05/02/2006

Calif. whistle-blower copes with stress

Copyright 2006 San Jose Mercury News

Life unravels after he helps build case against fellow cops

By YOMI S. WRONGE
San Jose Mercury News
 
EAST PALO ALTO, Calif. — Since he blew the whistle on two fellow East Palo Alto police officers, David Carson says he's become reclusive, gained excessive weight and at one low point turned to alcohol -- something the devout Mormon said he'd never done before.

"I've been very stressed over this," Carson said in an interview. The seven-year veteran of the force sparked a criminal investigation of officers Johnny Taflinger and Eddie Rivers — and then took the stand against them at a trial earlier this month.

Carson insists that Rivers told him of an August 2004 off-duty assault involving a local drug user, Calvin Brooks. Rivers, Taflinger and a police volunteer, Eddi Tapia Torres, were off-duty and sitting in a 7-Eleven parking lot in East Palo Alto when Brooks approached and offered to sell them crack cocaine.

Carson said Rivers and Torres told him they chased Brooks and beat him up. Brooks testified that he sought medical treatment after the attack. Brooks has filed a civil suit against the city and the officers he said jumped him.

However, Rivers and Taflinger have maintained they never caught up with Brooks. And last Tuesday, a San Mateo County jury acquitted both men of assault charges.

That Carson went to great lengths to help prosecutors — he enlisted the help of other officers in the investigation and secretly recorded conversations to snare Rivers, Taflinger and Torres — made jurors distrust him, the foreman said last week.

The officers' defense attorneys called Carson a "cancer" within the police department.

Carson said he isn't swayed by the name-calling, and he denies accusations that he had a vendetta against the defendants.

"I expected it," he said. "What more can I do about it except to say it's not true?"

The defense sentiment is apparently shared by others. Carson testified before a grand jury in 2005 that his involvement in the investigation made it difficult for him to keep working in East Palo Alto. He told of harsh stares from fellow officers and hostility from one supervisor.

"The majority of the officers there support Rivers and Taflinger," Carson told the grand jury, according to transcripts unsealed in April 2005. "I'm looking in bushes, checking all of the dark spots. It's so easy to scan a police channel and know where I'm at."

His paranoia during the investigation was reasonable, according to experts.

"There's a psychological component that whistle-blowers go through, which is they internalize the fact that they are alone and that there are individuals who wish them to be removed from the organization, or worse," said Michael Kohn, general counsel for the National Whistleblower Center, a Washington, D.C.-based group.

Most of the time whistle-blowers face shunning by co-workers who don't want to be associated with them in the eyes of management, said Dylan Blaylock, spokesman for the Government Accountability Project, which has taken on many high-profile whistle-blower clients.

"The only real protection against that is if an organization has a very clear whistle-blower policy" that allows for individuals to disclose a problem to their superiors with a guarantee that they will not face retaliation, Blaylock said.

East Palo Alto Police Chief Ronald Davis could not be reached for comment. But he has said that any retaliation against Carson -- including the silent treatment or rudeness — will be grounds for termination.

With his boss' support, Carson helped prosecutors build the case against Rivers and Taflinger. Meanwhile, his personal life unraveled.

"I was a picture of health before all this happened," Carson said, describing how he used to work out regularly. He has gained almost 100 pounds since the scandal broke in the fall of 2004 and says he "looks like a slob." He feels even worse on the inside.

"I became a recluse," the 35-year-old husband and father said. "I don't like leaving my house, going out. Being home is the safest place for me, my family. It's been hard."

He said things at work have neutralized.

"I'm sure there are people who have their own opinion, but I haven't heard or been a victim of anything," Carson said. "I think they're being professional about it and going forward, and everyone at the department is glad it's over with."

But it isn't over. Rivers and Taflinger still face an internal investigation, which could lead to their firings.

Everardo Luna, a community activist who supports Carson, said that's what needs to happen to restore public trust.

"I think it's in the best interest to not retain these individuals in the community because that will send a very bad message to residents," Luna said.

But even if they leave, Carson must live down the reputation of a snitch.

"Sometimes doing the right thing is not the smartest thing to do," he said, insisting that he did not make up the allegations against his fellow officers, as their defense teams have suggested.

Would he do it again?

"I hope that I'm never put in that sort of position again," he said. "But if I am, yes. It becomes a matter of duty."

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