APD vs. Quintana
How much is enough?
There is no doubt that former Austin Police Officer Leonardo Quintana made several poor decisions on the night of Jan. 11-12, when, at the end of a long evening out with friends, he was arrested for drunken driving after he crashed his car into a traffic circle in Leander less than two miles from his home.
By his own account to Austin Police Department's Internal Affairs, Quintana had drunk (on an empty stomach) several "sake bombs" at a sushi bar before drinking somewhere between five and 10 beers (and a couple of shots) at a South Austin strip club. After that, he drove some 30 miles north to Leander, to the home of a fellow officer and friend, where he drank several more Miller Lites before getting behind the wheel of his Cadillac Escalade to make the 2-mile trip to his home.
Why did he drive after having so much to drink? Was it the stress of an hours-long deposition that day for the federal civil rights case brought against him by the family of Nathaniel Sanders II, whom Quintana shot and killed during a late-night incident in an East Austin parking lot in May 2009? Or was it simply an error of judgment, perhaps exacerbated by the months of emotional stress he'd been under as a result of that shooting?
It was none of those things, testified the members of Quintana's former chain of command, including Chief Art Acevedo, to a hearing examiner on Sept. 2. Instead, Quintana told his supervisors earlier this year that the reason he drove that night was that he thought he might have a chance to have sex with a female officer that he'd met at the sushi bar, among a group of five other officers Quintana was out partying with that evening.
In part, that is why Quintana lost his job in May, his supervisors said last week. "I thought, 'That's a heck of a reason to lose your job, to get arrested,'" and, potentially, "'to lose your life,'" Assistant Chief Patti Robinson testified during the civil service arbitration for Quintana, who is appealing his termination. Arbitrator Louise B. Wolitz can sustain the firing, assign a lesser punishment, or reverse the termination; she said she would make her decision by mid-October.
In response, Quintana and his lawyer, Tom Stribling, argued that the episode may have been a poor decision (or series of decisions), but it does not equal a "pattern [of] poor decision-making," as his supervisors claimed, and should not have cost him his job. While there may be no justification for drunken driving, Stribling argued, being popped for DWI hasn't ended the careers of other officers disciplined in recent years by Acevedo – therefore, the punishment does not fit the crime. "The question is: Was indefinite suspension warranted in this case?" Stribling asked last week. "Why is this case so different from other cases that it warranted indefinite suspension and no other [lesser] discipline? There is no valid reason."
While it's apparent that Acevedo is not interested in keeping Quintana on the force, after two days of testimony, it indeed isn't clear that Quintana's infractions were worse than other officers who'd driven drunk yet whose jobs were spared. Nor is it clear that Quintana's actions that January night were more irresponsible even than those of the other officers out with him that night.
One Drunk Too Many
Since Acevedo became chief, at least four other officers have been disciplined for driving drunk, including Vernon Stevenson and Nathan Sexton, two cases that Stribling discussed with Acevedo during questioning on Sept. 2. Sexton had driven several places with several people in his car while at a wedding in Mission, but he wasn't fired, even though he'd put the lives of others in jeopardy with his actions (he was given a 30-day suspension); Stevenson – who'd previously been disciplined for making off-color remarks during the infamous 2005 Midtown Live nightclub fire (the so-called "burn baby, burn" incident) – had a blood alcohol level of at least .224 when he had a single-vehicle accident while riding his motorcycle. He got 45 days' suspension for that incident.
Acevedo responded that "no two cases are alike" but noted that for Stevenson, the incident seemed to be a "wake-up call" to get help for his drinking. Stribling noted that Quintana – who had told IA that his drinking had "spun out of control" after the Sanders shooting, one investigator recalled – had also sought help for his drinking and has been sober since the January incident. Acevedo countered that Quintana had admitted before the accident that he was having alcohol problems but had failed to address the issue. (Stribling recalled yet another officer, Sgt. Daniel Armstrong, who was disciplined by Acevedo and who had two DWI charges in three years and had admitted to department officials that he'd had a drinking problem since he was 20. Apparently, when it comes to discipline by APD, knowledge of a drinking problem is a relative matter.)
Moreover, Quintana appears to have been singled out for discipline, even though he was out drinking with several other officers – including the female officer he'd hoped to go home with, who admitted to APD investigators that she too was drunk. According to Acevedo's testimony, alcohol had led her into some trouble with the department just a year before she decided to get into the car with Quintana. The difference in her case, Acevedo testified, was that "she was not driving." Nonetheless, it doesn't appear that her judgment was particularly sound in deciding to ride with the drunken Quintana – indeed, the basis of a public intoxication charge (which the Downtown cops know well) is essentially that a person not only is drunk in public but also poses a danger to self or others. Quintana told investigators that he'd originally made a plan with a fellow officer, Detective William Monte, to leave his car at the strip club and get a ride to pick it up the next day. Yet he didn't do that, and no one stopped him from driving – and that same detective apparently did nothing to stop Quintana from leaving his home just minutes before the 5am accident.
None of the other officers were ever investigated, testified IA Sgt. Justin Newsom. In the case of the woman riding with Quintana, he said there were "no actions by her that indicated" she was a danger to herself or others, and although he knew that other officers partying with Quintana that night had been drinking, there were "no allegations" made that any of the others were actually drunk. In the end, whether those officers had any responsibility to stop Quintana from driving after he'd been drinking apparently wasn't a concern to the department brass.
On Friday, Quintana testified in his own defense, that the DWI incident was "devastating. It was embarrassing to me, to my partner, to the chief." After that he said he woke up, got into intensive outpatient treatment, and hasn't had a drop since. He'd started self-medicating largely after the Sanders shooting when he was having sleeping problems, including nightmares, he said, but he hadn't fully realized until after the accident that alcohol had really become a problem. He's continued to work with the department's "peer support program" even after he was suspended and hopes to continue to mentor officers with drinking problems, he said. "It's a lifestyle now. God willing, I won't drink again. I want to remain sober."
But Acevedo testified that it wasn't only that Quintana put his "need for intimacy" before everything else when he decided to risk driving drunk; it was that, in Acevedo's judgment, this behavior was just the latest in a string of poor decisions that ultimately demonstrated to the chief that his continued employment would be a liability – to the city, to the department, and to the residents of Austin.
Indeed, the drunken driving incident came just weeks after Quintana had returned to duty after serving a 15-day suspension for failing to activate his in-car camera during the fatal incident that ended in Sanders' death. And on the day he returned to work, his supervisors testified, he demonstrated poor judgment by posting to Facebook a picture of himself, in uniform, holding an AR-15 rifle with a caption that read, "back to work."
Although Quintana complied with orders to remove the picture, he didn't understand why it was a problem, said Sgt. Stephen Fleming, Quintana's direct supervisor. "He complied with everything we asked him to do, but he couldn't see it through the department's eyes; he could only see it from his side." Robinson was more blunt: After just being involved in a shooting incident, the photo seemed almost "a bravado statement: 'I'm back in the game.'" For a department that was trying to keep Quintana under the radar and out of the media spotlight, it was not a good thing, his supervisors testified.
Testifying on his own behalf, Quintana disputed the department's version of events. The photo was originally taken several weeks before he returned to duty, while he was at the academy taking refresher courses. Another officer let him hold his rifle and took a picture of Quintana sitting in a chair. Sometime later, during a late-night online chat, at least two Facebook friends asked to see a recent photo. Quintana pulled out his phone and loaded several pictures – including two snaps of his dog and the photo with the rifle. Less than eight hours later he said he was called by his immediate supervisor and told the photo had to come down.
Quintana said his Facebook page was set for viewing by friends only and that he wasn't sure how the department even saw it. Nonetheless, not only did he take the picture down, he said, but he deleted his entire Facebook page. "I immediately went home and deleted my entire Facebook account," he testified on Sept. 3, "in part because people can post to your wall" too, and he wanted to avoid any further problems.
Supervisors said that after returning to work in December, Quintana continued to have troubles in his personal life that affected his professional life when a woman he was previously engaged to requested that his chain of command order him not to contact her. Taken together – the personal problems, the Facebook posting, the suspension in connection with the Sanders case, and the January DWI (which is still pending criminal adjudication in Williamson County) – a troubling pattern had emerged, one that clearly put into question Quintana's common sense and judgment. That is why Quintana was fired, Acevedo said.
Acevedo said that when he disciplined Quintana for failing to turn on his in-car camera during the Sanders incident, the officer had told him he'd never be in trouble again. That was a promise he didn't keep, Acevedo said. In deciding to drive drunk, Acevedo insisted, Quintana was "putting his own best interest in front of the interests of thousands of people," he said. "I have no use for an employee that does that."