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Sergeant sues Fresno Police Department for discrimination, retaliation

Fresno police Sgt. Paul Cervantes displays drugs and paraphernalia seized in a warrant search on a home in north Fresno in 2013. In a lawsuit filed Monday, March 21, 2016, Cervantes is suing the Fresno Police Department and three detectives, accusing them of subjecting him to workplace harassment and discrimination due to his Hispanic ethnicity.
Fresno police Sgt. Paul Cervantes displays drugs and paraphernalia seized in a warrant search on a home in north Fresno in 2013. In a lawsuit filed Monday, March 21, 2016, Cervantes is suing the Fresno Police Department and three detectives, accusing them of subjecting him to workplace harassment and discrimination due to his Hispanic ethnicity. Fresno Bee file

A decorated sergeant has sued the Fresno Police Department and three detectives, accusing them of subjecting him to workplace harassment and discrimination due to his Hispanic ethnicity.

In his lawsuit, Sgt. Paul Cervantes accuses Sgt. Tim Tietjen and Detectives Brad Alcorn and Cary Phelps of smearing his reputation with false accusations and spreading rumors that he’s a dirty cop. Tietjen, Alcorn and Phelps are white.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Fresno County Superior Court, seeks unspecified damages and attorney fees for discrimination, retaliation, defamation and malicious prosecution. Cervantes is being represented by John W. Phillips of the Fresno law firm Wild, Carter & Tipton.

The lawsuit only tells Cervantes’ side of the dispute and focuses on his acquittal in a high-profile 2009 trial. Police spokesman Lt. Joe Gomez referred questions to Chief Jerry Dyer, who has not yet responded to the lawsuit’s accusations.

It’s not the first high-profile suit alleging workplace harassment in the Police Department.

In 2012, the city paid deputy chiefs Robert Nevarez and Sharon Shaffer and their attorney a total of $300,000 to settle a case including allegations that Dyer created a hostile work environment, harassed them and retaliated against them.

And in 2013, Capt. Al Maroney alleged that Dyer racially discriminated and retaliated against him for lodging complaints beginning in 2007. A judge denied Maroney’s claim in 2015.

In the Cervantes suit, he says that he has been the target of “pervasive, severe, and racially motivated” discrimination from January 2008 to present.

Cervantes also accuses the defendants of intentionally providing “false and misleading information to Internal Affairs” in order to cause the department to investigate him and other Hispanic officers “in an attempt to cause disciplinary action to be instituted, force their demotion and departure from the department.”

Cervantes says he has complained to his superiors, including Chief Jerry Dyer, but they have done little or nothing to protect his rights to be free from racial discrimination in the workplace.

Cervantes says he has complained to his superiors, including Dyer, but they have done nothing to protect his rights to be free from racial discrimination in the workplace.

Instead, he has been demoted to the patrol division, he says.

Cervantes was arrested in early 2009 and charged with felony auto theft in connection with the theft of a drug dealer’s sport utility vehicle. His highly publicized criminal trial relied heavily on the testimony of police informants. In May 2009, a Superior Court jury took less than three hours to find Cervantes not guilty.

Another Hispanic officer, Hector Becerra, also was charged with stealing the SUV. But his case was dismissed by a judge due to a lack of evidence, court records state.

At the time, the California Highway Patrol auto-theft task force, which included officers from other agencies, including the Fresno Police Department, built the case against Cervantes and Becerra. Among the investigators was Alcorn, a police detective with a reputation for winning high-profile murder cases.

In his lawsuit, Cervantes accused Alcorn, Tietjen and Phelps of spreading rumors about him and other Hispanic officers and of calling them “dirty, corrupt and dishonest.” He said the defendants allegedly threatened two confidential informants with prosecution unless they agreed to testify against him.

In addition, the lawsuit alleges that Tietjen offered a third police informant a cash bribe of $50,000 and a free automobile to provide the Fresno Police Department and prosecutors with false and misleading information in order to convict Cervantes in the 2009 trial.

I have also endured a tremendous amount of mental distress.

Fresno police Sgt. Paul Cervantes

Because of the defendants’ actions, Cervantes says he was kicked off the anti-gang MAGEC unit and sent to the patrol division.

Cervantes, who has nearly 20 years of police experience, began his career as a police officer in Dinuba, where he was named “Latino Police Officer of the Year.” He then worked for the Salinas Police Department, where he was awarded a Meritorious Lifesaving honor.

He joined the Fresno Police Department in January 2002 and has received more than 30 letters of commendation for his work on the SWAT team, the Violent Crime Suppression Team and the Major Narcotics Unit, where he was named “Narcotics Officer of the Year” in 2005. He also spent three years as a homicide detective before being promoted to sergeant and was a supervisor of MAGEC for three years.

In 2014 and 2015, he received awards for recovering firearms.

On Tuesday, Cervantes referred questions to his lawyers. In his civil complaint, he says he was investigated again in 2015 and unfairly suspended for two weeks and “de-selected” as an “employee of the quarter” in 2015.

“I have also endured a tremendous amount of mental distress,” he says in the complaint. “I now suffer from unspecified clinical depression, anxiety and panic attacks.”

As a result, Cervantes says, he takes Xanax, Lexipro and Ambien for anxiety, depression and sleep problems, and takes medicine for gastritis “that has a direct connection to stress endured from this investigation.”

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts

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