LOS ANGELES – Knowing that one of their officers was having sex with a 17-year-old Explorer program member, police in the central coast city of Santa Maria hatched a plan to immediately arrest him after he indicated he would rather kill himself than go to jail.
Use-of-force experts are split on whether that decision was the right call. The result was fatal shooting of the officer by a colleague while on duty at a DUI checkpoint.
Although local prosecutors deemed the shooting legally justified this week, it is the subject of a pair of independent investigations that will examine the department's response.
"In order to minimize the potential of serious injury or death, this is the worst plan they could have come up with by confronting him at the scene with the information they had," said William Flynn, a retired lieutenant with the West Covina Police Department. "This simply didn't have to happen," said Flynn, who reviewed an 18-page report about the shooting.
Officer Matt Kline, a five-year veteran, killed Officer Alberto Covarrubias early Jan. 28 as two sergeants tried to wrestle a loaded handgun from him. Covarrubias fired a round before being shot.
Kline was not only a friend of Covarrubias, he had been best man at his wedding weeks earlier.
The shooting rocked Santa Maria, a city of 100,000 in an agricultural region about 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
Covarrubias, part of a 112-officer force, was under investigation for having sex with a teenage girl who was part of the Explorer program, which gives young people the opportunity to explore a career in law enforcement. They go on ride-alongs, and learn to write reports and direct traffic to get a taste of a law enforcement career.
Police used a ruse by having the girl call Covarrubias and tell him she might be pregnant with his child. Covarrubias asked the girl to deny they had sex and said he would kill himself before facing the prospect of going to jail.
"Based on the information at hand, it was decided it was necessary to act immediately and arrest the officer," the Santa Barbara County district attorney's office said in the report.
One factor made the situation even more tenuous: Covarrubias was aware police were investigating an undisclosed incident involving an Explorer and suspected the probe was focused on him and the teenage girl.
"If I get caught I'm done," Covarrubias texted the girl the night before the shooting, according to the report. He added, "Let's not worry."
Flynn said instead of formulating a plan to isolate Covarrubias, Santa Maria police tried to arrest him on duty at the DUI checkpoint where there were other armed officers unaware of what was going on. Flynn said police had various options at their disposal, including waiting until Covarrubias had returned to the station.
"In this situation they needed to deescalate it, but in my opinion they did nothing but escalate it," he said. "They are lucky no other officers were injured."
Gregory D. Lee, a criminal justice consultant and retired supervisory special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said because Covarrubias saw his life crumbling, police had to make the arrest sooner than later.
"They thought it was time-critical," Lee said. "You don't know how people are going to react to certain situations. I think they used their best judgment at the time."
City Manager Rick Haydon said there are two parallel independent investigations that will look at how police handled the incident. One is being handled by two retired law enforcement officers as part of an internal affairs investigation. The other will be conducted by the Office of Independent Review, a Los Angeles County law enforcement watchdog agency.
Haydon declined to comment further about the prosecutor's report on the shooting, only to say it was comprehensive and "very detailed."
Kline remains on paid administrative leave.
Covarrubias's family has filed a claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, against the city of Santa Maria. The family's attorney, Gil Alvandi, said his office is conducting its own investigation and he disagrees that the fatal shooting was justified.
"We feel that the investigation was conducted with a predetermined outcome clearing the city and its officials of any wrongdoing," Alvandi said. "The attempt to protect officials at the highest levels of the police department is blatant and unacceptable."
Alvandi pointed out there were roughly a dozen instances where police brass showed concern with the plan to arrest Covarrubias but it went ahead anyway in a "reckless and haphazard manner."
One of the sergeants who tried to get the gun away from Covarrubias, who happened to be his cousin, questioned before the shooting why they had to make the arrest that night. A lieutenant responded that Covarrubias may be suicidal and wasn't going to be taken alive, according to the report.
"This is about the worst case scenario you can come up with," Lee said. "It's 'Peyton Place.' It's a mess."