HUNTINGTON PARK — Responding to a rash of brutality claims against his department, Police Chief Geano Contessotto said last week that he has reopened all internal investigations of officers done since late 1984.
Contessotto said Lt. Frank Sullivan is now reviewing past misconduct allegations raised in citizen complaints, legal claims and lawsuits. The department will then consider whether retraining for officers is needed, the chief said.
"The purpose is to see if there is something we are doing wrong," Contessotto said.
Huntington Park police, according to a Times survey in July, had the highest frequency of brutality claims among municipal police departments in the Southeast/Long Beach area. The 60-member department had 30 brutality claims in 1984 and 1985. A claim is the first step in filing a lawsuit. Of the 30 claims, so far 14 have become lawsuits.
The department's internal investigations previously were performed by Capt. Martin Simonoff. He conducted 17 internal investigations for the department in late 1984 and 1985, and an undetermined number of internal investigations this year, many of which concerned brutality allegations. In the investigations done by Simonoff in 1984 and 1985, he sustained only one complaint.
In an interview last week, Contessotto conceded for the first time that the department "appears to have a bit of a problem" with brutality claims. But he said that the number of brutality claims has declined since April, when Simonoff was moved to supervise night patrols.
The chief said he reassigned Simonoff to provide increased supervision of evening patrols because the majority of brutality claims involved incidents that occurred during that shift. However, Contessotto also said that he relieved Simonoff of his internal investigation duties after he noticed a "deficiency." Asked to explain what he meant, Contessotto said that Simonoff had "limited investigative experience" when he was appointed captain a few years ago.
"At the time, he (Simonoff) was the only person I had," Contessotto said.
The chief also criticized Simonoff for writing an internal investigation last year that Contessotto termed an "obvious display of personal prejudice."
Simonoff declined comment on all of the chief's remarks.
The Times obtained a copy of the Simonoff report specifically criticized by Contessotto. The report concluded that Officer Mark Betor may have been aware of and participated in an attempt to cash a $5,000 check at the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens on Feb. 22, 1985. The check, which the Bicycle Club refused to cash, carried the forged authorization of the club's general manager, according to Simonoff's report and Bell Gardens police records.
In his report, Simonoff said Betor may have been guilty of several felonies, and the captain recommended forwarding the report to the district attorney for possible prosecution. In an interview last week, however, Betor said he was never aware of and never participated in any crime.
Contessotto declined to submit Simonoff's report to the district attorney's office because, he said, he was under no legal obligation to do so. Internal police reports are for the department's own use, the chief said. He added that the Bell Gardens Police Department was responsible for investigating the alleged crime because it occurred in Bell Gardens.
Head Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven A. Sowders said Monday that his office frequently receives internal police reports and that Contessotto could have submitted the report. Sowders agreed, however, that the chief was under no legal obligation to submit the report because the alleged crime occurred in Bell Gardens.
No One Arrested
Sowders said his office is now conducting a review of the incident to see whether an investigation is warranted. (Earlier this month, Sowders had said that his office also was reviewing allegations of brutality raised in three legal claims against Huntington Park reported in July by The Times.)
Bell Gardens Police Chief William Donohoe said in an interview last week that no one was ever arrested or prosecuted for the 1985 Bicycle Club incident because of insufficient evidence. He said that to his knowledge no member of his department was aware that a Huntington Park police officer may have been involved in the incident. He added that the incident is now under further investigation by his department.
'If there is any indication that we can resurrect a criminal prosecution, then we certainly will," Donohoe said.
Last year, Contessotto suspended Betor for a month without pay after he received Simonoff's report. Although the chief said a crime was "possibly" committed at the Bicycle Club last year, he added that "no criminal action was committed by Betor."