Advisory board in disarray after member's firing

by Thomas K. Pendergast

Was it something Christopher Rillo said? Was it the way he said it? Why did the Richmond Police Station's new captain dismiss the attorney, making him the first member of the three-year-old, all-volunteer Community Police Advisory Board (CPAB) to be removed?

The SF Police Department's (SFPD) deputy chief will not give a specific reason, but he says the department stands behind Capt. Eric Vintero's decision to dismiss Rillo. Vintero began serving as captain of the station this year.

Now, five CPAB members who demanded an explanation for the removal have resigned in protest, while four others are confirmed to be remaining on the board.

There are more questions raised by Vintero's actions: Was the alleged offending behavior at a Jan. 17 community meeting at the Richmond police station? Was his dismissal really because he filed an appeal opposing the Entertainment Commission's decision to allow a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant to stay open until 4 a.m.? Was it his behavior at the Board of Appeals, in February, after they upheld the commission's decision?

Vintero did not respond to requests for comment.

According to the minutes of the CPAB meeting on March 13 - taken by the board member Edmund Lee - the board's chairman, David Lee, broached the subject of Rillo's dismissal and Vintero answered "because of his belligerent behavior during a community meeting on Jan. 17, where Supervisor Mar felt intimidated."

The minutes also show that board member Sue Fry was concerned that if members of the board were not informed as to what Rillo did, which was considered serious enough to warrant him being removed, "how would we know if we might do something that would also cause us to be removed in the future?"

Fry was the first to send the SFPD her letter of resignation. She says she does not understand why Vintero would dismiss Rillo.

"We were stunned," Fry recalls. "Chris Rillo is an attorney. He's got a reputation to defend and here the captain is suddenly saying 'well, he was so belligerent that he had to be fired from CPAB,' the only person to ever be fired.

"We asked (Vintero) why and he didn't want to tell us at first. He said: 'I prefer you ask Chris Rillo about that' and we were stunned. I said: 'I'm concerned about this because how do we know, unless we hear something about what he did that caused him to be fired, how would we know that something we'd done hadn't been offensive?'

"Vintero said Eric Mar complained that he felt intimidated by Chris Rillo at the (Jan. 17) meeting,'" Fry said.

She was so upset that by the end of the evening, she decided to quit.

"I had decided as I was walking to my car that I was going to resign," Fry explained. "Advisory Board chairman David Lee called me after that and he was very upset and I said 'well, I'm resigning,' and he said 'well I'm going to resign too.' … I just couldn't believe that (Rillo) was treated that way because I was at all those meetings. Nothing was said to him for weeks and then suddenly he's fired? No. "

Rillo says that when Vintero phoned and gave him the axe, he did not give a reason.

"He gave no reason," said Rillo. "He just said 'I have the power to remove people so I decided to remove you.'"

Rillo said the word 'belligerent' never came up in the conversation, and neither did his behavior at two Entertainment Commission meetings in January, the community meeting on Jan. 17, nor his appearance at the Board of Appeals meeting in February.

SFPD Deputy Chief Kevin Cashman says police will not comment on who involved might have said what or to whom, including anything that Vintero might or might not have said, but the department stands behind his decision.

"We're treating this essentially as a personnel matter and we want to respect the confidentiality of the process," Cashman said. "Anything that's an 'alleged' would fall under our confidentiality of people who do work for us, and just like in a personnel matter we would respect that. It was his prerogative to staff the police community advisory board with people and he made a decision. We support Capt. Vintero in that decision."

Rillo represented as a pro-bono attorney some of the residents living around the Jack-in-the-Box restaurant on Geary Boulevard at 11th Avenue, who want the restaurant closed between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., daily. This issue came to a head a few months ago, after a U.S. Marine and firefighter was put in a coma by an attack that happened down the street, immediately following an argument that erupted at the fast-food establishment.

In December, city officials ordered the place closed during those hours when they discovered its after-hours permit had expired. On Jan. 24, the SF Entertainment Commission reinstated that permit, although denying the restaurant permission to operate between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m.

In February, the SF Board of Permit Appeals rejected an appeal filed by Rillo to overturn the Entertainment Commission's decision.

"We feel that the removal of Chris Rillo was unwarranted and we do not have a satisfactory answer as to why he was removed," said CPAB Chairman David Lee, who drafted the letter informing police that five board members were resigning. "To be removed without warning and without a satisfactory answer or cause … we feel is wrong.

"I cannot remain on the board. To do so would be to validate what has happened to him. … The captain cited (Rillo's) 'belligerent' behavior at a meeting that we all attended, a community meeting on Jan. 17 in the police station … allegedly intimidating or making Supervisor Mar feel intimidated at that meeting. We did not see any behavior by Mr. Rillo which could be deemed 'belligerent.'"

Mar says he did not feel any belligerence coming from Rillo, nor did he feel intimidated.

"I have a good relationship with him," says Mar. "I've never felt intimidated by anybody in the police advisory board or community police relations meetings, and that's why it was kind of a shock that that might come up, but I know that Capt. Vintero has other reasons why he removed Mr. Rillo.

"From what the captain tells me, it was related to different behavior of Mr. Rillo at the Board of Appeals meeting … where the denial of the appeal that Mr. Rillo had brought came up. My understanding is there may have been some actions by Mr. Rillo that the captain looked at and felt that that was grounds for pulling other people into the advisory board and dismissing Rillo from it."

In a letter to Rillo dated March 26, 2012, SF Board of Appeals President Michael L. Garcia praised Rillo's character and his appearance at the Board of Appeals hearing on Feb. 29.

"Mr. Rillo's advocacy well represented his clients and he conducted himself professionally during the hearing," the letter states. "It was a difficult case with strong feelings on both sides. Mr. Rillo sat in the first row next to uniformed police officer during the hearing and they seemed to enjoy camaraderie. I observed nothing untoward about Mr. Rillo's behavior.

"After the hearing, Mr. Rillo and I exchanged pleasantries. He was polite and I enjoyed our conversation. I walked out of City Hall with Mr. Rillo. His behavior and advocacy were professional and he comported himself with the behavior that would be expected from an advocate and member of the bar."

Current CPAB member Stuart Williams says if he does not get a better explanation from SFPD by April 1, he'll officially resign.

"I expected them to come clean with us and say 'Here's what happened,'" says Williams. "It'd be nice to know what happened since we are volunteers. This whole thing has become too political."

Professor John Elia is a CPAB member and teaches at San Francisco State University. He is also resigning.

"My main reason for leaving the board is that I believe Chris Rillo should have had his day in court," says Elia. "I don't need to be part of a board that treats its members this way."

Jean Barish is one of the four board members who will be staying on it.

"We do not have all of the facts regarding the reasons that Chris was asked to resign," says Barish. "I think that there is information that we do not have regarding the request that he resign. I'm not comfortable signing a letter and stepping down."

Fry says she doesn't know why Rillo was singled out for removal but she does have an idea.

"Let me just point out that Mr. Rillo asked his law firm to handle the appeal on a pro-bono basis and they did," says Fry. "So he's the guy who actually filed the appeal with the appeals board."