| Adobe Stock photo
By Royal Calkins
In mid-May, Carmel police officers were dispatched to a home on the edge of downtown after receiving a 911 call reporting domestic violence. Police had been there before for the same reason.
In response to a Public Records Act request, Police Chief Paul Tomasi provided this bare-bones account of what happened next.
“Officers arrived on scene at approximately 10:47 p.m. and 10:52 p.m. Officers attempted to interview the residents as part of their investigation. Neither resident cooperated with the investigation. No arrests were made. A police report was generated on May 15, 2021 at approximately 2:00 a.m.”
That’s about it. Nothing in the synopsis about who the residents were or what had happened. Nothing about violence or obvious injuries even though a police report subsequently obtained by Voices says a witness, the 911 caller, told police that the husband, Mike Bernal, had lifted his wife, Maureen Bernal, ‘“off the ground by her neck” and “started beating her.” Tomasi’s synopsis describes the 911 caller as anonymous but the report identifies her and says officers interviewed her at the residence.
The report says that both Bernals had fresh minor injuries, which would have prompted most California police agencies to make an arrest even though both husband and wife declined to cooperate. It also says, with little elaboration, that officers found an apparently inebriated and barely conscious Maureen Bernal fully clothed, sweater torn, in a bathtub with the water running. Because they were concerned about her safety, officers arranged for paramedics to check on her but she declined medical attention. Why she was in the tub was not explained.
The couple’s connections naturally lead to questions about possible special treatment.
The Police Department refused to make the full report public, perhaps because it raises questions about why the responding officers decided to leave the couple to sort things out for themselves. Maureen Bernal was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence after another incident six years ago, but she was not prosecuted because her husband, the brother of Monterey County Sheriff Steve Bernal, declined to cooperate, which is not necessarily cause for dismissal.
Though the recent confrontation was not unusual by domestic violence standards, the way Carmel police handled it falls short of what California legislators intended when they crafted new rules in the 1990s to require law enforcement agencies to do more to protect domestic violence victims. After decades of tepid police responses to domestic violence, the law was reformed to require responding officers to determine if any party had been injured and, if so, to arrest the aggressor. That has led to widespread belief that an arrest must be made if either party has a visible injury, but some discretion is actually allowed as a result of various court rulings and prosecutorial resistance to difficult cases.
Still, two veteran prosecutors, one retired, said they were surprised charges weren’t filed against Mike Bernal since the witness twice reported what she had seen, first in the 911 call and later at the Bernal home. Both prosecutors acknowledged that her credibility might have been questioned, however, because she is a friend of Mrs. Bernal and had been out on the town socializing with her earlier in the evening.
The witness and the Bernals could not be reached to comment.
The report says officers saw what appeared to be small, fresh abrasions on Maureen Bernal’s chin and left shin. Skin was hanging from the shin injury, which was bleeding. According to the report, she was not asked and did not say how she received the injuries. The report says Mike Bernal had small, fresh abrasions on his chin and the side of his face. He told officers he did not want to say how they had happened.
Not mentioned in the report is cattle rancher Mike Bernal’s relationship to the sheriff, who discussed the matter with Chief Tomasi by telephone the next morning, according to Tomasi. Or that Maureen Bernal is a member of a wealthy ranching family that has provided Bernal with much of his campaign financing.
Not mentioned in Tomasi’s synopsis is that Carmel police officers requested backup from county sheriff’s deputies because Mike Bernal reportedly locked himself in a bedroom at some point that night and declined to talk to authorities for an extended period. The report says he was handcuffed by Carmel police as they arrived and later had to be restrained by sheriff’s deputies.
The couple’s connections naturally lead to questions about possible special treatment, something Tomasi declines to address. He said his short statement quoted above was the only thing he was required to disclose. He and City Attorney Brian A. Pierik had earlier declined to release a tape recording of the 911 call, even though police agencies routinely make 911 recordings public. They also declined to disclose footage from body cameras worn by the responding officers. The only explanation is that the state Public Records Act does not require them to make those items public. Neither does it bar them from disclosure.
The Public Records Act generally allows police agencies to withhold almost any information related to official investigations out of concern that disclosure could jeopardize investigative efforts. Unfortunately the law is largely silent on what happens when a police action results in a flawed investigation or no investigation at all. News outlets and public interest groups have long complained that enabling police agencies to withhold key, basic information serves to protect them from outside scrutiny.
Raising another key issue, Carmel police reported that they ran a computer check and determined that Mike Bernal owns several weapons. State law and guidelines published by several California police agencies, including the Carmel Police Department, require weapons to be temporarily removed from the premises following reports of domestic violence. The report doesn’t say whether any weapons were removed.
The Carmel Police Department’s protocols also call for interviews with the parties to be recorded and any injuries to be photographed. The report makes no mention of recording or photography beyond the use of body cameras. Tomasi would not comment on what role he played in the decision not to make any arrests.
The report does mention that Maureen Bernal had previously been arrested on a charge of domestic violence against her husband. In November 2015, neighbors called police to report hearing shouts coming from the Bernal home. Officers found Maureen Bernal with injuries to a hand and Mike Bernal with a facial injury.
Tomasi told the Monterey County Weekly at the time that Maureen Bernal was arrested on suspicion of domestic battery and false imprisonment because she was suspected of being the “primary aggressor.”
The District Attorney’s Office opted not to file any charges, however, citing Mike Bernal’s refusal to cooperate. State law does allow prosecutions in such cases but only if authorities can build a case without cooperation of the parties involved.
Prosecutor Jeannine Pacioni mentioned at the time that Carmel police had not taken any photos of Mike Bernal’s face. She said the decision not to proceed had nothing to do with the couple’s connections.
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter or leave a comment below.