Records: Off-duty officer fled DUI crash, let mom try to take the blame

Reports say the LEO ran his truck into a pole that fell on the patio of a house; the next day he and his mother falsely claimed she was behind the wheel


By Ben Poston and Maya Lau
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — South Pasadena Police Cpl. Ryan Bernal realized he was in trouble.

Dazed from a night of drinking, he was jolted awake when his pickup truck smashed into a pole that fell on the patio roof of an occupied house in Duarte, internal police records show.

So the off-duty officer drove his truck around the block, walked to a nearby Walmart and slipped away in a ride-hailing service vehicle. The next morning, he showed up at a Los Angeles County sheriff’s station with his mother, who falsely claimed she had been behind the wheel, investigators said.

Bernal resigned in July 2017 after police moved to fire him for making false statements, committing a hit-and-run and attempting to obstruct an internal affairs inquiry. Prosecutors declined to charge him with a misdemeanor hit-and-run charge. A sheriff’s investigator who handled the case said two of Bernal’s department colleagues who had crucial evidence declined to cooperate with the criminal investigation.

The South Pasadena incident is one of hundreds of cases being examined by the newly created California Reporting Project, a collaboration of 33 news organizations including The Times that is analyzing internal police records released under the new law.

The collaborative has filed requests with more than 600 law enforcement agencies and so far received records from 617 incidents in which officers used significant or deadly force, 115 cases in which officers were found to have been dishonest and 34 in which they committed sexual assault or other sexual misconduct.

The documents provide a glimpse into how California police agencies evaluate misconduct, force and shootings by their officers — issues that have dominated a national debate over policing and fueled criticism that law enforcement agencies aren’t transparent enough with the communities they serve.

Those concerns helped drive efforts to pass the new law, Senate Bill 1421, at a time when tensions were high over police use of deadly force and departments were grappling with how to handle officers who have histories of dishonesty or other misconduct that could undermine their credibility as witnesses in criminal proceedings.

Details of Bernal’s misconduct recently became public under the landmark transparency law, which requires the release of internal police records of shootings, use of force and confirmed cases of sexual assault and lying on duty.

“The public finally gets to see inside one of the key institutions of our community, the police force,” said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who teaches criminal law at Loyola Law School. “For too long it was very difficult to try to pierce through the departments to see who these officers were and what they were doing.”

So far, The Times has obtained dozens of files on misconduct and use of force. The records provide details about:

  • A Cathedral City detective suspended for three days for falsifying his time sheet in 2017
  • An Inglewood Unified School District police officer fired for lying during an internal investigation after his service weapon was stolen from his car in 2015
  • And a Chula Vista police officer fired last year for having sex while on duty and in uniform in a public area

Still, a dozen police agencies have refused The Times’ requests to release records of incidents that happened before Jan. 1, when SB 1421 went into effect. Some agencies argue the law does not explicitly allow access to the older files and that releasing them would violate long-standing protections on officer personnel records while others have said they want to wait until the issue has been settled by the courts.

In Los Angeles, Orange, Contra Costa and other counties, judges have rejected requests by police unions to block the release of older records. The state Supreme Court also declined to consider an appeal by one of the unions over the records.

Some officials have nevertheless sought to destroy records that would otherwise be public under the law.

In Downey, the police union has asked a court to order the city to destroy disciplinary records older than five years, as the city’s record retention guidelines allow. The Long Beach Police Department destroyed two decades’ worth of internal affairs files in December. A month later, Inglewood City Council voted to destroy records from more than 100 police shootings and other internal investigations records.

But at least 134 agencies have begun releasing records under the new law, revealing misconduct previously kept hidden from the public.

Award-winning officer

Ryan Bernal had been on the South Pasadena Police Department for about a year when Mothers Against Drunk Driving gave him an award for “assiduous patrolling of DUI suspects culminating in arrests.”

Four years later, he was out drinking with colleagues after work — downing as many as nine Old Fashioned cocktails, a shot of tequila and a beer — when he got behind the wheel of his Toyota Tundra around 12:45 a.m. Feb. 7, 2017, according to an internal affairs report.

Bernal’s vehicle struck a utility pole that broke from its foundation and landed on the patio roof of a house, leaving behind exposed wires, according to investigators. No one was hurt.

Several hours later, the records show, Bernal was with his mother when she told sheriff’s officials she was the one who hit the pole and fled the scene. Deputies said the woman was extremely nervous and shaking, on the verge of hyperventilating.

Later that day, Bernal called a South Pasadena police sergeant and admitted that he had been drinking that night, crashed his truck and left the scene but said he had not been drunk, according to the internal report.

Bernal, who had attended an “end of shift” gathering in Old Town Pasadena with fellow police personnel, told investigators he dozed off while driving due to a lack of sleep. The 31-year-old said he left the scene so that he could “deal with this on my own time,” believing he would be responsible only for property damage, the records show.

'Don't tell anyone'

But internal investigators concluded he was driving under the influence. They also found text messages that showed Bernal told a dispatcher in the department that he had been involved in the traffic collision just after it happened and directed her not to report it.

“Don’t tell anyone. If I need 2 ditch my truck I will,” he wrote the co-worker as he was driven away by a ride-hailing service. Later that morning, he followed up: “Hey, this convo and the one last night never happened.”

Bernal deleted the text messages, telling investigators he wasn’t trying to destroy evidence but didn’t “want to be reminded what happened.” He denied directing his mother to lie for him, but investigators noted that he did not intervene when she confessed to the hit-and-run.

Asked why he abandoned his truck, Bernal told investigators: “Anytime there’s a collision involved and there’s alcohol involved, 99 percent of the time that person is going to get hooked. So I said, ‘You know what? No one is going to believe that I was tired.’”

Bernal “failed to do what was right and clearly and blatantly chose to be dishonest,” Capt. Mike Neff wrote in a disciplinary report, adding that his truthfulness as an officer “will always be questioned.”

Efforts to reach Bernal and his attorney were unsuccessful.

The criminal probe

But the criminal case against Bernal was stymied when two key witnesses at the South Pasadena Police Department declined to cooperate with a sheriff’s investigation, according to a district attorney’s memo.

Robert Bartl, the sergeant to whom Bernal first confessed, told a sheriff’s deputy he would not testify in court, the memo said. And the dispatcher who had exchanged text messages with Bernal did not provide access to those records, according to the memo.

In a phone interview, Bartl said he doesn’t remember a sheriff’s deputy contacting him for a statement and said he cooperates with criminal investigations.

“This is no different than any other case,” said Bartl, now an acting captain. “I would have never told a sheriff’s detective I wouldn’t go to court.”

The dispatcher, Janee Hannible, declined to comment for this story.

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©2019 Los Angeles Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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