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Scandal Unleashes Wave of Anger and Sadness in Sheriff's Dept.

March 16, 1990|RICHARD BEENE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sgt. Jim Hannon is from the old school. His life has been one of values, of duty, patriotism and honor. He's actually proud of the uniform he wears bearing the green and gold seal of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

And so it was Thursday that he found himself filled with anger and sadness, hurt to the core by reports about the widening money-skimming scandal involving the department's elite narcotics squads.

"My father retired from this department and this whole thing has made me mad as hell," said Hannon, a supervisor at the Hall of Justice jail in downtown Los Angeles. "Corruption has always been something that happened back East, in New York or Chicago, not here. We are talking about what we stand for, what we are, and it makes me angry."

For Hannon and others in the 7,500-member Sheriff's Department, new revelations about the extensive sweep of the investigation into the narcotics unit served as yet another body blow to a department that has been struggling to overcome its tainted public image. The latest allegations, disclosed in affidavits unsealed Wednesday by federal investigators, alleged that the theft of drug money seized by narcotics officers has been a widespread practice in the department and has involved members of three elite narcotics squads.

The affidavits, filed by FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents, said that narcotics officers could have been stealing money from suspected drug dealers and money launderers as far back as the mid-1980s. Ten Sheriff's Department narcotics officers, including all nine members of the sheriff's major narcotics teams, have been indicted for allegedly stealing more than $1.4 million from suspected drug traffickers and money launderers over the last two years alone.

In the fraternity of law enforcement, the new disclosures came as a stinging rebuke. And they prompted unsettling questions--from friends, from strangers, from themselves.

Some officers chose to close ranks, opting to defend their colleagues as innocent until proven otherwise. Others, like Hannon, reacted with hurt, sadness and anger.

"Some of our members have been accused of violating the law, in an underhanded way, like a thief," said Hannon, a 14-year department veteran who spent 12 years in the Army, including four tours in Vietnam.

"This reflects on the entire department, on everyone," he said. "When I walk into the court to testify, it is my background and integrity on the line. From now on any officer from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department who walks into a court will face someone in there, maybe on the jury, who is going to remember what has happened. And I resent that."

Sgt. Lynda Edmonds of the sheriff's Information Bureau called the incident a deeply troubling experience.

"We all raise our hands and swear we'll do everything to support the community and carry out the law," she said. "When we realize that those who have taken the same oath have not upheld it, there is a tremendous sense of embarrassment. You ask yourself: 'How can they do this to us?' "

Richard Shinee, attorney for the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the organization that represents most of the rank-and-file officers, said many officers were having difficulty dealing with the case, especially because the department has been relatively free of scandal.

"This case is unique," he said. "Law enforcement is usually not faced with such sweeping allegations like this. The reaction (among officers) are as diverse as one can imagine. There are members out there who are outraged and others who don't believe it for a second. Others just want to wait and see what happens when the smoke clears."

Some, like Sgt. Pete Fosselman, a 16-year veteran who works as a patrol sergeant in the Temple City sheriff's station, said he was reluctant to discuss the case "unless I am questioned about it. My parents have brought up the subject. I tell them the Sheriff's Department is a large organization and the possibility exists that a few bad apples do exist.

"The whole thing is very tragic and sad because there is a lot of good people here. We'll just have to wait and see what happens," he said.

Retired Deputy Richard Sloan, who worked narcotics until he retired in May, 1985, expressed outrage over the scandal. He said it would be the honest officers who would have to live with the image of the bad cop.

"Because of this, every single law enforcement officer is going to have to defend himself," said Sloan, who knows some of the officers under investigation. "I feel very defensive about this. It indicts every honest police officer out there."

Sloan, who is now on the executive board of the 5,000-member California Narcotics Officers Assn., speculated that the narcotics units' problems began when a number of veteran supervisors either retired or transferred at the same time that Colombian traffickers were beginning to bring drugs and bundles of cash into the county.

"When you work in narcotics there is a lot of freedom, making decisions by yourself, and if you don't have good supervision things can happen to you," Sloan said. "What puzzles me is how nine or 10 people working on a crew together could conspire to do this without someone feeling the way that I do. The sad part of it was that there were probably people there who knew this was going on and didn't do anything about it."

As bad as the investigation and accompanying publicity seem now, Senior Deputy R. Haney at the Hall of Justice jail believes it will pass.

"For those of us who work on a daily basis to make the system work, it is very disheartening," said Haney, who will retire next year after more than 30 years with the department. "We'll overcome this. There are too many good apples out there. You have to look forward to better things."

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