After a former Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety police officer and firefighter was sentenced last week to serve 180 days in Sonoma County Jail for attempted “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor” and for sending “harmful matter” to minors participating in the Explorer Program, Chief of Public Safety Brian Masterson said the program will take new steps with students, officers in the program and coordinators to foster safety and help prevent inappropriate officer conduct.
According to a press release from the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, former officer Garrett Piland, 33, targeted two 17-year-old females who were students in the Explorer department, a program run through the Boy Scouts of America for kids 15-21 years old interested in pursuing a career in the police force or as a firefighter.
While the former officer wasn’t directly involved with the program, Chief Masterson said Piland approached the two female minors during an Explorer event.
“They meet twice a month and participate in community events, like the farmer’s market. What occurred in this specific incident was the officer encountered them through the Santa Toy Drive, where we get thousands of toys that must be sorted by age… so we have a lot of people doing it the week prior to Christmas,” Masterson said.
While RP Public Safety Department applicants are put through a series of rigorous tests, vetting and training, Masterson said this was a case of serious betrayal of trust.
“All our officers go through the same background that any police officer in the state of California goes through and it is very extensive. It starts with a physical agility test, a written test, then an interview that if they do well enough that we put them in background, there is a psychological test, there is a polygraph test, there is a medical examination and there is a drug test,” Masterson said. “Part of the difficulty in our profession is recruitment, because it’s hard to find people that have the integrity and the moral turpitude to do this job. Unfortunately for us, one of our former officers lost his moral compass and clearly violated criminal law.”
District Attorney Jill Ravitch echoed Masterson’s thoughts on the serious case. In the same press release Ravitch said of the incident, “This defendant took advantage of his position of trust with these two minor victims. While he should have been offering training and mentorship, he instead pursued his own selfish and illegal motives.”
Going forward, Masterson said they’ll be stepping up communication between youth participants and officers, and have already spoken to students about the importance of speaking with program coordinator Sergeant Jerrod Marshall or any other officer if they ever feel uncomfortable in the program or around others. Masterson also said that they will more heavily vet officers involved with the program to make sure “they are there for the right reasons.”
“How do we fix this going forward? One, making sure that we have officers who are working with the explorers that are doing it for the right reasons, making sure that the explorers understand if there is any inappropriate conduct that communication, in whatever form, that they come to the program sergeant and we’ve had those conversations,” Masterson said. “So hopefully if something like this were to happen and hopefully it doesn’t happen again, but if it were, we want the explorer to feel comfortable to come to the sergeant.”
When asked what he would say to reassure parents who have kids in the program or who may be interested in attending program events, Masterson said that the public safety department is saddened and will work to build back trust within the community.
“I would say what occurred to us we’re deeply saddened by, this officer had trust… and he betrayed that and that is a concern for us. We want to work hard to build back that trust between the program and the young people and also with their parents. And I would say parents today you should be engaged in what your children are doing and sit with them and talk so that if they have issues they feel comfortable… an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, that’s what we are talking about” Masterson said.
According to Masterson, once the incident was brought to their attention, they immediately notified the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department, who led the investigation.
“Officers are not above the law, I wanted the sheriff’s office to conduct an objective investigation and they did…and we let the courts handle the criminal case and that is where we are today with the court sentencing him,” Masterson said.
In addition to the 180-day jail sentence, Piland will be on three years of “formal probation” due to his “no contest” plea, according to the press release.
For the future, Masterson would like to keep the Explorer Program in place despite the criminal incident, because according to him, it’s beneficial for the students to learn how to be law abiding citizens.
“There was some discussion on should we get rid of the program and I was not in that mindset. I think it is an excellent program that keeps young people on the right path, gives them the right values and gives them an opportunity, should they want to become an officer or fire fighter, it gives them that experience so they fully understand what the job entails and we want to continue to mentor those young people,” Masterson said. “In our agency, one of our commanders was an explorer, a dispatcher was an explorer and we also have a community service officer who was an explorer, so it is a program that grows law abiding adults.”