It’s never a good day when your car gets towed. Whether because of accidents or unpaid speeding tickets, chances are when your car gets towed is not one of your better days. Now imagine if your vehicle was impounded based on a police investigation, but when you arrived to pick it up, it was vandalized with a swastika. That’s just what happened in Los Angeles, California, and two police officers were charged with the crime!
A swastika on the back seat
In January 2020, a police investigation was initiated into mail theft in Torrance, California. The Torrance Police Department (PD) began investigating three men who had allegedly stolen mail from an apartment building and impounded a mail truck that may have been involved in the theft. However, when the vehicle owner arrived at the tow yard to reclaim it, he found a happy face spray-painted on the front passenger seat. He also found that a swastika had been sprayed-painted on the back seat.
Officers Christopher Tomsic and Cody Weldin were immediately put on leave following the discovery of the vandalism. Torrance PD then conducted an internal investigation, then turned the investigation results over to the LA County District Attorney’s Office after four months, along with a recommendation to file criminal charges.
The officers left the department in mid-2020. In August 2021, they were arrested and charged with one felony count of vandalism and one felony count of conspiracy to commit vandalism. According to Jalopnik, the latter charge stems from an allegation that the pair falsified a police report by not detailing the vandalism in related paperwork.
Further police fallout from the incident
Unfortunately, when officers are fired for misconduct, it calls into question whether they’ve conducted past police work appropriately. In a press release from the LA District Attorney’s Office, the DA, George Gascón, noted that his office would review Tomsic and Weldin’s past work to ensure that additional misconduct had not occurred.
While the vandalism initiated the investigation, investigators uncovered a series of racist messages shared among several Torrance PD officers. According to Yahoo News, these included messages and memes mocking and depicting violence against Black, Jewish, and transgender people. As a result, ABC 7 has reported that 14 other officers were relieved of their duties. One of the officers, David Chandler, was subsequently charged with assault for excessive force while on duty.
Though the investigation into Torrance PD remains ongoing, news of this misconduct among Tomsic, Weldin, and the other 14 officers has prompted calls from local community activists to create a civilian oversight commission, as per Fox 11 Los Angeles reporting. In August 2021, speakers at a protest inspired by the investigation cited both the hate speech and the controversial fatal shooting of a suspect in December 2018 as reasons for Torrance PD needing more oversight. The news also drew condemnations from the Anti-Defamation League, local Rabbis, and others.
Why would police officers commit such a crime?
While Tomsic and Weldin have pleaded not guilty, the idea that two officers may have vandalized a car with a swastika likely seems shocking to many. After all, if the police secure a vehicle, one would think that the number of individuals who could vandalize it would be fairly narrow. If the officers did it, how could they reasonably think they might get away with it?
Well, given the subsequent investigation’s findings concerning more than a dozen other officers, an undercurrent of intolerance and prejudice seems to have existed in the department. Like every police officer, every Torrance PD officer has an obligation to protect and serve the citizens of their community, no matter their background. Prejudiced officers cannot be trusted to faithfully execute that responsibility and undermine the department’s credibility in the community, making it harder for the organization as a whole to fulfill its mission.
If guilty, Tomsic and Weldin may have believed they could get away with it because other officers were getting away with things like sharing racist images and using excessive force. Bad actors will take advantage when an organization lacks controls and accountability or when those controls are ineffective. Police departments must ensure those robust controls exist to police effectively. Otherwise, they’ll continue to risk facing embarrassments like Torrance PD has, as well as sowing distrust among those they’re sworn to protect.