California Police Officers Local President Charged with Theft

Prosecutors see it as stealing. Askia “A.J.” Johnson sees it as creative borrowing. And he’s shown a willingness to pull out the stops to make his point. Over a year and a half ago, Johnson, formerly an officer with the Half Moon Bay Police Department and president of its union, the Half Moon Bay Police Officers’ Association, was charged in San Mateo County (Calif.) Superior Court with embezzling about $5,700 in union funds. But though admitting having taken the money, he’s pleaded not guilty. And he’s sought a dismissal of the case, first on medical and then on civil rights grounds. Neither ploy has worked. His own testimony next month might.

Half Moon Bay is a picturesque community of about 10,000 population located along the California coast about 25 miles south of San Francisco. It doesn’t look like the kind of place where a lot of crime happens. Indeed, last year the City Council voted to merge its low-activity police department with the San Mateo Sheriff’s Office. One local cop, however, A.J. Johnson, apparently has engaged in some lawbreaking of his own. As president of the Half Moon Bay Police Officers Association, Johnson, beginning sometime in 2008, used his union-issued debit card to make three dozen purchases unrelated to union business. He also kept union bank statements hidden from colleagues.

The pattern of embezzlement was discovered in 2010 when another police officer, who also serves as union treasurer, requested union bank account records. He found that $5,700 was missing. After interviewing Johnson, the department concluded he’d been diverting funds from the account to pay for personal expenses. Johnson admitted to taking the money, but emphasized that he needed it to pay for his divorce and that he intended to pay the money back. By the early part of this year, he had repaid $4,000. The department provided the information to then-Police Chief Don O’Keefe, who in turn suspended Johnson from active duty. Prosecutors investigated the case and pressed charges in March 2011. Even if the money was fully repaid, Johnson’s actions still amounted to a crime, insisted District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, because he took money without authorization. “It’s still embezzlement even if you intend to pay it back,” he said.

A.J. Johnson hasn’t been one to go quietly. He pleaded not guilty at his arraignment this February, claiming he was medically unable to stand trial. A San Mateo County Superior Court suspended criminal proceedings and ordered Johnson to be examined by two physicians. Apparently, that strategy didn’t work. Johnson was ready with another ace up his sleeve: race. As a black, he argued, he was scrutinized more aggressively than a white cop in his situation. Through his attorney, Richard Keyes, Johnson filed a motion requesting the judge order prosecutors to disclose all of their probes of police misconduct going back 20 years. This effort did not bear fruit either. On August 31, the presiding judge announced he would not order the district attorney’s office to turn over its records because he couldn’t find any evidence of racial intent. A spokesperson for the Superior Court of San Mateo County told NLPC today that the case is set for trial on January 14.