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News / Nation & World

Female commander fired after drunken incident calls out LAPD ‘double standard’

By Libor Jany, Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times
Published: August 13, 2023, 6:17am

When LAPD Cmdr. Nicole Mehringer was caught drunk in an unmarked police car with a male subordinate with whom she was romantically involved, her actions drew a rare public rebuke from the chief of police.

The 2014 allegations against Mehringer and Sgt. James Kelly amounted to “a severe breach of their duties as police officers not only to obey the law, but to be an example,” then-chief Charlie Beck told a TV news reporter.

Both officers ended up facing alcohol-related criminal charges. But from there their career paths diverged. Mehringer was sent to a board of rights, a military-style tribunal where officers facing termination or lengthy suspensions can appeal their punishment. Even though the charges against her were eventually dropped, the board ruled against Mehringer, and she was fired. Kelly kept his job.

Mehringer sued the city to get her job back, alleging that her conduct — while against department policy — was no different from male command staff who routinely flouted rules and got away with it. Unlike her, she said, some of these men were allowed to retire quietly. Others kept their jobs or were even promoted.

She eventually amended the suit to add an allegation of whistle-blower retaliation. And in an extraordinary move, in May she requested internal records via a so-called Pitchess motion on dozens of senior male officers’ history of allegedly egregious behavior.

More extraordinarily still, in the motion Mehringer named names:

Of a sergeant who was accused of “sexually inappropriate behavior” against a female officer; Mehringer’s motion said he later placed the woman under surveillance. A deputy chief thought to have concealed relationships with several women who worked for him, at least one of whom he promoted. A former tactical flight officer who allegedly slapped his supervisor while drunk on a work trip to Seattle.

Mehringer’s motion, which has been the talk of the department for weeks, asserts a culture of debauchery and favoritism that dates back years and reaches into the LAPD’s upper echelons. It threatens to become a new embarrassment for the department, which is under heightened scrutiny over its use of force and lack of women in leadership and is struggling to recruit new officers to its depleted ranks. As of July 30, the department had dipped to 8,967 officers, according to an internal report; Mayor Karen Bass has pledged to increase the force to 9,500 cops.

In a lengthy email response to The Times, Chief Michel Moore said he was barred by state law from discussing individual discipline. But, he pushed back on the suggestion that his department responds differently to “alleged misconduct by male command staff officers in comparison to their female counterparts.”

He also denied that the LAPD has a culture of drunk conduct and inappropriate relationships, saying that most LAPD employees conduct themselves professionally in keeping with the department’s core values.

Among the cases listed in Mehringer’s filing are several involving former assistant Chief Jorge Villegas, who retired abruptly in 2019 under a cloud of scandal after sources told The Times he was having an improper sexual relationship with a female subordinate. An LAPD surveillance unit caught Villegas and the subordinate apparently engaged in a sex act in a parking lot, the sources said.

Mehringer further accused Villegas of getting pulled over for drunk driving in Central Division. The incident was later covered up, she alleges in the motion. Mehringer asked the department to turn over any “complaint investigation file” related to the alleged cover up.

According to Mehringer’s motion, Villegas had been the subject of at least five complaints alleging sexual harassment or improper relationships by the time he left the department. And yet, the motion argued, he was allowed to retire with honor and granted a concealed carry permit. A message left for him on Friday seeking comment went unreturned.

Former commander Jeff Nolte was also allowed to leave the agency and cash out his pension under the city’s controversial Deferred Retirement Option Plan, the motion points out. This, even after a vehicle registered to him was found crashed near Carson, police officials told The Times in 2019.

Mehringer alleged Nolte was accused of being under the influence at the time of the incident and abandoning the vehicle, according to the motion. The Times previously reported on the alleged hit-and-run and a subsequent internal investigation against Nolte, who oversaw a team that investigates police shootings. Following the episode, Nolte was placed on administrative leave and demoted. Nolte did not immediately respond to a voicemail seeking comment.

Some of the allegations mentioned in the motion previously surfaced in other litigation.

Mehringer’s motion requests records regarding alcohol-related complaints against Steven Ruiz that predate a 2013 incident in which he was pulled over by California Highway Patrol while impaired. Ruiz briefly detailed the episode in his own suit against the city, in which he argued his eventual demotion from Captain III to Lieutenant II was part of a persistent pattern of bias against Latino officers. He alleged that several high-ranking white officers had had their drunk driving cases covered up.

The real reason for his demotion, Ruiz contended, was his reluctance to rule in favor of firing two Hollenbeck officers who were caught repeatedly urinating on the floor of a station bathroom. The case was later settled out of court, records show.

According to Mehringer’s motion, Lt. Wayne Lightfoot was accused of sexually inappropriate behavior against an officer, Linda Allstot. He later allegedly had her followed by department personnel based on what she called a bogus complaint. Some of the allegations came to light in a lawsuit Allstot filed against the city. She eventually prevailed in court, winning a $3 million jury award. Lightfoot didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

Mehringer argued that her case lays bare a clear double standard in the way that male and female leaders who are accused of bad behavior are treated.

Where the department moved swiftly to condemn Mehringer’s actions in the media, according to her motion, senior officials ensured that some of the cases she cited were handled quietly.

Her motion also names Moore, who was accused via a personnel complaint of public intoxication at a Las Vegas bar following the Baker to Vegas Challenge Cup Relay last year. A blurry cellphone video that circulated widely through the department purportedly showed the chief drinking at a bar in Las Vegas.

Like several others on the list, the allegations against Moore have a so-called CF number attached, indicating that a personnel complaint was filed and investigated by the department.

Moore said Friday that the Baker to Vegas matter was investigated by the inspector general’s office and presented to the Board of Police Commission, which deemed it unfounded.

He also acknowledged certain “individual failings” involving senior police officials and alcohol, “including incidents of command and rank-and-file being arrested for DUI and other alcohol related offenses.”

“The Department invests heavily in prevention efforts to provide awareness and education to its members regarding the perils of the misuse of alcohol and how the use of alcohol to combat stress or difficulties experienced on or off-duty can lead to the loss of their job, family, and their health,” he wrote. “Similarly, regarding workplace relationships I am proud of the professionalism, dedication and esprit de corp displayed in the workplace.”

In cases in which officers were caught having an inappropriate relationship, Moore wrote, the punishment ranged from suspensions and demotions to “the individual no longer being a member of this organization.”

As chief, Moore said, he has worked “aggressively” with his staff, department psychologists and employee groups to address alcohol abuse, which has been an ongoing issue in the LAPD and other law enforcement agencies. The ensuing changes have led to a recent drop in drunk driving and other alcohol-related misconduct, he said.

As an example, he pointed to the department’s policy, announced in January, restricting off-duty drinking for officers who are armed. Under the new guidelines, officers who are carrying firearms while off duty could face discipline if they are found to have a blood-alcohol level of 0.04% or higher. The state limit is 0.08% while driving.

Moore said he has also sought to prioritize employee wellness, recognizing that his officers are not “immune to the challenges we have experienced across our entire society which has seen a dramatic increase in alcohol consumption.”

In an interview with The Times, Mehringer alleged that LAPD management has methodically protected male command staff members who are in the chief’s good graces.

“They speak so comfortably because they have covered up so much stuff,” the 22-year department veteran said in reaction to Moore’s comments, echoing claims she made in the motion.

“It is truly vile how they abuse their power and authority,” she said.

Her attorney, Greg Smith, said that if a judge approves the Pitchess motion, which could force the department to produce years’ worth of potentially damaging internal records. Both sides will meet in the near future to hash out which records will be turned over, likely under a protective order that will prevent their public disclosure. The case could eventually go to trial.

Mehringer’s case dates back to April 27, 2018, when she and her subordinate, Kelly, were arrested by Glendale police officers. The two were found in an unmarked police Dodge Charger that had come to rest against a parked vehicle in the middle of the road.

Kelly, who was behind the wheel, appeared to be under the influence, while Mehringer also showed signs of intoxication and argued with the officers, who needed about 20 minutes to get the pair out of the vehicle, Glendale police told the Times in 2018. Both were later charged — Mehringer with a single misdemeanor count of public intoxication and Kelly with one count of driving under the influence of an alcoholic beverage and one count of driving with a 0.08% blood-alcohol content.

Mehringer’s charge was later dismissed, after she completed a 30-day outpatient program. Kelly later pleaded no contest to charges of drinking under the influence.

At the time, Mehringer was considered a rising star in the LAPD. She ran the department’s employee relations group, which handles contract negotiations, grievances and other union-related issues. Kelly worked under her command.

Mehringer said in her motion she was offered a demotion of two ranks to lieutenant, which she turned down. She ended up losing her job after a disciplinary panel ruled against her. Kelly remained with the department, but he was downgraded to police officer from sergeant and assigned to an administrative post. He is no longer listed on a recent department roster.

Mehringer filed an earlier Pitchess motion, around the time of her disciplinary hearing in 2018, which she said also got the attention of department leadership.

It’s hardly unheard of for LAPD officers to level accusations of unfair treatment against the department. But rarely do the officers publicly air department business to the degree that Mehringer has.

The Pitchess motion has sent a jolt through the department. Insiders who requested anonymity because they are not supposed to discuss personnel matters split into several camps:

There are those who say they don’t doubt Mehringer knows what she’s talking about, given her past role as head of the personnel department, where she would have been privy to at least some of the cases she cites. Then there are those who agree her punishment was unduly harsh, but said they don’t think she should get her old job back because of the seriousness of her case. And there are those who believe both.

Still others have accused her of dredging up the kind of stubborn, but baseless rumors that tend to circulate around most big city police departments.

Former police Capt. Phil Tingirides said he doesn’t buy Mehringer’s argument that she was unfairly singled out while men in the department were allowed to skate for similar misconduct.

Many of her claims were made “without having any kind of firsthand or corroborating information. I will tell you I did everything the department requires me to do by notifying my boss and that’s documented,” said Tingirides.

Tingirides is named in the motion as having had a relationship with a subordinate, his now-wife, Emada Tingirides, who has since risen to the rank of deputy chief, the highest-ranking woman on the force. “I was very by-the-book,” he said, “in following department policy to the T.”

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“In my time as a command officer, I saw very little intentional differences in the way that discipline was doled out. Are there sometimes different penalties? Yeah, but that’s because that’s the first time or because it brought more attention,” he said.

“Sometimes people make themselves into more of a victim than they are and sometimes they don’t want to take responsibility for what they’ve actually done,” he said. “And sometimes they just want to get some money.”

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