Officer terminated over his reporting of a gun on high school campus: ‘Officer Johnny,’ a 10-year department veteran, is challenging his dismissal
A brouhaha has erupted at the South Lake Tahoe Police Department, where a former school resource officer was fired for allegedly covering up information during an investigation of a high school gang fight last year.
Johnny Poland, who was commended at one point for his handling of the situation, was terminated on June 12. He reportedly did not immediately punish a student who brought a BB gun to the school’s campus the day the school went into lock-down mode because of reports that a gun was seen during a gang fight. The incident and media coverage increased the focus on gangs and sparked community discussions.
Now Poland is trying to be reinstated by requesting a hearing with David Jinkens, the city manager.
Poland, a 38-year-old known as “Officer Johnny” with more than 10 years on the force, said he interviewed the student who brought the gun to the school on the day of the fight. The student told Poland he did bring the gun to campus but denied taking it out of the vehicle.
Since the new school resource officer, Scott Willson, was out sick that day, Poland, who was the officer assigned to the schools for the previous three years, headed the investigation. He said he spoke to more than 30 students in a two-hour time frame. He arrested six students for fighting on campus, including the one who brought the BB gun to school.
Willson returned to work the next day, Tuesday. Poland said Willson asked him if he was sure there was no gun brandished because several people said otherwise.
Poland said he went to the student’s house on Thanksgiving, two days after he spoke with Willson, to interview the student again. After awhile the teenager admitted he had a BB gun stashed under the driver’s seat of the car and picked it up while getting a tire iron. But the teen put the BB gun back into the car once he spotted Assistant Principal Jack Stafford nearby, Poland said.
Poland then arrested the student for possessing a gun on campus.
Poland said his supervisors contend that since he knew about the gun soon after the fight, he went to the student’s house to arrest the teenager as an attempt to cover his mistake of not doing it sooner.
On Nov. 26, Sgt. Cam Carmichael sent Chief Terry Daniels a letter commending the officers who handled the problem. Poland’s efforts were singled out.
“Officer Poland is without a doubt the ‘go-to guy’ for dealing with particularly this high school aged children within this community,” the letter read. “His rapport proved beneficial in the investigation.”
On the letter Daniels scribbled “Well done” punctuated by two exclamation points. About a week after the letter was sent, Poland said he received an Internal Affairs Investigation notice stating he allegedly violated several department orders and the penal code.
In March he took a three-month leave of absence due to stress. He declined an offer to resign from the department in May. On June 12, he was terminated.
City officials react
Due to state laws on personnel matters, city officials cannot discuss specifics of the case and thus their side, or opinions, can’t be voiced at this time.
City Councilman Jerry Birdwell declined to talk about the issue. Fellow Councilman Bill Crawford said he would be “way off-base to comment right now.”
Crawford did hope the city would conduct a fair hearing and complimented Poland for the officer’s handling of a previous case in which someone harassed – via telephone – Crawford’s teenager.
“He came out and did a good job,” Crawford said. “No complaints from me.”
City Attorney Catherine DiCamillo also declined comment.
“We are prohibited from releasing any information,” she said.
Jinkens, the city manager, held his tongue. Since Poland contends he hasn’t done anything wrong, Poland and his attorney, Steven Welty, requested a hearing in front of Jinkens to argue for the officer’s reinstatement.
“I look forward to the meeting with the city manager and hope to be reinstated and working for the city thereafter,” Poland said.
Poland said no hearing had been scheduled yet. Jinkens would not even verify the conflict was happening.
“I don’t want to be the source of information on any personnel matter,” Jinkens said.
Jinkens has handled similar hearings in his years as a city manager. He seemed to take such matters seriously.
“This is not a good time for anyone,” he said.
Daniels also limited his comment, but said Poland and Welty could release him from that obligation.
“It’s for Officer Poland’s privacy and it’s a standard policy that we don’t comment on any discipline issue or anything like that. … We have to protect the rights of the employee,” Daniels said.
‘Maintain my innocence’
Poland was born at Edwards Air Force Base in Kern County and spent seven years in the military – four in the Marines and three in the Army.
He earned a criminal justice degree at Saint Leo University in Florida and a master’s degree in professional development from Amberton University. He is a fast-talking, muscle-bound Dallas Cowboys fan who was the Veteran of Foreign War’s Officer of the Year in 2005 for his work in cracking a serial armed robbery case that involved three high school students using a BB gun for the holdups.
He is one of the few police officers who lives in South Lake Tahoe.
Poland contends there was no difference between November’s investigation and others he’s done in the past.
“I handled it like I handled everything else at the high school – fair and unbiased,” he said.
He said he spent several days focusing on the case and exhausted all leads until he was certain the investigation had run its course.
“I maintain my innocence based on that,” he said.
He wouldn’t comment on why he refused to participate in a hearing overseen by Daniels regarding his conduct on the case.
In regard to the Nov. 20 gang fight itself, Poland has thoughts on that as well. There were no shots fired, no knives used and no one went to the hospital, said Poland, who described it as a “typical high school fight.” He also disputed that the high school was having a gang problem and said his efforts helped dissuade students from engaging in more fights on campus.
“I think no matter what, everybody deserves to get a fair handshake,” Poland said. “In this case we’re talking about kids. They’re not going anywhere.”