June 16, 2006

San Diego police Sgt. Martha Sainz, who was accused of physically attacking a subordinate officer in front of children at a camp in August, has prevailed in her appeal to keep her job.

During a private hearing recently, Sainz gave her side of the story and convinced Assistant Chief Joel Bryden that his initial decision to fire her was too harsh, said sources familiar with the case. Bryden converted the firing to a reprimand.

Sainz is fighting the reprimand and seeking a promotion to lieutenant, which she believes was unfairly withheld because of the controversy surrounding the camp incident, said the sources, who asked not to be identified because personnel matters are confidential.
Bryden and Chief William Lansdowne declined to comment. Neither Sainz nor her husband, San Diego police Officer Jim Stevens, returned calls seeking comment. Her lawyer, Donovan Jacobs, also declined to comment.

Sainz's father-in-law, retired San Diego police Lt. Ed Stevens, reviewed the Internal Affairs report on the incident and pointed out problems that helped Sainz's case, according to the sources.

Stevens confirmed this week that he read the report but declined to say more. “All everybody wanted from the get-go was fair play and justice,” he said.

Sainz has been on maternity leave and it's unclear when she will return or what her assignment will be, the sources said.

Sainz was served with papers in January indicating that she was being terminated in connection with the incident at a safety-patrol camp for sixth-graders on Palomar Mountain.

Witnesses told The San Diego Union-Tribune that Sainz reacted badly when she unwittingly sat on a wet sponge in front of scores of campers and realized she had been the victim of a prank.

The witnesses said Sainz attacked the subordinate officer, Stacee Botsford, putting her in a headlock, punching and choking her. Botsford, who was not seriously injured, did not return calls seeking comment.

After the incident, Sainz, a 14-year veteran, was temporarily reassigned from her post in the Juvenile Administration Unit to an administrative post in the domestic violence squad.

Under the department's disciplinary system, firings are not effective until appeals within the department are exhausted.

Officials aren't talking about it, but many officers said they are confused and incensed that Sainz's punishment has been reduced to a reprimand, which means the incident will be noted in her personnel file and could impact her ability to be promoted.

“I think the majority of the people close to this investigation as witnesses are outraged at this turn of events and it will be very interesting to see how she can supervise,” said an officer familiar with the case.

Sainz filed a lawsuit in February – before her termination was reversed – alleging that the city and the department violated her rights by withholding information that would exonerate her. She sought unspecified damages and a promotion which she said she was about to receive when the incident occurred.

In the lawsuit, Sainz's lawyer wrote that her response to the prank – getting Botsford wet with the sponge – was acceptable horseplay and not violent. The suit also said Botsford was bruised not by Sainz, but while playing on a water slide at a pool party four days before the incident at camp.

The lawsuit criticized the Internal Affairs report, saying witnesses did not back its conclusions that Sainz “hit Officer Botsford with her hands, knees and elbows, and attempted to place her in a chokehold.”

The Internal Affairs investigator, Sgt. David Contreras, did not return calls seeking comment. Deputy City Attorney Michael McGowan also declined to comment because the case is still pending.

Bill Farrar, a veteran officer who in his previous role as president of the San Diego Police Officers Association became familiar with the disciplinary process, said he is not aware of the facts of this case. But for a chief to reverse his decision, the accused officer must have offered up a compelling reason, he said.

“Obviously something didn't stand up. Or, Bryden listened and said even if this is true, it isn't worthy of termination. That's the beauty of the review process. It's a process we value in terms of having a second or even third chance of review,” Farrar said.