SAN DIEGO (AP) — To the young women who got into trouble partying in San Diego's popular downtown Gaslamp Quarter, officer Anthony Arevalos offered a way out: In return for sex, he would look the other way on traffic infractions.
His arrest last year marked one of the most egregious examples of a department that had gotten out of control with nearly two dozen officers busted on allegations ranging from rape to drunken driving to domestic violence.
On Friday, as Arevalos was sentenced to nearly nine years in state prison, San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne applauded the judge for "his handling of this difficult case and his thoughtful consideration concerning what punishment was appropriate for someone who so completely violated the public trust."
The scandal in one of the country's safest cities raised questions about whether the department was turning a blind eye to the misconduct amid the plummeting crime rate.
The chief thanked the victims for stepping forward and said the sentence should make it clear that officers will be held accountable for their actions. The department has undergone major reforms since the cases emerged.
"As difficult as this has been for the San Diego Police Department, I believe we have emerged a stronger and more resilient organization," Lansdowne said in a statement after the sentencing.
Lansdowne said last year that public trust in the force had fallen so low at one point that people were verbally challenging officers when stopped for questioning. One officer was arrested on charges that he raped and kidnapped a woman while on duty the day after Lansdowne apologized to the public for his officers' misconduct and announced his crackdown.
Since then he has beefed up internal-affairs staffing and ethics training, reviewed use-of-force tactics, and conducted meetings with uniformed and civilian employees. The department also set up a 24-hour hotline for people to report officer misconduct.
The 2,300-member department has seen improvement, spokeswoman Lt. Andra Brown said. But the problem has not completely disappeared. Last month, a former supervisor of Arevalos was charged with fixing a ticket for a friend, a deputy district attorney, who was also charged.
The force may never regain the trust of some.
When Judge Jeffrey Fraser announced the sentence, he said he took into account the fact that Arevalos targeted drunken young women who were vulnerable and could not call on anyone else for help.
"They will forever fear the police," he said.
During the hearing, prosecutor Sherry Thompson read the judge a statement from one of the victims who said she cannot sleep at night and is afraid of being alone.
"I still do not understand how for 18 years the sick propensities of Mr. Arevalos were ignored," the victim said in the statement about his time on the police force.
A jury convicted Arevalos of eight felony and four misdemeanor charges for sexual battery, bribery, assault by an officer and false imprisonment. The crimes involved five women during an 18-month period starting in 2009. All were stopped in the Gaslamp Quarter.
Arevalos was arrested last March after a woman reported he had stopped her in the district for failing to use a turn signal. The victim testified in court that after she tested above the legal limit for blood-alcohol content, Arevalos asked what she would be willing to do to make the DUI go away. He eventually led her to a nearby convenience store bathroom where he sexually assaulted her.
Arevalos was fired from the San Diego Police Department after he was charged in April.
The sobbing officer begged the judge to have mercy on his family and not send him away. He apologized to the victims, the Police Department, community and his family.
"I realize my actions caused a lot of pain," said Arevalos, who must register as a sex offender. "I'm deeply remorseful and I pray for forgiveness."
The defense had asked the judge to spare the 41-year-old father of two from jail time, pointing out that he had been a decorated police officer who removed drug dealers and rapists from city streets and saved a young boy's life during his career.
Fraser, however, said the eight-year, eight-month sentence was meant to punish Arevalos and act as a deterrent to any other potential violations of public trust by officers. The prosecution had asked for the maximum sentence of nine years, eight months.