San Diego school police officers want chief, 2 others put on leave amid time fraud allegations

A school police sergeant who officers say is dating the chief has been accused of stealing time from the district.
(U-T files)

For years the chief has dated a subordinate, officers say; that subordinate is accused by a department employee of falsifying time cards


San Diego Unified school police officers are calling for their chief, Alfonso Contreras, along with a captain and a sergeant to be placed on leave following allegations that the sergeant committed time card fraud with the captain’s knowledge.

The allegations — sent anonymously to district leaders earlier this year, apparently by an employee — raised concerns about a possible conflict of interest. Several officers in the small department say it is well-known that Contreras has been dating the sergeant, Jenifer Gruner, for years since before Contreras was named chief last year.

The district did not answer several questions from The San Diego Union-Tribune, saying it cannot discuss personnel matters.

“All allegations received by the district are taken seriously and investigated,” district spokesperson Maureen Magee said in a statement.

San Diego Unified is the only school district in the county that has its own police department. It employs about three dozen sworn officers, and Gruner, a 22-year veteran, is the sergeant in charge of the investigative unit.

In late March, a person who emailed the district outlined several allegations against Gruner in a message to school board members, district administrators and union leaders, with photos from inside the police department to support their claims.

The person accused Gruner of falsifying her time card — specifically claiming she was working from Sept. 8 to 9 when the person said she was actually attending a Notre Dame football game in Indiana.

The person also accused Gruner of having stolen more time since then — either showing up late or not showing up at all for work on several occasions.

They alleged that Gruner’s supervisor — David Landman, who was promoted to captain last year under Contreras — has known when she is missing from work but has approved her time card anyway.

The person also mentioned Contreras’ relationship with Gruner, saying it had “evolved into clear favoritism for Sgt. Gruner by the chief, and has been (the case) for many years.”

Jeff Noble, a police consultant with experience in internal affairs investigations, said the allegations of time card fraud are serious — they cast doubt on employees’ integrity, honesty and credibility, which are core values in police work.

Ed Obayashi, a policing expert who teaches courses about internal affairs investigations, agreed. He said the allegations involve possible theft of public funds, which could amount to “felony conduct.”

Contreras, Gruner and Landman did not respond to several requests for comment.

School police officers have grown frustrated by what they see as inaction by the district.

At a meeting in mid-May, their union membership held a vote on whether to ask the district to put Contreras, Landman and Gruner on leave amid the allegations.

Nineteen union members voted to ask the district to put the trio on leave, and seven voted not to, meeting minutes showed. Members also rated department morale. Of the 25 members who voted on that question, 19 gave morale a grade of D or F.

It is common for employees accused of serious offenses to be placed on leave pending investigation. Caleb Arnold, president of the San Diego school police union, said officers in the department have been placed on leave for lesser allegations than the ones leveled against Gruner and Landman.

In a letter he wrote to school board members in June, Arnold said officers wanted Gruner, Landman and Contreras put on leave to protect other officers from possible intimidation, especially those who could be interviewed by investigators, and to prevent potential tampering with evidence.

Arnold said in the letter that sometime after the allegations surfaced, Contreras’ administrative assistant had altered a shared online document containing employees’ work schedules, including months within the time frame of the alleged time card fraud. The assistant also revoked officers’ access to the document, he said.

“In order to preserve the integrity of any evidence in this investigation, this cannot be allowed to happen,” Arnold wrote.

The assistant did not respond to requests for comment.

Noble and Obayashi said a relationship between Contreras and Gruner would create the potential for conflict of interest in an investigation and possible future discipline, and that such allegations therefore warrant an outside investigation — possibly, Obayashi said, a criminal investigation by the District Attorney’s Office.

District attorney spokesperson Tanya Sierra said the office does not say whether it is involved in an investigation unless criminal charges are filed.

Obayashi said generally departments will place accused employees on leave if available evidence appears to support the allegations. Allegations from within a department are often seen as more credible than claims from outside, he said.

Aside from the time card fraud allegations, Obayashi said relationships between a police chief and a subordinate are problematic, in part because they can prompt concerns over fairness in promotions and accountability and damage workplace morale and operations.

Arnold said the lack of transparency about the investigation has helped create a stressful work environment for officers.

“Little (communication) coupled with a very concerning low level of morale ... has left our membership feeling that their voice will continue to be ignored and that their mental well-being is of no concern to district leadership,” Arnold wrote in the letter.

This isn’t the first time Gruner has faced allegations of misconduct.

On St. Patrick’s Day in 2012, while assigned as a campus officer at Patrick Henry High School, she was arrested off duty on suspicion of drunken driving and auto theft after police said she stole a bus meant to take home intoxicated bar patrons.

Gruner later pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor offenses — DUI and “malicious mischief” involving a vehicle — and kept her job.

Policing experts said it is not uncommon for officers convicted of misdemeanors to keep their jobs. Criminal convictions generally are violations of police departments’ policies, and if so, officers face discipline, such as a suspension, the experts said.

Files about officer misconduct are largely not public in California, and information about what discipline Gruner may have faced, if any, was not available.

Contreras, a 34-year veteran of school police, was paid $257,100 in salary and benefits last year, according to Transparent California. Gruner’s pay and benefits totaled $207,300 and Landman’s $180,900. Gruner’s pay was higher than Landman largely because she worked more overtime.