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Hidden Recorder Can Make a Deputy's Case : Law enforcement: Walnut sheriff's station allows taping of public dealings. Interest in the controversial practice is growing.

March 21, 1993|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN GABRIEL VALLEY — Walnut Sheriff's Deputy Patrick Maxwell never expected the routine traffic stop to get so out of hand.

The motorist cursed Maxwell, tried to drive away and scratched his arm when he grabbed for her keys. Next thing Maxwell knew, she slapped him with an excessive force and rudeness complaint.

Usually, it is the deputy's word against the accuser's, and no one else ever knows exactly what transpired. This time, however, Maxwell had captured the entire exchange on a concealed microcassette tape recorder, a practice allowed by his sheriff's station. The motorist eventually was convicted in Municipal Court of interfering with a law enforcement officer.

The Walnut sheriff's station is the only law enforcement agency in the San Gabriel Valley that allows deputies to secretly tape-record conversations with motorists and other members of the public on routine stops, and the only sheriff's office in Los Angeles County to permit the recordings.

Some experts consider the concealed recorders a legal way to get an accurate picture of an officer's dealings. But others, from civil rights advocates to some police, call the tapings a Big Brother invasion of privacy that unfurls ethical red flags and raises the issue of trust at a time when community-police relations frequently are on shaky ground.

Still, interest in the practice is spreading throughout the nation, said Hal Snow, assistant director of the Commission on Peace Officers' Standards and Training in Sacramento. Monterey Park, for instance, is on the verge of beginning its own tapings.

Monterey Park Police Chief Daniel Cross said the department's 60 patrol officers and detectives will begin using tape recorders within the month. Cross ordered tape recorders after hearing about the Walnut station's program. He hopes the number of complaints and lawsuits against officers will plummet, once exchanges are preserved on tape instead of in reports that can be colored by perception and hazy memory.

Cross does not see privacy as an issue. "These are confrontations that are taking place in public," he said.

According to state laws, secret tape recording is permissible when there is no reasonable expectation of privacy, said attorney Terry Francke, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, a group that studies freedom of information issues.

Say, for instance, that two people are in a movie theater, plotting to rob a bank, and there's a detective in the next row.

"They don't know he's overhearing," Francke said, "but there's no reasonable expectation that they were not overheard."

A leader of the American Civil Liberties Union remains unconvinced.

"I think that (secret recordings are) a violation of people's rights to be warned that a police officer is taking a statement about them," said Ramona Ripston, executive director of ACLU of Southern California. "Let's just say that I think it has a lot of problems attached to it. It has to do with the right of people knowing that they are taped."

Laguna Beach Police Assn. in Orange County is divided on a proposed policy that would require officers to carry tape recorders, said the group's president, Detective George Ramos. Some officers see the proposal as an excuse for the city to snoop into their business.

"The biggest complaint was 'Big Brother, (and) they don't trust us,' " Ramos said.

Other officers complained that it would be hard to build trust and rapport with community members who later find out that they were tape-recorded without their consent. Ramos also said that he and other detectives would feel self-conscious, knowing that a tape recorder was capturing their every word. As detectives, he said, their language is sometimes salty when there is no other way to get through to some people.

"That will inhibit officers from sometimes taking an aggressive verbal stance," Ramos said. "I don't deal with every narcotics dealer with, 'Yes, sir,' and 'No, sir. . . .' It works (using street language), but on tape, it sounds really bad."

In Walnut, Mayor William T. Choctaw said he has heard no complaints about residents being tape-recorded by deputies. And a member of the Walnut Sheriff's Civilian Advisory Board said he has no problem with the practice.

"Personally, I think it's a great idea," said board member Brian Cornick of San Dimas. "I think it gives both parties involved a chance to review what they may have said or thought they said. . . . If nothing else, it gives deputies a chance to critique themselves."

And as far as Deputy Maxwell is concerned, it is a device that might well have saved his career.

"I know that if I were a lieutenant or a captain, and had this middle-class, well-dressed 50-year-old woman come to my office, and I had this officer telling me this lady (cursed him) and scratched his arm, you would question it, just looking at this lady," Maxwell said. "Thank goodness, I had the whole incident on tape."

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