Editorial: DA should investigate Gilroy Police lawsuit

Royce Heath

If there’s one thing the salacious and damaging sex scandal lawsuit filed against the Gilroy police this month proves, it’s that we need more transparency in policing the police.
The suit, filed by 25-year veteran dispatcher Patricia Harrell, who was fired two years ago, alleges that members of the Gilroy police department sexually harassed her and that she was punished for reporting it. She says the department was rife with scandalous sex activities, including wife-swapping parties, drunken pool soirees in which women exposed themselves in proximity to minors and officers had inappropriate sexual relations with members of the youth volunteer Police Explorers.
The department has gone silent on the charges—claiming they can’t talk about a pending lawsuit or of personnel matters—at precisely the moment when they need to be openly and transparently engaging in public discussion. The public that pays police salaries and has a very direct and immediate interest in public safety has been frustratingly left in the dark.
We know some things, but the dots are harder to connect. Royce Heath was promoted to captain and then unceremoniously demoted to patrol officer. The department will not reveal why he was downgraded. The lawsuit suggests he was involved in wife swapping with other officers and got into a fight over it.
We won’t know the truth unless the case comes to trial, but the public deserves to know why an officer was demoted, particularly one in command who, with overtime, was the department’s highest-paid officer. Another officer named in the suit resigned from the department. The suit alleges he had relations with an Explorer.
Without good information, people outside the inner circle can only guess at the answers. Shouldn’t the public should be notified about police misconduct and resulting staffing changes?
Former Police Chief Denise Sellers says the suit is a pack of lies. And maybe that’s true. However, the way pertinent facts are hidden from view by the department casts suspicion. Departments elsewhere were decimated when internal crimes were brushed under the rug.
About a third of the officers of the King City Police Department were convicted of stealing cars from indigent immigrants. That case was broken after the Monterey County District Attorney investigated comments made on the KSBW-TV website about police stealing cars.
(The officers, by the way, got slaps on the wrist, with the toughest sentence being 30 days in jail that didn’t have to be served and unsupervised probation.)
Then there’s Oakland, where two dozen police officers had sex with an underage prostitute. That case came to light when an officer mentioned it in a suicide note and a federal judge monitoring the department took action.
Neither of these cases was brought out by internal investigations. When other officers found out about the crimes, they didn’t turn in their fellow officers, they joined them.
In an interview, former Police Chief Denise Sellers said the Gilroy case isn’t like those and that there’s no scandal.
As much as we’d like to believe her, there’s no narrative to counter what’s been presented in the lawsuit. Until the Dispatch published that suit, Gilroyans thought of GPD as one of the squeakiest, cleanest and open departments around. Hopefully, that’s still true.
But we think the case needs to be looked at by outside officials, in part because there are allegations of sex with minors and lewd and lascivious behavior around minors.
In an email, the Santa Clara District Attorney’s office had this to say about the case:
“There are some circumstances where the District Attorney’s Office initiates a criminal investigation. In circumstances like these, we encourage victims of crime to file a report with the police. We regularly review reports to determine if a crime has been committed and if so, if we can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”
That’s not enough.