The Lawson Report, Part 4: How APD was organized and staffed that tragic, fateful night

Note: This is the Fourth installment of the National Police Foundation’s report on the death of Humboldt State student David Josiah Lawson, and the criminal justice system’s follow-through. So far, no one has been held responsible for his stabbing death. Read APD's recent summary of internal reforms it has since implemented. – Ed.

Figure 2: APD Organizational Chart, 2017 Fluctuations in staffing and vacancies due to injury leave and/or unfilled positions reduced total sworn staffing by 3-4 positions in 2017. Source: Arcata Police Department. (2017). Provided to the NPF assessment team and reviewed February 2020.

The Arcata Police Department

The APD serves the City of Arcata. During the 2016-2017 budget year, the department was authorized for 37.5 full-time equivalent staff members, including one chief of police, two lieutenants, five sergeants, eighteen police officers, and six dispatchers.   

Department Organization

As of April 2017, the chief of police and a command staff of two lieutenants led the APD. The chief had been with the department since 1994 and was appointed chief in March 2010.7 Command responsibilities were split between two lieutenants. One lieutenant was assigned as the commander of the Operations Division with oversight of patrol functions. The lieutenant had more than seven years in grade. The second Special Services Division lieutenant was responsible for administrative functions and for the management of the Investigations Unit; at the time, this position was vacant with the lieutenant on extended leave pending retirement. Thus, the APD was functioning with one active command officer at the time of the April 15, 2017 incident.

Five sergeants served the department, four of whom were assigned to the patrol division. These four uniformed patrol supervisors were assigned to 12-hour shifts responsible for the oversight of officers responding to calls for service. The fifth sergeant — the Special Services Division sergeant — supervised investigations functions, including the Investigations Unit, and had seven years of supervisory and investigative experience. This sergeant had been serving as the investigations supervisor for approximately five years.8 The APD’s plan called for him to remain in that position while newer sergeants were gaining experience as patrol supervisors. The sergeant had been the lead detective sergeant on five homicides before April 2017.9

The sergeant had also completed the California Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST)- certified training in homicide investigations and other pertinent major crime investigation training (rape investigations, child abuse/sexual assault investigations, and interview and interrogation techniques). The only other detective with similar training, and assigned to conduct such investigations, was unavailable in April 2017, due to extended injury leave. Thus, all investigative and collateral assignments were the responsibility of the sole Investigations Unit sergeant, who would serve as a supervisor of the case, among other responsibilities.

APD patrol officers were assigned as acting patrol sergeants and in that role were also the watch commander (AWC) when sergeants were not on-duty. These were usually filled by senior officers. The acting sergeants (AWC) received no additional tactical or investigative supervisory training beyond that of a patrol training officer, other than for the completion of basic administrative tasks.

7 Chief Tom Chapman resigned from the APD in April 2018. Following his departure, Richard Ehle served as interim chief from June 2018 to November 2018, when the current chief, Brian Ahearn, was appointed. 

For more, see: news/eureka-local-news/arcata-police-dept-welcomes-new-police-chief-brian-ahearn

8 NPF assessment team interview with former chief, APD, August 15, 2018.

9 Arcata Police Department. Homicide and OIS Investigations. Provided to the NPF assessment team, December 9, 2019 and February 12, 2020.








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