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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on February 10th, 2012, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 12, Issue 48 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 12, Issue 48

Chief under fire

Calls for a change in Santa Maria police leadership grow as city leaders urge patience

By JEREMY THOMAS

As the city struggles to make sense of the death of Albert Covarrubias Jr.—the third on-duty Santa Maria police officer shot by colleagues in less than two months—some community members are saying enough is enough.


ā€˜Iā€™m here to give you all a chance to do the right thing by firing Chief Macagni before I submit my complaint to the Department of Justice and attempt to unseat you over the next election cycle. Now is the time to make it happen.ā€™
Ricardo Soto, cousin of slain SMPD officer Albert Coverrubias Jr.

Culminating a week of rapidly evolving developments, the public had its first chance to address city leaders on Feb. 7. An overflowing crowd packed Santa Maria City Hall, as speaker after speaker urged City Council members to direct City Manager Rick Haydon to fire Police Chief Danny Macagni.

Ricardo Soto, a cousin of the slain officer, appeared before the council first, calling on the city’s Latino population to vote out council members unless Macagni is terminated.

“I’m here to give you all a chance to do the right thing by firing Chief Macagni before I submit my complaint to the Department of Justice and attempt to unseat you over the next election cycle,” Soto said. “Now is the time to make it happen.”

With several people in the audience holding up signs reading “Investigate Chief Macagni,” Santa Maria Mayor Larry Lavagnino called for support of the police and urged the public not to rush to judgment until an independent investigation into the shooting incident is completed.

“This has been one of the worst tragedies in our city’s history,” Lavagnino said. “To the Covarrubias family and his friends, I offer my heartfelt condolences. I’m very sorry for your loss.”

 On Jan. 28, officer Covarrubias was shot and killed by fellow officer Matthew Kline as he wrapped up a DUI checkpoint in downtown Santa Maria. According to police, Covarrubias, 29, was under investigation for an illegal sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl, reportedly a member of a Police Explorer group.

Making his first public appearance since his press conference to announce the shooting, Macagni denounced “erroneous” media reports and reiterated the department’s timeline of events, along with several new details.

The teenage victim, who remains unnamed, had confided in an “acquaintance” that she and Covarrubias were involved in a relationship. The acquaintance notified the department on Jan. 26, but the information wasn’t specific enough to justify charges. The next day, detectives attempted to contact the victim, finally reaching her late in the night.

“After hours of interviewing [her] in the presence of her parents, she finally divulged that it was a whole lot more than a minor relationship, a friendship, and an exchange of gifts,” Macagni told the crowd. “It’s at that time she divulged unlawful sexual intercourse, oral copulation, and dissuading a witness at the time.”

According to Macagni, detectives notified supervisors of the allegations close to midnight, and they made a monitored call to Covarrubias as he manned the checkpoint, during which the officer admitted to the relationship. Soon afterward, Macagni said, Covarrubias threatened the victim and appeared suicidal.

“He insisted she not divulge he was involved,” Macagni said. “He said, ‘I’m not going to prison,’ because he knew what he’d done was absolutely wrong. He also made statements during the conversation of, quite frankly, ‘If you tell, I’ll kill you.’”

Macagni said department supervisors were obligated to act, and did so just after 1 a.m. Two sergeants, identified by various sources as Covarrubias’ cousin Chris Nartantez and best friend Matthew Kline, were sent to arrest him and, Macagni said, to save his life. A fight ensued and Covarrubias drew his weapon and shot. Kline fired, mortally wounding the officer.

 “This is not how we wanted this to end up,” Macagni said haltingly. “This is tragic; however, officer Covarrubias did cease to be a police officer and became a felon when he drew his weapon at that particular point.”

Macagni offered no further details, but added that instead of a usual in-house query, the department had agreed to contract with an outside agency to conduct the internal affairs investigation.

 “I ask for [the public’s] patience,” Macagni said. “I know they’re angry, fine, I can understand that, but we’re doing everything we can to have this thing investigated by independent parties … and whatever the results of those investigations are, we’ll accept.”

City Manager Rick Haydon, the only city official with the power to terminate Macagni, said he’s requested the Office of Investigative Review (OIR) perform an independent audit of police practices, procedures, and training tactics, in collaboration with himself and City Attorney Gil Trujillo.

“My desire is for this independent body to come in and take a look at our police department in totality; to have an independent, thorough, unbiased and dispassionate review of the operations of the department,” Haydon said.

The promises of an independent investigation didn’t appear to satisfy most meeting attendees, who saw Covarrubias’ shooting as the latest in a string of errors by the department. Joining the call for a change at the top was Terri Zuniga, who announced her own candidacy for Santa Maria City Council on Feb. 8. Zuniga warned the council of the costs of potential lawsuits and implored members to resist “abdicating responsibility” to Haydon, or risk making the recent shootings an election year issue.

“This community cannot continue to bear the brunt and consequences of having a police department that is lacking ethical, accountable leadership,” Zuniga said.

Several members of the activist group PUEBLO expressed concern about public safety, citing other recent incidents like the “friendly fire” shooting in December 2011, in which SMPD officers Jesse Silva and Joe Lopez were injured by bullets fired by other officers during the attempted arrest of documented gang member Samyr Ceballos.

“We know it will take a long time for this investigation to be completed, but we cannot afford to wait,” said Hazel Putney, PUEBLO’s organizing director. “We don’t know all the details of this case, but the recent shooting of officer Covarrubias is not the first display of Chief Macagni’s incompetence.”

Tom Radzyminski, a current member of the Santa Maria Police Officers Association, spoke on behalf of the union’s board of directors, saying the recent incidents have negatively impacted the morale of police officers, many of whom risk losing their jobs by speaking out.

 “Multiple personnel complaints have been made against the Santa Maria police department administration, and nothing changes,” Radzyminski said. “The city has paid out huge sums of money to settle lawsuits, which have been filed, and nothing changes. What more is it going to take?”

A handful of speakers voiced support for Macagni, including former State Assembly candidate Etta Waterfield, who urged the public to wait until the concurrent investigations are complete before jumping to conclusions.

“[Police] had to make a split decision with one of their own, and that in itself had to have been very, very painful,” Waterfield said. “I think what we need to do is sit back and listen to all the information that comes before the City Council and Rick Haydon and our city attorney, and then we can go ahead and make a decision of what should be done.”

The meeting came just a day after Covarrubias’ family and friends gathered to pay their respects to the deceased officer. Hordes of motorcycles filled the parking lot of Dudley Hoffman Mortuary on a gray Santa Maria afternoon, as members of the Carnales Califa club, to which Covarrubias’ father belongs, gathered to witness the funeral proceedings.

The mortuary filled to over capacity, and several dozen mourners who waited in line to attend the memorial were turned away due to the lack of space. After the service, attended by hundreds, the motorcyclists led the funeral procession to the Santa Maria Cemetery, where Covarrubias was buried.

Covarrubias’ shooting is currently under investigation by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department. According to department spokesman Drew Sugars, the investigation could take weeks or longer.

For Covarrubias’ family members, the answers to their questions couldn’t come soon enough.

“It needs to stop and we need our community to feel safe and not feel like they’re going to be victimized. How many more tragedies and shootings do we need to have before you guys see what’s going on?” Soto, Covarrubias’ cousin, told the City Council.

Staff Writer Jeremy Thomas can be contacted at jthomas@santamariasun.com.




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