Drug Task Force Crew Parks Illegally for Lunch, Goes Ballistic on Tow Truck Driver; Disciplinary Action and Probable Lawsuit Ensues

Hank Sims / Friday, Jan. 18, 2013 @ 4:23 p.m. / Local Government

On Feb. 22 of last year, six police agents working with the Humboldt County Drug Task Force went to lunch at Eureka’s Pho Thien Long restaurant. One of them parked illegally in a private lot. When a tow truck driver came to haul the vehicle away, the DTF agents rose from their lunch and rushed to stop him.

Agent Kevin Stonebarger of the Arcata Police Department assumed leadership of the situation, according to testimony collected later in a confidential APD internal investigation. He quickly antagonized both the tow truck operator and the owner of the private lot.

Assuming what another agent described as a “command presence,” he threatened to arrest one or both of the men while at the same time refusing to provide any police credentials apart from a quick flash of a badge. He shouted at the tow truck driver, or merely “spoke loudly,” depending on whose testimony you trust — in any case, enough to draw the attention of passers-by.

According to the tow truck operator — Leroy Hoffman, owner of Humboldt Towing — he asked Stonebarger to calm down and lower his voice. Stonebarger accused him — sarcastically, presumably — if he was making fun of his hearing disability. (He has no such documented disability.) Stonebarger threatened the owner of the lot — Kevin Sweet of Partrick’s Candy — with jail, because Sweet pulled out his phone and started recording the incident.

Hoffman said that while Stonebarger was on his tirade, the remainder of the agents “backed off … and were kind of grinning, honestly.” But eventually the agent actually responsible for improperly parking his vehicle in Sweet’s space stepped forward and offered to move it.

The entire internal investigation of the incident is well worth a read. There are other strange, mostly unexplored bits to it. According to Hoffman, one of the DTF agents — probably Stonebarger, Hoffman thinks — was heard to muse, there in the parking lot, that Partrick’s Candy “had a lot of windows.” 

The investigation concludes that Stonebarger violated APD codes of conduct by disclosing his status as a police officer to gain influence, using his badge improperly, and treating a member of the public discourteously. On July 16, after the internal investigation was completed, Arcata Police Chief Tom Chapman disciplined Stonebarger by reassigning him from the Drug Task Force.

The formerly classified internal investigation into the incident became public this week, after the Arcata City Council denied a claim against the city brought by Stonebarger. The claim seeks to make the case that Chapman slanted the investigation because of a personal animus against Stonebarger, and also that either Chapman or APD Lt. Bart Silvers, who conducted the investigation, leaked the its contents to the College of the Redwoods police academy, which didn’t renew his contract as a firearms instructor last year. With the city’s action this week, Stonebarger’s claim will presumably be taken to a court of law.

The PDF file containing the contents of the internal investigation also contains correspondence between Chapman and Stonebarger’s attorneys concerning this claim. At one point, Stonebarger’s attorneys claim that sometime after the parking lot incident Sheriff Mike Downey went out of his way to congratulate Stonebarger on his fine handling of it.

Chapman replies that he contacted Downey about this alleged offer of congratulations, and that Downey told him it was “totally false.”

“I am not happy with the way Stonebarger or my deputies handled the incident,” Chapman reports Downey as saying.

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