Accusing a cop: One woman’s journey through the LAPD’s secretive discipline system

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Kelsie Mathews thought she’d finally won a little bit of justice.

She had worked with Los Angeles police investigators for months to prove that her former boyfriend, an LAPD officer, had sexually assaulted her and acted inappropriately with other women and arrestees. Then, in September, she received a letter saying they had corroborated her claims.

The letter also said an “appropriate penalty” would be imposed on her ex-boyfriend, Officer Oscar Rojas, but it would not be disclosed to Mathews or the public due to confidentiality laws around police personnel records.

Mathews, a 35-year-old actress and television production assistant, said relief washed over her. Prosecutors had already decided not to charge Rojas criminally, citing a lack of evidence, but the LAPD’s letter made it seem as if he would at least be held accountable within the department.

“Although I don’t know the exact punishment, knowing that my tears didn’t fall on deaf ears is a small victory and some kind of justice,” she said in an emotional TikTok post.

That feeling wouldn’t last.

Mathews’ case is one of many in recent years in which LAPD officers accused of serious misconduct have been spared punishment by department disciplinary boards whose decisions trump those of internal investigators and the police chief and occur under a veil of secrecy that deters independent scrutiny.

According to an investigation by The Times, the assault finding against Rojas was quietly overturned by such a panel after what’s known as a Board of Rights proceeding. Rojas, who declined to comment through an attorney, was never disciplined for assault and remains an officer despite being recommended for termination by Chief Michel Moore.

He returned to the job and worked out of the Foothill Division until recently, when he was reassigned to home pending a new investigation into an unrelated matter that officials would not describe.

The issue of officer discipline has attracted attention for years. Moore criticized the process in 2020 as too lenient on the most problematic officers. In January, Mayor Eric Garcetti said the disciplinary process needed to be reformed because it too often resulted in stiff penalties supported by top city and police officials being set aside in favor of lesser penalties or none at all. In March, the LAPD inspector general released a report finding that most officers found to have wrongfully opened fire on people in recent years avoided serious punishment or received no discipline at all.

Newer, all-civilian hearing boards, like the one that heard Mathews’ case in 2021, have been found to be even more lenient than boards composed of fellow officers. The Police Commission is working to revise its manual for disciplinary hearings, but won’t say what the revisions would address or when they would be complete, as they are under negotiation with the police union.

For Mathews, the secrecy of the process made it scary and intimidating and undermined its legitimacy. The Times generally does not name sexual assault survivors, but Mathews agreed to be identified in part to pierce the veil around the process and share the toll it took.

To pursue her case against Rojas, Mathews had to open the contents of her cellphone and her most intimate text messages to investigators. She sat through five interviews reliving the moments when she alleged Rojas abused her.

She testified in person over the course of three days at Rojas’ hearing, where a labor representative for Rojas put her through a brutal cross-examination before a panel of three older men. She said she had the support of a victim advocate and the female internal affairs detective working the case, but a friend who came to stand by her had to wait outside of the hearing room.

To realize months later that the slim victory she thought she’d won did not end in discipline for assault, and that Rojas was still an officer, was infuriating, Mathews said. It made her feel as if the LAPD intentionally misled her to think he had been punished in order to keep her quiet.

“It’s disgusting,” she said. “The system needs a total revamp.”

Lizabeth Rhodes, the LAPD’s director of constitutional policing and policy, said the law bars the department from discussing individual cases against officers, but every allegation of misconduct is “thoroughly investigated.”

The investigation

On March 20, 2019, a Crime Stoppers tip line received an anonymous email saying Rojas had been “photographing nude models in his uniform with his badge and department issued gun, and posting pictures on social media such as Instagram,” according to a report by prosecutors in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

“He also sexually abused his ex-girlfriend. He hides behind his badge while [he] preys on girls,” the tipster said.

Soon after, Mathews said, internal affairs showed up at her door.

At first she was scared, in part because she said Rojas had warned her that she would never be able to convince others — especially other cops — that he had abused her.

“He kept telling me he is a police officer, so no one would believe me over him,” she said.

But Mathews said she also felt she owed it to herself and other women in similar situations to speak up. So she cooperated.

Mathews said she told the detectives everything she could remember, digging back through memories she had tried to bury.

Mathews said she began dating Rojas in August 2018, and their relationship was toxic from the start. She said she tried to break up with him multiple times over the next seven months, but stayed in the relationship for complicated emotional reasons involving fear and “trauma bonding” — a process similar to Stockholm syndrome, in which victims can form attachments to their abusers over time.

According to the prosecutors’ report, Mathews described to investigators multiple occasions in which Rojas forced himself on her or “sodomized” her as she screamed “Stop!” and “No!” and struggled to get away. In California, the crime of sodomy requires penetration of the anus without consent, using force to overcome the victim’s will.

In one incident, Mathews described Rojas holding her down and inserting a sex toy into her as she cried and tried to fight him off of her, according to the report. After he stopped, she said, she went to the bathroom, realized she was bleeding, then “went to bed, curled herself into a fetal position, cried, and told Rojas not to touch her,” the report said.

“Rojas told her she was fine, and was overreacting.”

Rojas made no response to the allegations in the publicly available portions of the report.

Text messages between the two, cited in the report, included references to abuse.

In one, Rojas wrote, “I am mean to you … and make you feel abuse.”

In another, Rojas contemplated them breaking up, writing, “I guess I am f— up and can’t change, and honestly if you feel like I am abusing you that way it’s time for me to leave.”

Prosecutors wrote that Mathews in text messages to Rojas and friends “accused Rojas of transgressions, including trying to force her into a threesome, being verbally mean to her, and engaging in ‘emotional cheating,’” but never accused him in the texts of sodomizing her.

A close friend of Mathews spoke directly with The Times on condition of anonymity because she feared being treated negatively by the LAPD. She said Mathews had claimed at the time that Rojas was abusive, including that he had sodomized her. The friend said she had urged Mathews to break up with him.

Investigators also reviewed images that Rojas allegedly sent to Mathews from work.

Under one picture that was reviewed by The Times of a person on a stretcher, Rojas had written, “I tased this guy multiple times after we got into a scuffle with him.” Under another picture of a man in a jail facility, the text read, “That’s the mother f— that ruin my night.”

The Times also reviewed an image from Instagram that Rojas, an amateur photographer, had allegedly shot of a model wearing a police uniform and holding a gun.

Bill Seki, an attorney for Rojas, said neither he nor the officer would comment on the case.

The criminal review

Three counts of sodomy by Rojas were presented by police to prosecutors in the L.A. County district attorney’s office in July 2020, under former Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey. All three were rejected.

In their report on the case, prosecutors noted that Mathews and Rojas had texted about abuse by Rojas, and that Mathews had discussed abuse by him with a friend.

They noted that Mathews’ therapist had provided a statement to investigators saying that Mathews suffered “emotional and psychological impact in her daily life,” allegedly as a result of being sexually assaulted by Rojas, and that the assaults she had reported included sodomy in Las Vegas.

The prosecutors also noted Mathews had medical records related to treatment for an anal condition in May 2019 — about two months after the couple had broken up — that Mathews said was the result of being sodomized by Rojas.

Still, prosecutors concluded there was “no corroborative physical evidence” to prove sodomy claims.

They said there were “inconsistencies” in Mathews’ story, including when specific abuses took place, and they questioned the timing of her disclosures of being sodomized to others, noting that some came after she and Rojas had broken up.

They wrote that Mathews was “extremely upset” by alleged infidelity on Rojas’ part at the end of their relationship, and that she had reached out to other women on Instagram to warn them about him, including by accessing his social media accounts.

All of that, according to prosecutors, could be used in a criminal proceeding to attack Mathews’ credibility and suggest she had “a motive to fabricate” allegations against Rojas. They concluded they “could not prove Rojas committed the crime of sodomy beyond a reasonable doubt” and closed the case without filing charges.

The prosecutor’s office, now under Dist. Atty. George Gascón, said it would not comment on the decisions in the case under the prior administration. But a spokesperson said the office takes all allegations of sexual assault seriously and assigns prosecutors with sex crimes training and experience to all cases involving sexual assault allegations, including those against officers.

Patti Giggans, who has worked with victims of intimate partner abuse in L.A. for decades through her organization Peace Over Violence, said she was not surprised by the decision to close the case.

Sexual assault victims have many legitimate reasons for not immediately coming forward about abuse, Giggans said, and minor inconsistencies in their recollections of abuse are common.

“In court,” she said, “that’s always used against the survivor.”

Prosecutors rarely file charges in intimate partner sexual assault cases precisely because of such vulnerabilities, because there are usually few or no witnesses, and because the accused can claim the alleged abuse was consensual sex, Giggans said.

Sadly, she said, Mathews’ situation “is a primary example of how the system was really geared to fail her.”

Internal discipline

Prosecutors never told Mathews of their decision not to charge Rojas. Instead, she was told by the internal affairs detectives, who said they were still pursuing administrative discipline — and needed her to testify.

Mathews said she was told the disciplinary hearing would be tightly controlled and that she and Rojas would be kept apart. Instead, she said, Rojas parked beside her in the parking lot and came near her in the hallway, claiming he was looking for the bathroom.

When Rojas was testifying, Mathews said, she wasn’t allowed in the room. But when it came time for her to testify, Rojas’ representative peppered her with questions while Rojas stood behind him and stared her down, she said.

Mathews said the representative ridiculed her and tried to poke holes in her story by shaming her and implying she was slutty or stupid. She said a previous abusive relationship was referenced to suggest she was a chronic accuser, not a real victim.

By the end, Mathews said she felt victimized all over again — fully exposed, but in an environment that shielded Rojas, his representative and the hearing officers from any scrutiny at all.

After she left, she heard nothing for months, until the letter came in the mail.

“Your allegations that an employee photographed partially nude models in a Department uniform, sent inappropriate photographs of arrestees, and sexually assaulted you over different dates, have been classified as Sustained, which means the investigation determined that the acts alleged did occur and [constitute] misconduct,” the letter read.

It said Rojas would be disciplined.

He wasn’t — at least not for assault. The Times could not determine what discipline, if any, Rojas received in relation to the other allegations of misconduct.

Under department policy, Mathews was supposed to be informed that the sexual assault finding was reversed. But she said she never was — until she was told by The Times.

Giggans said she was pleasantly surprised the LAPD took Mathews’ claims seriously and pursued them as far, which she said is rare. But the secrecy around the discipline process — and the outcome of the case — alarmed her.

“It speaks to this bigger issue: the lack of transparency, the lack of fairness, the lack of openness, the lack of representation in this hearing,” Giggans said. “That, I think, needs to be reformed.”

Secrecy persists

Supporters of the current discipline process, including the police union, say claims that it is too secretive are baseless. They say officers are subject to the same prosecutorial scrutiny as everyone else and deserve to be treated like everyone else when it comes to noncriminal, workplace matters — which are almost always handled discreetly by employers.

Union officials claim that officers often face false accusations, and that closed-door hearings provide a fair means of adjudicating such claims without needlessly tarnishing an officer’s reputation.

Transparency advocates disagree. They argue that disciplinary proceedings against officers accused of mistreating members of the public they are sworn to protect are a matter of public interest. They contend that such proceedings should be made public — just as they were until 2006.

That year, a California Supreme Court ruling on the confidentiality of police records was interpreted by L.A. and other California cities as requiring police disciplinary hearings to be closed — unless state legislators changed the law to explicitly allow access once more.

Lawmakers have not done so. In 2019, they did act to make police records related to findings of excessive force, dishonesty or sexual assault open to the public, but there are limits — including that those findings must be “sustained.”

Citing the 2019 law and the LAPD’s letter to Mathews sustaining her sexual assault allegations, The Times requested the department’s investigative records from Mathews’ case and was denied.

Cmdr. Bryan Lium, then-head of the LAPD’s risk management and legal affairs division, confirmed the authenticity of the letter Mathews had received, but said the outcome had been “changed” as a result of the disciplinary board hearing and there were no records that could be released — meaning the sustained sexual assault finding at least had been overturned.

Lium said Mathews should have been sent an updated letter, but that wouldn’t be public, either.

“We will not release it, and I can’t disclose it, and I can’t discuss it,” Lium said.

Mathews said she never got a new letter.

Were it not for The Times’ inquiries, she never would have known that the outcome of the case had changed, or that the ex-boyfriend she assumed would be fired is still an officer — which she finds “terrifying.”

Kelsie Mathews, 35, accused her LAPD ex-boyfriend of abuse. The disciplinary process left her feeling victimized all over again, she said.

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Mathews had also never seen the prosecutors’ report rejecting her case against Rojas.

When The Times shared it with her, it made her angry — both for herself and for other victims of sexual assault. Prosecutors seemed less focused on her claims against Rojas than on the potential attempts by his defense counsel to discredit her, which was wrong, she said.

“This is what they do to victims,” she said. “This is why women don’t come forward.”

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