A CHP Officer Harassed 21 Women, Agency Fired 'Bad Apple' But Didn't Pursue Criminal Charges
By Sukey Lewis | KQED
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Nicole remembers feeling grateful that Officer Morgan McGrew agreed to meet her so early in the morning. The 7:30 a.m. appointment would let her handle the errand -- verifying her car's vehicle identification number -- and still make it to work on time.
But when she met McGrew in the parking lot of the West Valley California Highway Patrol Office in Los Angeles, there seemed to be a problem. McGrew said he was having trouble finding the VIN sticker on her car door. Then, Nicole says, the conversation abruptly shifted.
"'I'll pass this car, and you'll be able to get your registration, if you go out on a date with me,'" she remembers McGrew saying. "I kind of froze," she says.
Nicole says she was suddenly hyper aware of her surroundings -- alone in a deserted parking lot with a man who was sitting in the front seat of her car.
"I was going through my options in my head for a minute or two there trying to figure out: OK, if this gets even more uncomfortable and sketchy what am I going to do next?" she says.
At first, she tried to laugh off his proposition. She needed him to sign off on her car's VIN. But McGrew didn't drop it; he kept asking. Twice more, she says, he offered to pass her car in exchange for a date.
"At that point I just shut down completely, and just kind of gave him this look like, 'I'm so uncomfortable,'" she says. "And then he got more awkward and finally just kind of stepped out of my car, handed me paperwork and said I was good to go. And then I drove off."
Nicole, who spoke on condition that her full name not be published to respect her privacy, was one of 21 women McGrew propositioned and harassed during VIN verification appointments, according to records from a 2016 internal investigation obtained by KQED and the California Reporting Project.
Four women said McGrew offered to pass their vehicles if they would go on a date or to a nearby motel with him. Two said McGrew sent them text messages soliciting sex after he took down their phone numbers during a VIN appointment. Fifteen described McGrew making comments that ranged from proposing sex to asking intrusive personal questions.
McGrew resigned in 2017 when the California Highway Patrol notified him that it planned to fire him for a variety of misconduct, including improperly trying to foster relationships with members of the public, making inappropriate sexual comments and propositioning women for sex while on duty, the documents show.
The records provide details about the type of sexual misconduct by law enforcement that remained secret for decades in California until a landmark transparency law required agencies last year to publicly disclose a variety of documents, including investigations of officers found to have committed sexual assault while on duty. The Right to Know Act has exposed repeated instances of abuse, ranging from correctional officers in prison and jail who assaulted women under their guard to an officer fired for soliciting sex from an arrestee and one accused of beating and raping his girlfriend.
In McGrew's case, the CHP did not refer him to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office to decide if criminal charges were warranted. A CHP spokeswoman wrote in an email that "had there been sufficient evidence that a crime had occurred, it would have been investigated and potentially referred to the district attorney's office."
The district attorney's office declined to comment on the case. The California Association of Highway Patrolmen, which represented McGrew, also did not respond to requests for comment.
Efforts to reach McGrew for comment were unsuccessful. The CHP records show he admitted making the comments during VIN inspections but argued that termination was an excessive punishment after his 14 years of service.
"While I do not dispute that I made inexcusable comments to members of the public, the remarks were never mean spirited," he wrote in a letter to internal affairs.
Former U.S. Attorney for Northern California Joseph Russoniello, who reviewed the internal affairs files, described McGrew's conduct as "a wanton abuse of his badge" and said he was shocked that the CHP did not refer McGrew to the DA.
"An agency needs to show that it's serious about rejecting this kind of behavior," Russoniello says. "And the serious way to do that is a criminal referral."
"This is an extraordinary example of how they (police) hide their dirty laundry and protect their own," says Phil Stinson, criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. He says the documents contain clear allegations that McGrew repeatedly solicited bribes in the form of sexual favors from women.
Stinson, who's studied police crime for 16 years, says officers like McGrew are often dismissed as "bad apples" and terminated, but that departments fail to investigate the systemic issues that allowed the misconduct in the first place.
As a mass movement over police violence continues across the country, Stinson says the prevalence of police sexual violence is an integral part of the issue. His research has found that behavior like McGrew's is normalized in many U.S. police departments.
"Not every police officer, of course, is engaging in this kind of behavior," Stinson says. "But I can tell you that most police officers across the country could tell you of a colleague who engages in this type of behavior."
The number of times the CHP has disciplined an officer for sexual misconduct in the past five years is still unknown. A coalition of news organizations including KQED requested all such records on Jan. 1, 2019, but the agency stalled for over a year before providing a single case file. KQED filed a lawsuit in May against the CHP to force disclosure. The internal investigation of former Officer McGrew was produced shortly thereafter.
The agency has also released its investigation into former CHP officer Timothy Larios, whose romantic relationship with a female confidential informant compromised an interagency narcotics operation and endangered the woman. A third file details the agency's probe into former officer John Frizzell who was fired in 2014 for fondling a woman's breasts during a traffic stop and asking another female motorist to lift up her shirt. Like McGrew, neither of these officers faced criminal charges, according to the documents.
Records show the CHP began investigating McGrew after a woman made a complaint in 2016. Like Nicole, this woman made an appointment with McGrew to get her VIN verified so she could get her car registered with the DMV. She had her son with her.
McGrew gave the kid a CHP sticker and looked at the vehicle.
McGrew then told the woman he would pass her car if she went to a nearby motel with him, according to the documents. The woman, who spoke Spanish, didn't immediately understand what McGrew was asking. So, McGrew repeated the proposition twice.
The woman went inside the office to complain about McGrew's behavior. A sergeant asked her if she misunderstood McGrew due to the language barrier and if she'd been drinking or taking drugs. She said there was no misunderstanding and that she wasn't under the influence.
"She could not explain the expression on Officer McGrew's face, but she said he was smiling when he asked the question about getting a motel room," the documents say.
As part of the internal investigation stemming from that incident the CHP sent three rounds of surveys to about 150 women between 18-40 years of age who'd made appointments with McGrew during his time as an inspection officer.
The CHP improperly redacted dates showing the length of the investigation and time span of McGrew's abuse. But it is clear that the agency's investigation did not include anything in the officer's career before he was assigned to vehicle inspections.
By limiting the scope of the investigation to those over the age of 18, investigators may well have missed more vulnerable victims.
"What about the 16- or 17-year-old driver that may own a car that he had come into contact with?" Stinson says.
CHP investigators found multiple women who confirmed that McGrew even made sexual comments to those who were with their partners or children, and he did target young women.
One woman with a disability due to a back injury said that McGrew questioned her about parking her vehicle in a handicapped parking spot.
"You don't look disabled from here," McGrew said, according to the woman. Later in that same appointment he told her, "You're young, but not too young for me."
Another woman said she felt violated after her experience at the CHP office. According to the documents:
"Officer McGrew asked her what she was going to do for him if he passed her car. She said she tried to laugh it off, but believed it was inappropriate. She said he then made comments about 'handcuffing' her and getting her in the 'back seat of her car.' [Victim's name redacted] also stated he mentioned taking her to a motel at the end or up the street. She said he even mentioned it had been recently remodeled and that it was fairly clean."
McGrew, however, did date at least one woman he harassed on the job, he told investigators, and he repeatedly texted another for a few months. Both said they cut off contact with him after his explicit messages made them uncomfortable.
McGrew solicited two other women for sex via text message after their appointments. Documents show that McGrew got rid of that untraceable prepaid cellphone before investigators could look at it.
"You're dealing with a law enforcement officer who has a gun and a badge. They're a person in a position of authority," Stinson says. "And it's very threatening for a woman to find themselves in that situation where the officer's suggesting that they engage in a sex act. It's absolutely terrifying."
Officers like McGrew have immense power. A registered vehicle is often key to a person's mobility, employment and family life. Without proper registration people can face fines, or even lose their car.
And McGrew had access to all of these women's home addresses and personal cellphone numbers.
Many of the women told investigators they didn't file complaints about McGrew because they were afraid of what he might do with the power of his office. Stinson has found that complaints about police sexual misconduct are often never filed because of this fear of retribution, which makes it difficult to ever fully see -- and address -- the scope of the problem. One woman reported being scared to come back to the CHP for her follow-up appointment because she would have to see McGrew again.
Nicole says she didn't make a complaint due to what she called her "classic chick response." First, she blamed herself for agreeing to meet a man alone at 7:30 in the morning, even if he was a police officer. Then she tried to rationalize his behavior; maybe he wasn't serious or maybe he was just an awkward flirt? Months later she learned she wasn't the only one.
Nicole says when she started getting follow-up calls asking her to fill out a survey about her experience, she ignored them. But the calls kept coming until she was getting two or three calls a week.
"I finally stayed on the phone a little longer to be like, 'Why are you guys bothering me so much? This is a little aggressive for a freaking survey!'" she says.
The investigator on the phone spelled it out for her; other women had made complaints about McGrew. So Nicole told him what had happened to her.
After taking her statement, Nicole says the CHP never got back to her to let her know what happened with McGrew. She says she would also have expected the agency to make some kind of changes as a result of the investigation. They have not.
"No changes to CHP policy were necessary because the behavior was against policy then and is today," a CHP spokeswoman wrote via email. "The employee's conduct was investigated and the employee was appropriately disciplined."
McGrew argued it was excessive.
"A forty-five day leave without pay would have been ample punishment," he wrote in a letter to CHP internal affairs. "A supervisor I had previously embarrassed had a stated mission to 'make me pay.'"
Russoniello says that by not prosecuting McGrew and not putting in place safeguards to prevent this type of abuse in future, the agency failed to take a strong position against sexual assault by its officers.
"Once you've gotten rid of the 'bad apple' you close the book," he says. "We don't have to worry about it anymore."
In the three years since this happened, Nicole says she has thought about it a lot. Her father was a police officer and before this experience, Nicole says she felt really positively about police. She doesn't anymore.
When the #MeToo movement started, Nicole says she and her female co-workers shared their experiences.
"That was one of my stories, because it was one of those moments where I was just like, this could end very badly," she says.
She says she would have liked the CHP to do more intensive screening of potential officers to weed out people like McGrew.
"He probably had some sort of history of creeping women the hell out," Nicole says. "How does someone like that even get that far?"
This story was produced by the California Reporting Project, a coalition of 40 news organizations across the state, including KPCC/LAist and The Associated Press. The project was formed to request and report on previously secret records of police misconduct and use of force in California.