A Police Officer Used the N-Word on Duty. New Law Reveals He Got a Pay Cut. Is That Enough?

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close up view of a police car reading 'avenal police' on the side
An investigation into racist slurs uttered by a police sergeant in the Central Valley town of Avenal is among the first records released to KQED under a new California law that expands the categories of police records available to the public to include findings of discrimination, false arrests and excessive force. (Courtesy of City of Avenal)

This story discusses offensive language used by police officers.

A police sergeant in the small Central Valley town of Avenal received a pay cut for using the N-word in front of the assistant chief, a trainee officer and a community volunteer.

That's according to the findings of a 2016 investigation that is among the first records released to KQED under Senate Bill 16, an expanded police transparency law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year that gives the public a glimpse into how police departments investigate officer discrimination.

The Avenal Police Department hired an outside investigator to look into the allegations that Darin Pearson, a veteran sergeant, used a racist slur.

“Tell me if this sounds familiar to you,” the investigator asked Pearson during a September 2016 interview, “not to put any words in your mouth.”

“Nah, that’s OK,” Pearson said.

“‘When I get closer to retirement, and someone says something about the cops shooting Black people, I'm going to say, I've never shot a n—’,” the investigator said, using the slur.

“That would probably be somewhat close,” Pearson responded.

The white, 50-year-old sergeant had worked for the police department in Avenal, a town in Kings County about halfway between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, for about six years. Before that, he’d spent 20 years as a deputy for the Kings County Sheriff, according to a statewide law enforcement database.

Pearson told the investigator that, as he neared retirement, it was harder to “keep quiet about all this BS stuff going on,” and so sooner or later “someone” was going to say something like, “Just relax, I haven’t shot a n— in six months.”

Sponsored

SB 16, under which the Avenal investigation was released, expanded the categories of police records available to the public to include findings of discrimination, false arrests and excessive force.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner, who authored the law, said policing can’t be effective if “there is mistrust and bad relationship with the community.” The value of the new law, said Skinner, is that transparency “helps to create the ability for the public to hold public servants accountable.”

Between 2016 and 2020, the town of Avenal — the “pistachio capital of the world,” according to its website — found that five officers had engaged in discriminatory behavior, including making derogatory comments about women and Spanish-speaking colleagues.

That is an unusually high rate of sustained discrimination complaints for a department of just 17 sworn officers, according to complaint data collected by the State Department of Justice. For comparison, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department — which employs 930 officers, according to numbers provided by the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training — said it had no sustained discrimination complaints for the same time period.

Darin Pearson, a retired Avenal Police Dept. sergeant, received a 5% pay cut over four months for using the N-word while on duty in 2016. (Facebook)

Avenal Police Chief Rusty Stivers said “there's a story to be told behind” the high numbers for his department.

“I kind of was more proactive than maybe most in handling those types of situations,” he said.

Some of the incidents turned out to be minor, Stivers said. For instance, an officer wrote a math equation on a white board with the solution “women = problems” written at the bottom.

The chief said he found this written on the board, and decided to do an investigation to understand whether there were “any other underlying issues within the department that I needed to know about.”

He cut the offending officer’s pay by 5% for two months. Another officer, who has since retired, was counseled for calling one of his Latino colleagues “dickbeater,” and another one the derogatory term “paisa.” Stivers said those comments don’t reflect his department’s culture, which is nearly half Latino. Avenal’s population is 85% Latino, according to the 2020 census. Avenal has five female officers and no Black officers.

Pearson received the most serious discipline. The chief cut Pearson’s pay by 5% for four months. Pearson, who also was the head of the Avenal police officers association, retired in June 2017. He did not respond to emails and Facebook messages requesting comment.

The released records also illustrate a gap in Avenal’s internal investigation: The investigator never questioned Pearson’s attitude toward Black people or whether prejudice might impede his ability to fairly enforce the law. It narrowly focused on the use of the N-word itself and who might have heard it, not on what the use of the word might mean.

Police Chief Stivers agreed with that assessment. He pointed out that the investigator did ask whether Pearson used the N-word word commonly, and that Pearson said he didn’t.

“Knowing Sgt. Pearson, as I knew him, that wasn't a concern of mine,” said Stivers, who has known Pearson for about 30 years and worked with him at the King’s County Sheriff’s Department.

Pearson’s Facebook page states he now lives in Texas. His page also shows that around the same time he used the N-word on duty, he also posted memes mocking #BlackLivesMatter, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and African American names. Stivers said he doesn’t monitor his officers’ social media accounts.

Retired San Jose internal affairs sergeant Frederick Kotto said that from his perspective, as a Black law enforcement expert, the slur is actually not the biggest issue at play here: It’s Pearson’s obvious frustration.

“You're not showing the temperament of someone who has been given the authority at your discretion to take the life of another person,” he said.

Police Records

On Aug. 25, 2016, according to the documents released by Avenal, Pearson was on patrol with trainee Tyler Stryd. They met up with Assistant Chief Arend LaBlue and a citizen volunteer, Keith Harvick. Harvick, who would go on to serve on the city council, did not respond to voicemails requesting comment.

LaBlue briefed Pearson on their anti-gang efforts, according to the records, and then the four men started talking informally.

Harvick mentioned an earlier encounter with a woman who had said something like, “Don’t shoot, I’m not Black,” which is when Pearson mentioned getting closer to retirement and police shootings of Black people. Only Pearson used the N-word.

“That’s when the chief, LaBlue, got red in the face and pointed at me and said, ‘Let's go,'” Harvick later told the investigator. He said because he’s hard of hearing and that the car was running he didn’t actually hear the comment.

“I assumed that something went down because I've seen the look on LaBlue's face,” Harvick said to the investigator.

That night, LaBlue emailed Pearson with the subject line: “Inappropriate comment.”

“You said the word [N-word] in front of a trainee and a CRT member who will possibly be on the City Council soon,” LaBlue wrote, repeating the slur. “And being the assistant chief, i'm not sure what you were thinking to say that in front of me or the others.”

LaBlue asked Pearson to call Stryd to make sure the trainee understood that kind of language would not be tolerated, and to call and apologize to Harvick.

“In this day and age, if it was found out that I let a comment like that go unchecked, I would lose my job,” LaBlue wrote. “You know better than that. Do not do that again.”

Pearson’s emailed response was brief: "When your right, your right.  You have my apology.  Darin"

email screenshot
Former Avenal police sergeant Darin Pearson's emailed response to Assistant Police Chief Arend LaBlue. (Avenal Police Dept.)

Pearson told the investigator he’d called Stryd that same night to let him know that what he’d said violated the police officer’s code of ethics. He said he also told the younger officer there would be moments in his career when he’d need to “blow steam,” but to be careful about who he trusted.

“If you want to blow steam and say you hate the movement and whatever else, fine, do it, but do it in a different manner,” Pearson said.

The next day Pearson told the assistant chief that he had called the trainee and Harvick. Pearson told the investigator he thought that was the end of it.

He told the investigator that the statement came out of his frustration with people thinking “we’re the bad guy for everything.”

“I make no excuses,” Pearson said. “What I did was inappropriate, not a problem there. I accept that.”

Kotto, the retired San Jose internal affairs sergeant, said this incident should have been a warning sign to higher-ups at the department that Pearson needed counseling.

“Again, you're given a loaded firearm and you're told to go out there in the streets, and based on your judgment, you can use that firearm,” he said. “And if you have judgment that is skewed to one direction or the other to such an extremity that it can impair your ability to make clear, fair, quick decisions, then I think it's time to find another career.”

The chief said that behind every complaint there is a fuller story that he can’t go into, but he said that the department does “take care of those things behind the scenes.”

Stivers said he would handle a similar investigation differently today, “especially after we have to disclose this and a very uncomfortable conversation with a reporter.” Now, he said he would direct the investigator to dig a little deeper.

As more records are released under SB 16 in the coming months, we will begin to get a clearer picture of how law enforcement investigates and addresses discrimination among its own.

“The public is being let in bit by bit to this previously secret realm of police misconduct,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.

“But with each new door that opens, it becomes obvious that there are several others that also should be open. So really, we're just at the beginning of what I think will be a longer road toward accountability and transparency,” Snyder said.