The steamy details about how Detective Jeffrey Vasquez was found with a prostitute in a Sunnyvale motel room and then admitted to police officers that he had propositioned her — and that it wasn't his first time soliciting a hooker — are detailed elsewhere in today's edition. But just as troubling as this egregious dereliction of duty is the blanket of secrecy that is "de rigueur" in cases when an officer's conduct is questioned in any way.
Under California law, serious misbehavior as in the Vasquez affair is subject to an internal affairs investigation conducted by the police department. All details of the investigation, even that one is being conducted, are confidential personnel matters, as are complaints about misconduct and disciplinary records. In other words, city employees who might know that an internal affairs investigation is being conducted are forbidden from discussing the matter with outsiders and could be disciplined if they do.
If not for a reporter who accidentally overheard a conversation in a Menlo Park bar, the Vasquez case never would have come to light, including the fact that he continues to serve the city as a uniformed officer.
Most of what we know about the Vasquez case came from Santa Clara County, where court records provided substantial detail about how the Menlo Park detective found himself with time to spare in Sunnyvale while on a mission to serve a subpoena. When discovering that his subject would be unavailable for an hour, Officer Vasquez decided to arrange a date with a prostitute at a Motel 6. It was his bad luck that Sunnyvale police chose the same time to serve outstanding warrants on the prostitute, and found the officer in the room's bathroom with no clothes on. He and the prostitute admitted they had met for sex, which constitutes soliciting for prostitution, leading to the misdemeanor charge filed against him, according to court records.
Now, although the court records remain on file, the assistant district attorney who supervised the case told the Almanac that he was forced to drop the charges when the arresting officer could not testify at the trial.
But even with lurid details and admissions by both parties in the case, the city of Menlo Park was unable to dismiss Detective Vasquez, after an arbitrator ruled in his favor. The city apparently could have paid him to leave, but City Manager Alex McIntyre was overheard saying that that would be "a million dollar check."
In the state-mandated secret internal affairs investigation process, an officer can appeal a disciplinary decision to the city manager. But under Menlo Park's contract with police, if the manager upholds the action, the officer can then appeal to binding arbitration, taking the decision completely out of the city's hands. This is a key flaw in the process, allowing an anonymous person who may have no knowledge of the community to rule on extremely important and sensitive cases.
Over the years, state law and local labor contracts have added more and more protections for police officers who are involved in misconduct, including making sure that no details reach the public. In this case, it is not clear whether the arbitrator would have upheld dismissal of Detective Vasquez if he had been convicted of the misdemeanor. But whether convicted or not, Detective Vasquez admitted to the investigating officer that he was guilty of the charge.
How can it be possible that this officer continues to patrol the streets of Menlo Park? The public has a right to know the entire story about how an arbitrator saved Detective Vasquez's job despite substantial evidence of misconduct.