San Luis Obispo police officer’s arrest spurs drug testing

A few hours after San Luis Obispo police detective Cory Pierce was arrested Feb. 5, county Sheriff Ian Parkinson pulled aside members of his narcotics unit, on which Pierce had worked for about a year, to tell them the news.

Pierce had been arrested after an FBI investigation determined he was involved in a bribery scheme in which he allegedly took cash and narcotics from two people and provided them with drugs in return.

Shortly after Parkinson briefed the team, the two sergeants who oversee the narcotics unit and gang task force asked that each of the 22 members of the squad, collectively called special operations, be drug tested. The tests all came back clean.

“The whole unit wanted a test to prove that no one else was involved,” Parkinson said. “They were unhappy and disappointed in what had occurred, and this was a way of restoring their credibility to the public.”

Now, Parkinson is seeking to install a random drug testing policy covering all of the Sheriff’s Office’s nearly 400 employees. It is one of several changes being evaluated in response to Pierce’s arrest. 

The sheriff is not the only law officer re-evaluating policies. San Luis Obispo Police Chief Steve Gesell said he’d also like to implement a random drug testing policy for his special enforcement unit, a team of four detectives that’s the closest thing Gesell has to a narcotics unit. They, too, submitted to drug tests after Pierce was arrested, and those tests were also clean.

“This was a first for me — to have an officer arrested for something like this,” Gesell said. “I think it’s another example that shows that even when we have checks and balances and effective management, humans are not infallible.”

Drug-testing policies

The San Luis Obispo Police Department is also converting and updating its departmentwide policies, a process that started before Pierce’s arrest. 

The department didn’t have a for-cause drug policy — allowing employees to be tested if they appear to be impaired — before Gesell took over as chief. But that will be included as part of the updated policies, which he hopes will take effect by the end of April. 

“From a management perspective, we need to do everything we can to promote employee wellness,” he said. “And policies like this do that.” 

Parkinson noted that no employee can be watched 24/7, and most of Pierce’s actions took place while he was off duty.

“The best thing we can do is react when we know it (and) prevent it as much as possible,” Parkinson said. “As an agency, we can be a leader and get our random drug testing and provide that people aren’t hiding anything here.”

The policy would likely cover custody and patrol, but possibly not clerical employees. Parkinson plans to meet with union representatives within the next few weeks to discuss it.

Leaders of two groups representing Sheriff’s Office employees said they are open to discussion about such a policy but want to make sure it’s carefully planned and protects both Parkinson’s intent as well as the rights of employees.

For example, the testing needs to protect a person with a medical condition who gets a false positive on a random drug test, said Steven Hendrickson, vice president of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association, which represents 150 members including correctional deputies.

“If someone is guilty, I don’t have a problem with them being disciplined, but I don’t want someone doing the right thing to receive a false positive,” he said.

Protections also need to be built in for employees so a vindictive supervisor, for example, couldn’t abuse the policy, said Detective Neil Clayton, past president of the Association of San Luis Obispo County Deputy Sheriffs, which represents about 140 employees.

“You can make policies till the cows come home about ways to prevent it, and while I think it’s necessary, people fail from time to time,” Clayton said.

‘Dirty squad’ work

Pierce was hired by San Luis Obispo police on Sept. 27, 2006. He served on the department’s special enforcement unit before joining the sheriff’s narcotics unit, Gesell said.

Gesell declined to talk directly about Pierce and why the officer was chosen to serve on the narcotics unit, but he did speak in general terms about the job, in part from personal experience as a former undercover officer and supervisor of special investigations units in Arizona.

“The job of an undercover detective is dynamic,” Gesell said. “We look for very self-driven, high-initiative officers who can build bridges and relationships and convince people … to get them to do what we need to do to further a drug case.”

A supervisor should ideally be someone who has also served in that role and knows the impacts and challenges of working drug cases. 

“It requires diligent oversight by management,” Gesell said. “We’re very concerned about employee wellness.”

Officers usually only work undercover on a “dirty squad” about four years, he said, because doing the job for a long duration can be challenging on a person’s home life or psyche.

Parkinson would not allow the supervisor of his narcotics unit, who works undercover, to comment because he was involved in the Pierce investigation and that case is ongoing.

Using informants

Following his Feb. 5 arrest, Pierce was placed on paid administrative leave while San Luis Obispo police conduct an ongoing administrative investigation that is separate from the criminal case. 

Pierce was indicted March 1 by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles on one count of bribery and one count of extortion. He will be arraigned Wednesday. 

Pierce did not return a call for comment for this story; his federal public defender also could not be reached to comment.

According to a criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, Pierce took cash and narcotics from two repeat offenders, a boyfriend and girlfriend, from February 2012 until last month. In return, he helped them avoid arrest and get lighter probation supervision, and provided them with drugs.

In January, one of the offenders was arrested and shared information with sheriff’s officials. After interviewing the individual and contacting Gesell, Park-inson notified the FBI and asked federal agents to investigate. 

The person cooperated with the federal investigation as a witness and recorded multiple conversations with Pierce. 

Both witnesses said they became Pierce’s sources in late 2011, after Pierce arrested the male for possession of heroin. The witnesses said Pierce allowed the male to act as a source so he could “work off” his heroin charge, according to the complaint.

Soon afterward, the complaint alleges, Pierce began asking the informants to bring him narcotics. Eventually, Pierce and the offenders allegedly began exchanging pills and heroin for methamphetamines. Pierce would sometimes provide the offenders with methamphetamine still in police evidence bags and placebo pills to sell to drug dealers. 

It’s not clear how Pierce obtained the methamphetamines. According to the criminal complaint, the female witness said she would sometimes receive meth in “heavy duty plastic bags” with a “tear tag” at the top, and described them as having “a number” and writing on them that referred to the Sheriff’s Office.

In response to a question about the meth, sheriff’s spokesman Tony Cipolla said in an email: “The allegations from the informant regarding the meth or drugs were never substantiated by the FBI nor has our inventory ever revealed missing methamphetamine.”

FBI spokeswoman Ari Dekofsky said it would be inappropriate for her to comment on another department’s inventory of evidence.

The placebo pills likely came from the San Luis Obispo Police Department, which had acquired them  a number of years ago to be used in drug operations, Gesell said. He said he’s still looking into the origin of the pills — which, being fake pills, were not tracked or stored like narcotics. 

“We will not be housing any of these, period,” Gesell said. “There’s a place for props like that in drug investigations, but certainly if we acquire them in the future, there will be a tighter control over them. I don’t think anyone thought in a million years that these would be sold.”

Gesell said an audit of the department’s evidence room did not find any missing drugs.

Monitoring evidence

In late January, the Sheriff’s Office installed a camera in the narcotics unit’s office space to capture video of a storage locker where evidence, including drugs, can be temporarily stored until taken to the property evidence room.

Often, the locker is empty, Parkinson said. Only those serving on the special operations unit have access to the room.

On Jan. 31, the video showed the last employee leaving the office at 5:20 p.m. Shortly afterward, Pierce came in, removed a key from the sergeant’s desk, opened the locker and removed a sack from the storage location. 

“The detective reviewing the video recognized the sack as one that contained the placebo pills resembling oxycodone,” the criminal complaint states. 

The video showed Pierce removing two bottles from the sack, returning the key to the sergeant’s desk, removing the plastic wrap from the bottles and then leaving the office.

Parkinson said the key was normally kept in the drawer, but will now be kept by the sergeant until new lockers are installed in the room. 

The camera has been removed; Parkinson said it was installed only as part of the investigation.

A video camera is located outside the department’s evidence storage room; a new evidence room that the department will start using in about a month will have an alarm and video cameras inside and outside the room.

Eight to nine new lockers in the narcotics unit will have locks that the officers, once they push a particular button, won’t be able to access. The push-button lock system will only be accessible by one of the sheriff’s property evidence officers, who will walk over to the unit and retrieve any evidence stored there.

In addition, Parkinson said, the Sheriff’s Office has policies for the use of confidential informants, use of money in operations, and how evidence is booked.

He declined to share a copy of the policies, because they contain information specific to the way operations are conducted.

Reviewing cases

The department purchased and maintains its policies through Lexipol, an Aliso Viejo-based company that provides policies and resources to public safety agencies. Employees are tested on the policies at random each week.

Its informant policy, for example, requires an officer to fill out a packet of information on an informant, which requires approval. Two managers have to approve a drug purchase.

A detective on the sheriff’s narcotics unit reviewed the informant files but found that Pierce had not created any for the two offenders.

Meanwhile, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office has started a preliminary review of cases in which Pierce was involved. 

Chief Deputy District Attorney Jerret Gran said the office is reviewing the indictment and other records to establish a time frame to search the cases. The office is also working on a way to alert the defense attorneys in those cases of Pierce’s arrest and the review.

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.