Thursday Feb 03 2011
Our View: Savage trial leaves several important questions unanswered
The trial of Placer Sheriff’s Lt. John Savage this week raises many questions. Questions that law enforcement leaders should answer as highly trusted public servants. Savage faced trial after he was arrested for gross negligence after someone allegedly fired a gun into the air near his then-Rocklin home. When Rocklin Police investigators asked Savage to consent to a search of his vehicle, an unmarked Placer County Sheriff’s cruiser, Savage refused. Sheriff Ed Bonner, is it your department’s policy to aid or impede neighboring police agencies’ investigations into the conduct of your officers? Are searches of Placer County vehicles under your command off-limits to other police forces with legitimate requests? If not, and it’s obvious Bonner was not there and had no personal say in the search request, will there be a policy change as a result of this situation? Will off-duty Placer County officers contacted during police investigations be required to cooperate with other agencies? Why or why not? Savage is not a rank-and-file, second-year deputy. He is a lieutenant and a watch commander. As such his cooperation, or lack of cooperation with other police departments, is a direct reflection on Bonner’s administrative policies. Yes, the jury voted 9-2 in favor of not guilty. But had Savage cooperated in the investigation, few would be questioning his integrity, or the integrity of the Sheriff’s Office in its lack of public response to the lieutenant’s arrest and case dismissal this week. Rocklin Police Chief Mark Siemens should also issue a clarifying statement. Defense attorney Tim Balcom implied to jurors that witness Linda Wunder’s brother, a Rocklin police detective, somehow advocated the bust of Savage because of influence from his sister, who allegedly did not like the defendant. Can a relative of one of your detectives influence a Rocklin Police bust and the subsequent investigation because they don’t like a neighbor? That sounds unlikely, but it’s out there and residents would like to know what Chief Siemens thinks about the accusation targeting his department’s integrity. District Attorney Scott Owens also has some explaining to do: Lt. Savage’s defense team alleged in a Placer County courtroom that Owens’ office would target an innocent, high-ranking officer in the Sheriff’s Office in order to show his team as tough on law enforcement. The District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Office must work together on a daily basis. Defense attorney Balcom, on Lt. Savage’s behalf, asserts that a conspiracy exists in the District Attorney’s Office to zealously go after law enforcement officers, even those who are innocent. That seems absurd, but that is the allegation. What’s Owens’ response? Owens’ first two months in office have already seen his campaign director arrested for allegedly embezzling funds. Now his office is, most likely very unfairly, accused of conspiring against Savage to look tough on law enforcement. Owens should set the record straight to retain the full confidence of Placer County residents. Judge Colleen Nichols used her authority to dismiss the case with no possibility of a re-trial. Is that something she and other Placer County judges routinely do in cases in which ordinary citizens are charged? Not likely. Nichols should also explain her decision. One juror, interviewed by Gold Country Media, said they thought Lt. Savage was guilty, after sitting through and listening to two-and-a-half days of testimony. Nine others thought Savage was either not guilty, or the prosecution had not proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. The District Attorney’s Office was apparently positive that Savage had broken the law or they would not have taken the case to trial. And now, after the dismissal, Lt. Savage is again watch commander, working for taxpayers at taxpayer expense. Had Savage been found guilty, he could have lost his job. The case is troubling in light of all the accusations being tossed around among law enforcement agencies that should have one goal: To protect and serve the public. With a great many individuals working for the various agencies involved, the leaders and the organizations themselves can certainly have the highest integrity and best intentions, yet someone on their team can make a mistake. That’s human nature. Local law enforcement leaders should explain their positions in this case, so the public can understand what appears to be a lack of cooperation among the various agencies in the county.