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City investigating officers in hidden camera charge
The NAACP has alleged that male employees of Ceres Police Department have violated the law by placing cameras under the desk of a female coworker and in a room used for dressing. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

Rumors about male city Ceres Public Safety Department employees placing video cameras under a female worker's desk and changing rooms were brought to light before the Sept. 8 City Council meeting by representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP).

Those rumors are apparently true, with the city confirming yesterday that the "Ceres Police Department recently conducted, or is in the process of conducting, two separate internal affairs investigations." A city press release indicated that the first case was initiated in October 2013 and the city took corrective action. The second investigation was initiated in May and is ongoing.

The city refused to divulge information regarding peace officer personnel matters. Both cases were sent to the District Attorney's Office for a review of any possible criminal charges.

In the press release Acting Chief Brent Smith said, "I want to assure the public that we take personnel complaints very seriously. Each case is thoroughly investigated and handled according to department policy and state law. The Ceres Police Department remains committed to the people of Ceres and will continue to ensure its employees work in a professional manner."

Stanislaus County NAACP chapter president Frank Johnson and other chapter officers took turns addressing the rumors and sharply criticizing the council under the "Citizen Communication" section of last week's meeting.
City Attorney Mike Lyions confirmed that "proceedings are pending" regarding the conduct of one or more employees but said "other than that, that's all I can say. It's all confidential."

Lyions said state law prescribe the rights of various types of employees and said the city has personnel rules that prescribe how disciplinary actions are handled and spell out the rights of both the city and employees. He said the city has followed all the prescriptions and noted "these matters get involved and complicated in procedures and confidentiality has to be respected."

"The matter should have never been leaked because it is confidential," said Lyions. "Where and how it was leaked is very difficult to say ... we're trying to keep all of this completely confidential ... it's very difficult because invariably somebody will tell somebody else and it becomes convoluted and it doesn't come out exactly right."

The source of the leak has not been determined.

Monica Ventura of Ceres, the publicist for the local NAACP, called the rumors "heinous and disgusting and tragic." She noted that the rumor is that cameras were also placed in rooms "where they felt comfortable enough to change in."

Ventura said the officers in question were terminated and reinstated, something Lyions could not address.

"How do you think the victims felt to have all their hope and security ripped away from them after they've been violated?" asked Ventura. She said she is "furious that nothing has been done about it" and pledged to further investigate and publicly identify the rights that have been violated.

A woman identifying herself as only Ashley, a secretary for the NAACP chapter, said she received numerous phone calls about the allegations. She would not give her last name "for fear of retaliation," and likened the violations against the female victims as being "pretty much raped by their own coworkers."

In answer to remarks made at the meeting, Lyions said statements were "half-truths" and added "they don't have it right."

Johnson said the NAACP has "dug deep to find the
legitimacy of this rumor and we're still digging."

Johnson has spoken at a number of council meetings this year, leveling different types of charges against the city and decrying deWerk's departure.

"I hope it's just a rumor," Johnson told the council, "but if this is not a rumor I can only think of one thing: You had a man that changed this city and brought forth many, many positive things but yet he had to sign a contract ... (that) prevents him from being on city property or having anything whatsoever to do with this city but yet you allow perpetrators, and to me if these rumors are true these guys are criminals. That's a criminal act. Has the district attorney been advised of this?"

Johnson also railed against the "lack of qualifications" for the man appointed to fill the former chief's shoes. Lt. Brent Smith, who was appointed acting police chief in deWerk's absence, was not at the council meeting because of a vacation and could not be reached for comment.

Johnson hinted at department unrest, claiming that the department has 16 officers who "are leaving this city or trying to leave or have applied to leave, five in one area alone, Livermore, one in Tahoe. What's going on?"
"It hasn't even been a year and there's been more destruction within this council on your watch than I have ever seen. This is very serious."

Councilman Ken Lane said he was aware of the first officer dismissal but not the second allegation.

"We're not privy to personnel matters unless lawsuits are involved," said Lane. "These are serious allegations and I think something we should be brought up to speed on."

It is a crime in California to use a camera to secretly photograph or record a person's body under or through his or her clothing for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification; or to record or photograph another person in a private room in order to view that person's body or undergarments. Peeking while loitering and invasion of privacy both fall under the general umbrella of California disorderly conduct. As such, they are misdemeanors, punishable by up to six months in county jail or a fine of up to $1,000.

During the same meeting, Ed Persike, a friend and staunch defender of deWerk who has publicly questioned the council's handling of deWerk's separation, Persike eluded to human resources issues that will "cost hundreds of thousands of dollars."

"As I understand, you will be facing two major HR issues," said Persike, referencing "the second "major issue" with two different male employees.

"To me, to manage the people if you have abhorrent behavior, I think you need to remove those people from positions of power - especially if they're carrying guns and working under the auspices of a badge - then I think that you need to pay particular attention to the overall behavior."

Persike said the council has "muffed the issue so far" and predicted the city will be paying out thousands in settlements over lawsuits.

"It's going to cost us a bundle," said Persike. "I think you need to be tougher on your (city) manager, your HR director and your chief of police."