principal/Palmetto Elementary School principal as well as the reported attempt at intimidation of Jurupa Hills High School Principal Antonio Viramontes.
The Sentinel inquired as to the exact status of Chief Lee Powell and if there is any prospect that he will return to the district.
The Sentinel asked if Powell has been officially separated from the district.
The Sentinel asked if Powell’s filing of a legal action against the district alleging a hostile work environment and related issues resulted in his being put on leave.
The Sentinel inquired as to why Officer Bautista’s filing of a legal action against the district alleging what is tantamount to a hostile work environment and related issues had not resulted in her being put on leave.
Serna, in his capacity as board president, responded to the Sentinel.
“Unfortunately, you know that I cannot comment on personnel matters, nor will I comment on rumors and speculation,” Serna wrote. “It is our goal as a collective board that our team members are treated fairly, that we do a thorough review of any allegations and take action when needed and respect the privacy of our team members.”
Serna added, “Our job as an educational institution is to create learning spaces where all students feel free to explore and express who they are. At the same time, we believe in treating our employees with respect, follow the policies that govern our district, and be as transparent as possible.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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