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How did this California police department hire so many officers with troubling pasts?

Photo above by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG

This story appeared in the Mercury News and other newspapers across California on November 11, 2019

By Katey Rusch (’20) and Laurence DuSault (’20)

McFARLAND — They hired a cop investigated in an FBI child porn probe, and another caught up in an LAPD burglary ring. They gave a job to an officer who filed a bogus insurance claim for a car his friends dumped in Mexico. And they brought in a cop with a conviction for pulling a gun on his stepdaughter’s friends.

The McFarland Police Department knew that many of its officers had dubious backgrounds — but it hired them anyway. And they weren’t the only ones who got a second chance.

One officer was accused in a lawsuit of having sex with a teenage police explorer scout; another of threatening to jail women if they didn’t have sex with him. At least three more had DUIs.

This farming town in California’s Central Valley was celebrated in a Disney movie for its against-all-odds high school cross country team. But over the last decade, it’s built another reputation: a destination for police running from unsavory pasts.

“I hate to say it,” said former McFarland Officer Steve Chisholm, “but they’re mostly the guys no one else wants.”

One of every five officers who worked at the McFarland Police Department in the last decade — 16 in total — had been previously fired, sued for misconduct or convicted of a crime — including two of its most recent police chiefs.

“We had such a hard time trying to find adequate police officers,” said Greg Herrington, one of those former chiefs.

Herrington was fired in the ‘90s from a police job in Georgia after crashing his unmarked car while drunk. He regrets his decision to drive home but says he was working undercover and never should’ve been fired.

“Everybody makes mistakes,” Herrington said. “DUIs are nothing in law enforcement.”

A map of California highlighting major cities such as Sacramento, San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego. McFarland is prominently marked with a red dot and label near Bakersfield. Major highways like I-5 and Highway 99 are also depicted.

Courtesy Bay Area News Group

‘The ones I turned down scared me’

How could one police department make so many questionable hires? For one, California does close to nothing to stop problem police officers from popping up at job after job. The state doesn’t flag disgraced officers to potential employers or revoke their badges. Instead, it’s up to local police chiefs to decide when a candidate is too tainted to hire. And some, like McFarland, set the bar extraordinarily low.

“I can understand that you would like everybody to be squeaky clean, but I didn’t have that world to live in,” said David Frazer, McFarland’s first police chief. “The ones that I turned down scared me, really scared me. Drug use, recent DUIs, just stuff in their background that was just like ‘are you kidding me?’”

Reporters from the Investigative Reporting Program at UC-Berkeley unraveled the breadth of McFarland’s roster of second-chance cops during an extensive review of criminal court records, lawsuits, police internal affairs reports and other documents as part of a statewide coalition of news organizations examining California officers with criminal records.

“There’s these little agencies that just do a despicable job,” said Tom Barham, a former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s lieutenant-turned-attorney who has represented both sides in law enforcement lawsuits. “They hire these officers that travel from one department to another with a terrible portfolio.”

McFarland, USA

McFarland sits 25 miles northwest of Bakersfield, nestled between rows of grapevines and almond trees. It’s still dark outside when families pack into dusty Hondas, straw hats ready to block the unforgiving sun of California’s Central Valley. Farmworkers head to the fields by the hundreds. Many struggle to earn a livable wage – a third of McFarland’s 15,000 residents live below the poverty line.

But when the sun sets, longtime residents don’t always feel safe on streets where the territories of two of California’s largest gangs meet.

“There’s been shootings there,” Danny Diaz, a McFarland native and one of the town’s former cross country stars, said pointing at the red-and-white playground near McFarland High School. “With my kids playing basketball, and my kids are running, and bullets are flying.”

So in 2009 the city re-established its police force after decades of relying on the Kern County Sheriff, in an effort to cut costs and gain control over who was patrolling their streets.

But finding a dozen solid officers willing to work at a brand new Central Valley police department that offers one of California’s lowest-starting salaries for full-time patrol officers — $20 an hour — was nothing like staffing a hot Silicon Valley startup.

Frazer, the first chief, and his successor, David Oberhoffer, a veteran of the San Francisco Police Department, each lasted less than a year. Oberhoffer was in charge when protesters marched on City Hall, enraged over a partnership between the city and a towing company they said led police to target immigrants for traffic stops.

The scandal was only the beginning of years of mistrust between the community and its police department. McFarland native and City Councilman Rafael Melendez said since taking office in 2012, he’s fielded countless complaints about everything from police harassing farmworkers to  giving preferential treatment to friends.

While officers might show up for events like “Coffee with the Cops,” Dollar General store manager Denise Camacho says “they just don’t respond to emergency calls” and laugh at her for calling in petty thefts.

And when they do make arrests, their word doesn’t always hold up in court. Enterprising defense attorneys can use the rogue cops’ past problems to challenge their credibility.

When asked whether McFarland officers have created problems prosecuting crime suspects, Kern County Deputy District Attorney Joe Kinzel said, “You would not be wrong to say that.”

‘Cream of the crop’

Less than two years after the department opened, at least 13 officers who had trouble in other agencies had landed jobs in McFarland.

The second chief, Oberhoffer, was in charge when most of them were hired: There were officers who had been fired for incompetence; sued for sexual harassment; convicted of false imprisonment. They even hired a cop still on probation who had not one, but two DUIs.

Oberhoffer insists he wasn’t collecting rejects. The recession had put so many officers out of work, “it was a buyer’s market,” he said, “and I picked the cream of the crop.”

Among those picks was Ron Navarreta, who was fired from the Inglewood Police Department near L.A. after being entangled in a child pornography probe.

Internal police records show an FBI investigation found the screen name “PlyGroUdObsver” linked to his email account, and indicate that Navarreta admitted to viewing photos of naked children. But when the FBI asked to search his computer, Navarreta said it had been sold to a stranger earlier that year. With insufficient evidence, the U.S. Attorney declined to file criminal charges. Efforts to reach Navarreta were unsuccessful.

Oberhoffer knew about the accusations, but said he thought the FBI investigation was not convincing and that Inglewood might have fired Navarreta because of a grudge: “I think that somebody was out to get him.”

A chief who gives you a chance

McFarland’s tolerance for officers with tarnished pasts didn’t end with Oberhoffer’s departure. The city replaced him by promoting an officer with his own questionable history: Gregory Herrington, one of the department’s original hires. He took over as chief in 2011 despite his DUI conviction in Georgia and firing for dishonesty from the Riverside County town of Banning.

“My hope was to change the image of the department, which was at a toilet level,” said Herrington, a retired Marine who specialized in gang investigations. But he admits he was shy about cleaning house: “I can get sued. Why do I want that?”

Instead, he tapped into a pipeline of outcasts from his old department — the Banning PD.

Herrington was chief when McFarland signed on three more officers fired from Banning for dishonesty. He was also in charge when the department added an officer sued for misconduct during his time at the Los Angeles County police force of Maywood, which was so dysfunctional it shut down in 2010.

Herrington even wrote a letter promising to offer a full-time job to reserve Officer Steven Nieves if a judge dismissed his false imprisonment conviction and terminated his probation early.

The move fit the chief’s philosophy, which former McFarland Officer Freddy Ramirez remembers: “He would say, ‘I don’t care if you had a DUI seven years ago, if you were arrested for tagging, drugs, misdemeanors, whatever,’” said Ramirez, whose records show no criminal history. “I don’t give a s–t; I will give you one chance’.”

‘Bunch of misfits’

Leonard Purvis couldn’t believe it. As chief of police in the Southern California city of Banning, the lawman nicknamed Mr. Clean ran nearly a dozen officers out of the department for everything from insubordination to insurance fraud.

“It was tough,” he repeats more than once. “It was a s—hole. It was a second-chance agency; you had a bunch of misfits there.”

Between 2008 and 2011, an unapologetic Purvis got rid of a quarter of Banning’s police force in a purge he hoped would rebuild trust in the community and faith in the local justice system. But it turned out he was just sending the trouble somewhere else.

One by one, eight of the 10 officers Purvis had forced out were wielding power again, 220 miles away, in McFarland. Their influence went all the way to the top.

“For two of them to actually become chiefs?” said Purvis. “Disgusting.”

For years, Purvis waited for somebody from McFarland to call or write to ask about the qualifications of their new hires. “Any decent background investigator,” the former chief said in a recent interview, “that’s the first thing you would do.”

On Halloween 2012, Purvis stopped waiting. He was outraged by a news report that McFarland’s top cops were “shocked” when one of the officers they had hired was indicted — and later convicted — for an insurance fraud scheme dating back to his days with the Banning PD.

If they had bothered to ask, Purvis said, he would have told them Officer Allen Eley had been fired, but eventually allowed to resign, for falsifying documents so the city’s medical insurance would cover his girlfriend and her children.

So Purvis did something highly unusual. He fired off letters demanding an investigation into McFarland’s police department. He sent one to the commission that sets training standards for California law enforcement, known as POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training). He sent another to California’s Attorney General at the time, now presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris.

In the letters, Purvis described McFarland as “a rogue agency, employing officers who should never wear a badge again and be entrusted with peace officer powers,” he wrote. “Their actions erode public confidence and the belief of most citizens that only the ‘best of the best’ should be allowed into the law enforcement profession.”

Purvis wondered: How was McFarland getting away with this?

California, one of the weakest

Simply put, California lets problem officers keep their badges.

Roger Goldman, an emeritus law professor at Saint Louis University, says police with bad records staying on the force is a nationwide problem – to which California is among the most vulnerable. In most states, oversight agencies have the ability to decertify problem officers, making them ineligible to work in law enforcement in their state. But according to research led by Goldman, California is one of five states that doesn’t provide that watchdog role.

That’s something Purvis learned in no uncertain terms.

Two months after he had sent out his pleas demanding an investigation into McFarland’s police force, Purvis got a letter back from POST’s interim executive director shooting him down.

“The decision whether to appoint an individual as a peace officer rests with the agency head,” he wrote. “Differences of opinion can exist regarding whether or not an individual should be appointed as a peace officer.”

As for his letter to Kamala Harris’ office — the AG’s office says it has no record of it, and Purvis doesn’t recall ever getting a response.

The chief who got away

Purvis left the job in Banning after six grueling years — and a series of wrongful termination and discrimination lawsuits.

Less than a year later, in 2014, yet another officer Purvis had forced out would become chief in McFarland. Court documents, police department records and more than a dozen interviews reveal that the new chief, Scot Kimble, was bringing with him his own trail of troubling allegations.

On a Friday afternoon in 2004, then-Banning corporal Kimble was on his way to work when he pushed his Suzuki Hayabusa past 100 mph with a California Highway Patrol officer on his tail, records show. “I’m sure I was speeding like everybody else out there,” Kimble said during a recent interview.

He was handcuffed and arrested right in front of his own police department, said Herrington, who was also with the Banning PD at the time.

“We saw it all,” Herrington said. “The whole shebang!”

Kimble has worked for at least eight law enforcement agencies in the past 30 years, and was forced out by at least two.

“He’s like that black cat that has nine lives,” said Ramirez about Kimble, his former boss.

During his eight years at Banning, Kimble was the focus of at least eight internal investigations, documents obtained for this story show. In one, he was accused of having sex while on duty with a woman he’d met when she was 17. At the time, Kimble was 38. When she tried to end the relationship, he allegedly became violent, according to a petition for a temporary restraining order that’s on file in the Riverside County courthouse. In it, the woman claimed Kimble “pushed [her] to the cement” and noted she was “extremely terrified” for her safety.

Like many alleged victims of domestic violence, the woman didn’t follow through with the petition and an investigation by the Banning PD found insufficient evidence to discipline Kimble.

When a reporter read that excerpt to Kimble during a recent interview, he dismissed it.

“This is the first time I’m hearing this, so it never happened,” Kimble said, admitting he knows the woman but denying any sexual involvement. “It’s all lies.”

‘Can you fix this?’

Court records show that many McFarland officers — including Kimble — found ways through legal challenges to seal their disciplinary records at previous jobs and revise their personnel files to turn terminations into resignations — a frequent tactic among law enforcement.

Even so, Herrington knew about some of the issues in Kimble’s past — but hired his old patrol buddy as a sergeant in McFarland anyway. And when Herrington resigned three years later, McFarland’s city manager would turn to Kimble and ask him to clean up the department. “Can you fix this?” he asked.

“I said, ‘Yes, sir,’” recalled Kimble, who stopped the tide of questionable hires and was at the helm when four of McFarland’s “second-chance” cops left.

“I got the fallout of a lot of mess,” said Kimble, who says he leaned on his faith and started emphasizing “community policing.” Many remember his department’s Easter egg hunts, Christmas carols and “tacos with the team.”

But few knew that Kimble was being accused of misconduct again. Officer Laurence Keegan, a former contractor, claimed in a civil suit filed in 2018 that the chief had forced him to remodel his San Bernardino County home and tried to use police department overtime funds to compensate him. Kimble denied knowing about the legal action, despite court records that show his attorney was served on his behalf.

And that’s not the end of the story. Kern County DA spokesman Joe Kinzel confirmed his office is currently investigating whether Kimble misused city funds.

“I have been questioned,” Kimble acknowledged in an interview, “That’s all I’m going to say.”

Expressing outrage over the list of accusations, Kimble blamed former officers for trying to ruin his reputation, saying that many of McFarland’s problem officers left under his regime.

“Do you think those guys don’t still try to stir up garbage against me? The same guys who have told me face to face that I’m going to make sure you get fired as a chief when they no longer had a job,” he said.

Kimble, however, did not get fired by McFarland. This spring, the career cop left to take a new job with a lucrative state pension 50 miles away. In April, he was sworn in as the city of Arvin’s police chief.

Unbroken cycle

Meanwhile, the search for McFarland’s next permanent chief was put on hold this spring when longtime city manager John Wooner mysteriously vanished. He was found dead 2 ½ months later, submerged in the Kern River in his city-owned Dodge Durango.

Interim police Chief Janet Davis said she’ll be in McFarland until things settle down. While she’s chief, she says she’ll have no patience for the kind of misconduct that was tolerated here in the last decade.

“If you ask me, would I hire people with criminal records, the answer is no,” said Davis, a 36-year veteran who led the police department in the Fresno County town of Clovis.

But two officers with criminal pasts are still on McFarland’s roster.

McFarland’s highest-ranking officer, Corporal Brian Wilson, had a DUI conviction long before he started in McFarland. And in 2018, sources say Wilson was investigated after a rape allegation. Kern County deputies recommended criminal charges, according to Kinzel, the Kern County deputy DA. Sources with knowledge of the investigation say Wilson contended the encounter was consensual, and the District Attorney declined to prosecute because there was “insufficient evidence.”

Steven Nieves is the other McFarland officer with a criminal record still on the roster. He’s been on military leave for over five years, but federal law guarantees his job when he returns from duty.

Steve Nieves

Nieves is the one whom Herrington hired full time after a judge terminated his probation early — a move that prosecutors opposed. Two years before he ended up in McFarland, Nieves had burst into a home in the San Bernardino County town of Fontana in search of his runaway stepdaughter. Gabriel Pastora, who was inside the house, said he remembers Nieves claiming to be from the local police and holding him and his sister at gunpoint, demanding they reveal where his stepdaughter was hiding. Nieves chose not to comment for this story.

“I’m honestly shocked that he still has a job,” Pastora said.

McFarland wasn’t the final stop for many of its former troubled cops. Some work as private investigators, but some found their way to other agencies. Michael Muriello, the officer accused at a past job of sexually harassing immigrants, is a sergeant at the Compton Unified School District Police Department. Marcus Futch, who was fired from Banning for failing to show up to court hearings, is an officer at the Desert Hot Springs Police Department.

For others, the legal troubles continued after McFarland. Officer Michael Weber was convicted of a felony — later reduced to a misdemeanor — for using another officer’s name and Social Security number to open a PG&E account. Even before he was hired in McFarland, he’d lost his job with the Banning PD after a domestic violence arrest that never resulted in charges.

Scott Jensen, who had been fired by the Mt. San Jacinto College police department for not reporting a superior’s sexual misconduct, was arrested in 2017 on a charge of soliciting “femme dom” sex from a prostitute who turned out to be an undercover officer. He completed a military diversion program this month to dismiss the case.

And Herrington, the former chief, was convicted again in 2018 for forging another former officer’s signature on a private investigator license application — a charge Herrington calls bogus.

Yet, even that latest run-in with the law didn’t stop Herrington from quietly landing another law enforcement job. Just weeks after sitting down for an interview with a reporter at a park in Santa Rosa, he picked up the phone at the Lovelock Paiute Tribe Police Department in Nevada:

“Chief Herrington,” he answered.

This story is part of a collaboration of news organizations throughout California coordinated by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and the Bay Area News Group. Reporters participated from more than 30 newsrooms, including MediaNews Group, McClatchy, USA Today Network, Voice of San Diego, and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Click here to read more about the project.

Special thanks to the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation and the Fund for Investigative Journalism for supporting this investigation.

Production Staff & Crew

Laurence Du Sault

Laurence Du Sault ( 2020 )

Katey Rusch

Katey Rusch ( 2020 )