Almanac

News - February 2, 2011

Atherton chief: Police probe limited in scope

• Investigator concludes police followed department's standards despite adding false charge to arrest report.

by Renee Batti

Critics of an investigator's report exonerating Atherton police officers of wrongdoing in the alteration of a police report on the arrest of resident Jon Buckheit have called the investigation a whitewash.

But Police Chief Mike Guerra said last week that the investigation applied only to the police department's "personnel standards, conduct and performance," and it is up to the county district attorney to determine whether criminal acts were committed in the case.

Chief Guerra last March asked the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office to investigate Mr. Buckheit's charge that the police report of his 2008 arrest after a domestic violence incident was falsified when an officer added a charge of child assault hours after the original report had been filed. The DA's office and Mr. Buckheit's attorney are negotiating details of how to proceed with that process.

The personnel investigation that was concluded several weeks ago was conducted by Pete Peterson, a former police chief of a small California town. According to a Jan. 14 letter sent to Mr. Buckheit by Chief Guerra, Mr. Peterson concluded that the "acts (that) provided the basis for the complaint or allegation occurred; however, the investigation revealed that they were justified, lawful and proper."

Regarding Mr. Buckheit's charge that the police report had been criminally falsified, Chief Guerra said that the investigation conclusively proved that the addition of the child assault charge did not constitute "falsification" of the report.

The Almanac and members of the public will not be able to examine the entire report filed by Mr. Peterson, Chief Guerra said, because laws are in place protecting the confidentiality of internal personnel investigations.

In January 2010, Mr. Buckheit was granted a declaration of factual innocence in San Mateo County Superior Court. Atherton Police Officer Tony Dennis testified during the factual-innocence court proceedings that, although the police report bore his signature, the section recommending criminal charges for assaulting a child who was present during the domestic violence incident was not written by him.

During the trial, Judge Mark Forcum stated that "there's absolutely no basis to believe that Mr. Buckheit ever laid a finger on the child," according to the court transcript.

An examination of the police database showed that Officer Dean DeVlugt had added the child assault charge several hours after Officer Dennis submitted the report.

Mr. Buckheit, who has reviewed a copy of the Peterson report, said that Mr. Peterson blamed limitations of the computer system used for filing police reports for the addition of false information in the arrest report.

He said the report also stated that Judge Forcum, who granted Mr. Buckheit the factual innocence declaration, "is unfamiliar with how the county's domestic violence protocol works."

Mr. Buckheit strongly opposed Mr. Peterson's hiring, and pushed the town to ask a judge or retired judge to appoint a neutral investigator. The town instead authorized the hiring of Mr. Peterson, at a rate of $125 per hour, capped at $5,000 unless the city manager approved additional pay.

Chief Guerra said earlier this week that he didn't know how much the investigation cost, but that it didn't exceed the $5,000 cap.

Mr. Buckheit dismissed the findings of the Peterson investigation, and continues his push to have the matter investigated by an outside agency other than the DA's office, noting that the county is among the defendants in a federal lawsuit he has filed regarding the arrest and its aftermath. The state Attorney General's Office or the FBI would be more appropriate agencies to conduct the investigation, he maintains.

Meanwhile, Mr. Buckheit is asking for a meeting with Chief Guerra to discuss the investigation. He told The Almanac that among his questions is: Why wasn't he interviewed by Mr. Peterson before the investigation was concluded?

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