YAKIMA, Wash. — Five Yakima police officers are under internal investigation for improperly accessing confidential police records to get information on a domestic violence call involving a high-ranking commander.
Police Chief Dominic Rizzi Jr. said he initiated the investigation to defuse a repeat of the infighting and eventual litigation that marred the tenure of his immediate predecessor, Sam Granato.
“I have to stop it now,” he said in an interview Thursday. “We have to stop rumor mongering. It destroys relationships, and it can destroy departments.”
The names of the officers under investigation were withheld pending completion of the investigation, which Rizzi, who left for vacation Friday, estimated would be at least two weeks out.
He said several Yakima County sheriff’s deputies and an officer with a different agency also accessed records in the case. He declined to name the agency, saying he has yet to notify his counterpart there.
The snooping stemmed from a domestic violence call that involved Capt. Rod Light, currently the official news media spokesman for the Yakima Police Department and one of Rizzi’s top aides.
A review of records in the case obtained by the Yakima Herald-Republic under a state Public Records Act request shows the case was investigated by sheriff’s deputies — Light lives just outside city limits — and was determined to be unfounded.
According to dispatch tapes and written sheriff’s office reports, the case began at 11:40 p.m. on June 29, a Saturday, when a woman called the sheriff’s office and said “the wife of Capt. Light” had taken refuge at a neighbor’s home after “he beat her up.”
The caller, who knew the neighbor but not the Lights, said Mrs. Light “didn’t want the police called ... but we felt we had to call.” The caller later explained to deputies that she is on the board of the local YWCA, which runs a shelter for battered women.
Two deputies — Sgt. Jeff Gillespie and Deputy Ed Levesque — encountered Rod Light outside his home. They described him as surprised to see them.
“Mr. Light seemed flabbergasted, asking if his wife had called the police,” Levesque reported. “I told him that she had not and that a third party had called the sheriff’s office. I told him of what the call stated.”
According to the deputies, Light explained that he and his wife, Darla, had gotten into an argument after a dinner party at their home and that he left. By the time he returned, apparently shortly before the deputies arrived, she was gone.
“Mr. Light told me very adamantly that he did not assault his wife and would not ever do that,” Levesque reported. “He asked, ‘Are you crazy? Why would I ever do something like that?’”
About 30 minutes after the deputies cleared the scene, Sgt. Gillespie got a call from Light’s wife and went back to the home, where he met with her and determined the assault call was the result of a misunderstanding.
“She assured me that no assault had occurred and that their dispute had only been verbal,” Gillespie reported, characterizing her as “calm and collected, emotionally, as I spoke with her. She did not request any further assistance from us.”
The Lights’ neighbor confirmed that Darla Light didn’t say she’d been assaulted, deputies reported.
Rizzi said he was immediately informed of the incident that night by Light and by Capt. Jeff Schneider, a requirement of state law and YPD policy.
He said Light also briefed him on the incident the following Monday. Self-reporting a domestic violence incident is the cornerstone of a state law that was adopted in the wake of the 2003 Brame shooting in Tacoma. The police chief there, David Brame, murdered his wife, Crystal, in front of their children and then turned the gun on himself after she tried to leave him following years of abuse that was covered up or ignored by fellow officers.
“He said there’s nothing to it. ... That, as far as I was concerned, was the end of it,” Rizzi said, adding he had reviewed the deputies’ reports and was impressed with their handling of the call.
The real problem, he said, has been what he repeatedly referred to as “rumor mongering” in the wake of the incident that apparently prompted several officers to look up reports about it for themselves.
In the past, Light’s personal life has caused problems on the job.
In 2010 he was demoted and nearly fired for having romantic relationships with two different female sergeants. He was single at the time.
An arbitrator eventually reinstated him to full rank with back pay, noting neither city nor police policy at the time prohibited personal relationships outside of work. The department’s policy has since been revised to place restrictions and conditions on such relationships.
The arbitrator also questioned the fairness of the demotion in comparison to the way the city handled a separate sexual harassment allegations against then-Chief Granato. Light was also suing the city at the time, alleging he was the victim of retaliation by Granato for reporting misconduct at the Yakima Police Athletic League in 2005.
Rizzi said he is determined not to let the kind of turmoil that marred Granato’s tenure flare up again and that an agency like the police department simply can’t function without trust.
Granato’s seven-year tenure from 2003 to 2010, when he left with a $100,000 severance package, spawned 10 lawsuits against him and the city. Granato, who had been hired from Texas, said he was an outsider trying to reform the department and has long denied any wrongdoing. Critics said he favored some officers while retaliating against others.
Rizzi said such trust also includes the public, which is one of the reasons why officer access to YPD’s records management system, known as Spillman, is restricted to legitimate work-related purposes. The sheriff’s office uses the same system, which is intended to improve communication between the two agencies.
“In this case, it was accessed for personal use,” Rizzi said.
Although he refrained from saying what kind of discipline any offending officers may face, Rizzi said he intends for the internal investigations to send a message.
“You cannot access databases for your own personal use,” he said. “If officers have questions (about an incident), they can take it up the chain of command. ... If they have an issue with Capt. Light, they can come to me. If they are uncomfortable with me, they can go the city manager.”
He said the preliminary results of the internal investigation showed that six officers accessed the reports by the sheriff’s deputies. One was authorized, five were not, he said.
In addition, the sheriff’s office also had “some access issues,” Rizzi said. He declined to be more specific, deferring to sheriff’s officials. Sheriff Ken Irwin did not return a call for comment Friday.
An officer from another agency also accessed the case, Rizzi said.
He declined to say who or what, explaining he has yet to inform the chief of that agency and did not want his counterpart there to read about it in the newspaper first.
More information about YPD’s investigation, including the identity of the officers involved and their explanation for accessing the Light reports, will be available once the case is complete, he said.
• Chris Bristol can be reached at 509-577-7748 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ChrisJBristol.