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A former Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy who could face trial on a felony charge of assaulting a Sonoma Valley man he was trying to detain five months ago was hired by the county despite his checkered and limited job history with two other law enforcement agencies, a Press Democrat investigation has found.

Scott Thorne, 40, was arrested and charged in January with felony assault by an officer, marking an exceptionally rare case in Sonoma County involving prosecution of a law enforcement officer for an on-duty incident.

Thorne, a Walnut Creek resident, left the Sheriff’s Office within weeks of the Sept. 24 altercation, where prosecutors say he used a stun gun on the Boyes Hot Springs man as he lay in his own bed, then struck the man with his baton.

Thorne, who has pleaded not guilty, began his career in law enforcement 15 years ago, but before he joined the Sheriff’s Office in 2015, his work history as a sworn officer totaled less than two years, employment records obtained by the Press Democrat show.

His first policing job, in Richmond, ended after 10 months in 2002 while he was the subject of three complaints and a civil rights lawsuit. That case, also involving two other Richmond officers, resulted in a $172,500 settlement for the plaintiff, who accused Thorne of using excessive force on a domestic call.

In subsequent years, he held a state license to work as an armed security guard, and his jobs included a stint with an El Dorado County fire district.

He landed a job as a correctional deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department in 2007, but he was dismissed a year later, records show.

Thorne was studying at the University of California Hastings School of Law in San Francisco when he was started as an unpaid reserve deputy in Sonoma County two years ago. He became a full-time, paid deputy in April.

His arrest and prosecution in connection with the Boyes Hot Springs incident, which resulted from a domestic violence call, could represent an unprecedented move in Sonoma County. Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell said there’s been no similar case in recent memory involving criminal prosecution of an officer for an on-duty incident.

Hiring practices at issue

The newspaper’s investigation into Thorne’s employment background raises questions about the county’s hiring standards at a time when the Sheriff’s Office has stepped-up recruitment efforts to address a multi-year staffing shortage. The case also reflects the secrecy of records pertaining to law enforcement performance and misconduct, information tightly sealed from the public under California law.

Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas declined to answer questions about Thorne’s employment with the county, his office’s hiring of Thorne, “or anything related” to the pending criminal case, according to a department spokesman.

But Lt. Darin Dougherty defended the department’s hiring standards, describing an exhaustive process for vetting candidates involving written tests, two psychological examinations and a thorough background investigation including interviews with former job supervisors.

“There’s not an exact science when you’re dealing with humans, unfortunately,” Dougherty said. “The last thing we want to do is put someone out on the street who will be harmful to the public.”

It’s not clear how much the Sheriff’s Office knew about Thorne’s background. Applicants must sign a waiver allowing other law enforcement agencies to share an officer’s personnel file, but Dougherty said the quality of the information varies depending on each agency’s record-keeping habits.

Richmond police and city human resources officials did not respond to questions about how long they keep personnel files and what information they provide other agencies.

Freitas made the case public in October when he announced he was asking the Santa Rosa Police Department to investigate Thorne. He said Thorne clearly violated department policy, and possibly committed a crime, when he first laid hands on the 37-year-old Boyes Hot Springs man lying on his bed on a night in September. The call was captured on three body cameras, including Thorne’s, as well as the resident’s cellphone. The Sheriff’s Office declined to release the video footage.

Freitas, at the time, said the incident frustrated and angered him, saying “these type of things hurt the reputation of our deputies and law enforcement in general. It is very upsetting.”

Hearing set for March 21

A preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 21 after which a judge will decide if there’s enough evidence for a trial.

Thorne faces up to three years in jail if convicted and a felony assault conviction could prohibit Thorne from seeking future employment in law enforcement. It could also prevent him from becoming a lawyer.

Thorne didn’t respond to phone calls seeking comment on his work history.

His Santa Rosa-based attorney, Chris Andrian, described Thorne as personable and well liked in the department, adding “he doesn’t strike me as an angry guy.”

Adrian cautioned that domestic violence calls are some of the most volatile and unpredictable police officers walk into.

On Sept. 24, Thorne and two other deputies went to a Highland Boulevard house to investigate a neighbor’s call about a loud argument. Once inside, one deputy interviewed a woman while Thorne went to a back bedroom where he found an uncooperative man unwilling to get off the bed. Thorne grabbed the man, deployed a stun gun, and when that was ineffective, hit him with a baton in the leg, authorities said.

Thorne and a second deputy, Beau Zastrow, tried to physically restrain the man on the bed. A third deputy, Anthony Diehm, who had stayed behind to talk with the wife, then came to the room to assist.

The man broke free and ran toward the door. Thorne swung his baton several times, striking the man in the back, officials said.

He fell to the ground and a struggle continued. Diehm fired his Taser at the man, and they were able to handcuff him.

Zastrow and Diehm have not been arrested or charged in the incident.

Andrian said the case will likely focus on how Thorne detained the man and what level of danger the former deputy suspected at the time.

“Domestic violence cases, they’re different. Officers are on much higher alert,” Andrian said. “You have to put yourself in the moment, hindsight being the great teacher.”

The Boyes Hot Springs man hasn’t been identified by name. His Santa Rosa-based attorney, Izaak Schwaiger, said he’s a former Marine, honorably discharged, a former police officer and a “regular guy.”

Schwaiger said his client is still recovering from his injuries, which include bruising “over the majority of his body,” a separated shoulder and possible neurological damage from being struck around his back and neck. Schwaiger said his client is also experiencing ongoing “psychological trauma” from the experience.

Schwaiger said the body camera videos from the deputies show Thorne created a volatile situation in the bedroom.

“He doesn’t ask a single question” when he comes into the room, Schwaiger said. “He kicks the door off its hinges, comes in the room, commands my client to get up. My client plainly says, ‘I’m calling my lawyer. I’m not being aggressive. I’m not doing anything wrong’ … and within seconds he’s being beaten.”

Schwaiger said the District Attorney victim assistance division has offered services to the man. Schwaiger said he’s had preliminary conversations with county lawyers about potential monetary compensation because of the harm done to his client.

3 job changes

His job as a Sonoma County deputy was Thorne’s third in law enforcement that ended within a year while he was still on probation, a trial period when the employer can terminate a new hire without cause. That means he left three policing jobs before earning a basic peace officer certificate from the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training commission. In Los Angeles, he was let go due to “failure to perform the job requirements,” according to department records.

Sgt. Spencer Crum, a spokesman and training supervisor for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, said most deputies make it through the yearlong probation stage, but about once a year someone doesn’t pass muster.

“It’s not common because you’ve already gone through a number of checks and balances,” Crum said.

California law puts agencies at a disadvantage when vetting future employees.

There is no comprehensive clearinghouse for information about law enforcement officers, as exists for doctors and lawyers. Some states keep records on police misconduct, but California is among five states that don’t, according to Roger Goldman, an emeritus law professor at St. Louis University.

Goldman is an expert on police licensing laws, and he’s pushed for a centralized database with information about police performance, including misconduct, convictions, settlements and license revocations. He said California gave up its ability to decertify a law enforcement officer under former Gov. Gray Davis. “Each department is going to say it’s not my problem, he’s no longer with me, which is why you absolutely can’t leave it up to local departments,” Goldman said. “You cannot do it with a state of California relying on individual departments doing the right thing.”

Thorne was one of three Richmond police officers named in a civil rights lawsuit the city settled for $172,500 in 2004. A Richmond woman named Isilia Iglecias said Thorne used excessive force when he was among a group of officers investigating an argument she was having with her son on the front porch of her home, according to court documents.

She said Thorne ordered her to get out of the way then pushed her down onto a table and struck her in the back, actions that caused bruises to her leg and a gash in her face. Thorne may have thought Iglecias grabbed him when his gear got caught on a doorknob, according to statements from other family members. A different officer handcuffed Iglecias’ teen son and dragged him down the stairs, resulting in a significant back injury, according to the court files.

The Richmond Police Department’s internal investigation found none of the three officers, including Thorne, used excessive or unnecessary force during the incident.

Efforts to reach Iglecias were unsuccessful. Her attorney at the time, Oakland lawyer Panos Lagos, who specializes in police misconduct cases, said the city didn’t admit any wrongdoing in the settlement. He said it was clear to him the case involved rookie officers who used aggression instead of communication, escalating what had been a family fight into an incident with multiple people injured and arrested.

“I understand he was a rookie,” Lagos said in a recent interview. “This is a common theme. It’s the exception where an officer will try to de-escalate with words first rather than with attitude and reaching with a gun.”

Thorne did not return phone calls, so his perspective on the events was not available. Andrian, his attorney, said he did not have enough information about his prior work performance to comment on it.

The court record in that case included mention of two additional complaints against Thorne during his 10 months in Richmond. One complaint involved a woman who has since died, and efforts to reach her family were unsuccessful, and the record doesn’t say the nature of her complaint and whether it was valid.

In another complaint, investigators determined Thorne used excessive force in violation of department policy on an airline mechanic named Kenneth Ford.

Though it was more than 15 years ago, Ford, now 62, said he remembers the afternoon in 2001 when he pulled over to make a phone call on Ohio Street, a dead-end off San Pablo Avenue in Richmond. It had rained and the road was partly flooded, said Ford, who was 48 at the time and working as an airline mechanic at Oakland International Airport.

Thorne pulled up behind, walked up and ordered Ford to get out of the car.

“When he started asking about what gang I belonged to I said, ‘Look, I’m too old to be in somebody’s gang,’ ” recalled Ford. “That’s when he kept going for his gun like he’s going to do a quick draw.”

Ford said he hung up the phone, gave Thorne his vehicle registration and got out of the car. He didn’t have his wallet or ID.

According to Ford, Thorne handcuffed him and pushed him to the ground, putting a knee to his back with a force that caused ailments that hurt him still. He said the officer didn’t fully explain the stop — “I think he said something about suspicious character,” Ford said.

“He held my head down and started kneeing me in my spine,” Ford said. “I wasn’t saying anything, and I didn’t want to talk because I thought he was going to shoot me.”

Thorne eventually took off the handcuffs and let him go, according to Ford.

The encounter scared him. He drove to his sister’s house and called police dispatch.

“I said that an officer assaulted me out there. I told them he’s driving car 25 but I didn’t get the badge number,” Ford said.

Ford — who jokes that the only gang he’s ever joined was the U.S. Air Force and said his only conviction was a DUI years after his encounter with Thorne — filed a complaint with the city alleging police misconduct, including “force and racially abusive treatment by Patrolman Thorne.”

The city upheld the force component of the complaint according to an Aug. 19, 2002 letter to Ford from an investigative and appeals officer with the police commission. The commission informed him Thorne was no longer a Richmond police officer. The city paid to replace his eyeglasses and cellphone damaged during the incident. Ford said he thought about suing the city but he missed the deadline to file a claim.

His physical health has never been the same.

“It changed my abilities, because after that I could only do limited walking and no lifting or pulling or twisting or stretching — it had an effect on me,” Ford said. “I thought he couldn’t be a police officer anywhere, but apparently they meant just Richmond.”

Dougherty, the Sonoma County lieutenant in charge of hiring and personnel, said each hire ultimately goes through him. Dougherty said the department has not lowered standards based on a need to fill positions, and they are still about 26 percent down on sworn personnel, including unfilled jobs and people out on leave.

Though he wasn’t authorized to discuss Thorne or his background, he said a candidate like Thorne, who had multiple complaints and a civil settlement at a job from 15 years ago, would not necessarily be disqualified. State requirements for civil service job applicants require they vet people who meet certain qualifications. And they depend on other departments being forthcoming.

“A multitude of complaints doesn’t necessarily mean on its face there’s an issue, unless you’re able to read each case individually and notice there is a pattern,” Dougherty said. “Somebody can go through an entire year without complaints then get several in one week. Without reading into each case individually, there’s not enough information to determine if there’s a red flag.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.