The Sheriff's Department is investigating allegations that more than 10 deputies--on duty and in uniform--held a pre-dawn party last week in a county park where some were drinking, and a few fired handguns and set off powerful firecrackers.
All the deputies suspected of taking part in the incident are from the Lennox station, which is about five miles from the alleged party site at Alondra Park, according to Sheriff's Department spokesmen. The park is in unincorporated county territory near Lawndale, adjacent to the El Camino College campus.
The deputies were approaching the end of a 12-hour shift during which they were on alert as a reserve force for last week's Malibu wildfire.
If the allegations are substantiated, there could be serious employment and other legal consequences for the deputies. Under a 1988 state law, discharging a weapon into the air or ground can be a felony punishable by up to a year in prison, although depending on circumstances it can also be judged a misdemeanor.
There have been deaths in recent years in which people were struck by bullets fired randomly into the air and then falling nearby. The Sheriff's Department has been particularly active on New Year's Eve and at other holidays warning about the danger of firing into the air.
The commander of the Lennox station, Capt. Jack Scully, vowed Tuesday to discipline anyone found guilty in the Alondra Park incident. No one was reported injured.
"Believe me," Scully said, "there will be discipline. Anything I can prove, there will be discipline. It is embarrassing."
Other sources in the Sheriff's Department confirmed that the party, which was witnessed by several homeless people, occurred. Scully would not say who reported hearing the shots. And college officials refused to comment on whether the incident was observed by its officers.
Last year, several off-duty deputies were accused of firing dozens of shots into the air outside a Maywood restaurant where a party was being held to raise money for deputies dismissed from the force for allegedly violating the department's policy on the use of deadly force.
After an investigation, one deputy was fired, although his appeal is still pending with the Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission.
Regarding week's episode, Capt. Dan Burt, Sheriff Sherman Block's chief spokesman, said: "The entire incident, even the possibility that this has occurred, has certainly left people underwhelmed with the conduct of our people."
According to several homeless people, the deputies began partying at 3 or 4 a.m. Thursday, building a large bonfire in a pit in the center of the expansive park. Between 4 and 5 a.m., the homeless people said, shots were fired.
"I heard the shots," one man said. "We were out here and we were playing cards, four of us," he said, pointing to a picnic table.
Another man said, "First there were three shots and then four more after that." The man and his female companion were sleeping in their van when the shots were fired. They did not see in which direction the shots were fired.
Scully said the best indications investigators have is that two to five shots were fired, perhaps into the ground, not the air, and the other sounds might have been exploding M-80 firecrackers.
None of the homeless wanted to be identified by name, saying they feared retaliation by the deputies. Since news of the party broke, the homeless men and women said, deputies have been making sweeps through the park, towing away their vans and cars and in some cases confiscating their possessions.
According to the homeless, a group of deputies arrived at the park the morning after the party to collect shell casings. Scully confirmed that shell casings have been found.
One of the homeless men said this is not the first time the deputies used the park to party. He said that about a week before the incident, he saw uniformed deputies around a bonfire drinking alcohol.
Burt said that no reports have been made to the department about an earlier incident, and he urged anyone with information about such an incident to come forward with details.
Lt. Bill McSweeney, in the Sheriff's Internal Affairs Unit, said he is skeptical about charges that in the wake of Thursday's incident homeless people have been harassed at the park.
"There were several sources on what happened," he said. "The homeless were not the only ones to report it."
Scully said that the deputies being held on long shifts in reserve for fire duty were supposed to be on patrol at some distance from the Lennox station, ready to be summoned by radio if necessary.
The Sheriff's Department's 12-hour fire shifts began Oct. 27, with the Altadena and other fires. The long shifts were cut back over the following weekend but restored with the Malibu fire, which broke out 48 hours before the alleged party incident.