News - March 23, 2011

Investigator clears Atherton officers accused in Johns complaint

by Renee Batti

For the second time in two months, an outside investigator hired by the town has declared that citizen complaints against Atherton police officers are unfounded.

John Johns, the town's former finance director who successfully sued Atherton for wrongful termination, had accused officers of evidence tampering, retaliation, illegal search and seizure, and unlawful detention related to an August 2007 incident.

Mr. Johns filed the citizen's complaint in February 2010. He named Sgt. Sherman Hall, Sgt. Tim Lynch, Sgt. Kristin Nichols, and Officer Tim Marks. He also complained of then-police chief Robert Brennan's conduct during the incident.

The town hired Pete Peterson, a former police chief of Clayton, California, to investigate Mr. Johns' complaint. During the investigation, Mr. Johns sought to add Officer Brad Mills to the list of officers to be reviewed.

Atherton Police Chief Mike Guerra on March 10 notified Mr. Johns of the investigation's findings: all allegations are "unfounded." The report itself, he said, is confidential under provisions of the state's penal code regarding personnel investigations.

The cost of the investigation was $6,968.75, according to police Lt. Joe Wade.

Mr. Johns has challenged several elements of the investigation, and said he will seek a new review of the alleged police misconduct. Among his challenges is that he named five current officers in his complaint and amendments. Yet, the findings announced by Chief Guerra refer to only four officers.

He also said that not all of the violations he alleges were committed against him were addressed.

Asked why only four officers were investigated, Lt. Wade said Mr. Johns' allegation against Officer Mills was unrelated to the others, and therefore did not fall under the scope of the Peterson investigation.

Mr. Johns has since asked Chief Guerra for "information that would help me reconcile my citizen's complaints with the investigations Mr. Peterson purportedly conducted" — information he needs to file a new complaint, he said.

If the information is not provided, he wrote in a March 17 e-mail to Chief Guerra, "I am prepared to file a writ of mandamus in California Superior Court to require you to release the Peterson ... report and to initiate an investigation of those allegations that I have brought to your attention directly and through Mr. Peterson that have so far been ignored."

Mr. Johns' complaints stem from his detention in Town Center by officers, including then-police chief Brennan, when he was on administrative leave from his town post. Mr. Johns maintains that the incident was in retaliation for his reviews of police department spending that cited irregularities. He was fired two months later.

Mr. Peterson also conducted the investigation into resident Jon Buckheit's complaints against the department over the alteration of a police report detailing Mr. Buckheit's 2008 arrest during a domestic violence incident.

Mr. Buckheit and other residents had protested the hiring of Mr. Peterson, and pushed instead for the appointment of an outside investigator by a judge or former judge.

Mr. Peterson concluded in January that Mr. Buckheit's complaints were "unfounded," a ruling Mr. Buckheit challenged as incomprehensible.


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