When former Baldwin Park Police Officer Kenneth Shearen talks about the job from which he was fired, he leaves out arrests, high-speed chases and bullets flying.
Instead, he recalls the elderly woman he took home after finding her exhausted on the curb beside her groceries, the convulsing baby he revived with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and the burglarized homeowners he calmed with home security advice.
"It wasn't like a warrior thing," he said of his two years with the then 55-officer department. "I got out there and helped people. . . . That was my goal, every day to make a difference in somebody's life."
Yet accusations of warriorlike behavior--including the police-baton beating of a burglary suspect--led to Shearen's dismissal three years ago. A criminal trial on the beating charges ended in a hung jury in February; a federal investigation is pending.
"We all know that any person can get frustrated and lose control," said Deputy Dist. Atty. David Sotelo, who prosecuted Shearen. "What causes problems is police officers unwilling to recognize that they've made an error and exceeded the line."
Baldwin Park Police Chief Carmine Lanza said although the jury did not convict Shearen, the city's internal investigation had concluded he was culpable.
"At this point in time, there are no plans to bring him back on the police force," Lanza said. "We would like to put (the incident) behind us."
Despite that, the 39-year-old father of three is trying to get back on the department. He insists the beating never occurred and blames his troubles on troubled times.
His firing came at the height of inflamed passions over the videotaped Los Angeles police beating of Altadena motorist Rodney G. King. That controversy led authorities to believe false allegations against him, he said.
His prosecution came six months after the looting and burning that struck Los Angeles when the four officers in the King beating were acquitted of most of the charges against them in a state trial. That violence, he believes, caused a panicked district attorney's office to file a case against him that he contends was weak from the start.
Like those who lost lives and businesses during the riots, Shearen counts himself among the victims. Three years later as an electronics repairman working out of a windowless Hawthorne warehouse, Shearen is struggling to recover the life he once loved.
"I think maybe a lot of people think I'm a troublemaker, but all I want to do is the best job I can . . . as a police officer," he said.
Shearen lost his prized job over a minor burglary.
On Feb. 11, 1991, he and fellow officer Louis Price were among those called at 11:49 p.m. to the 3600 block of Baldwin Park Boulevard after two thieves stole a few cases of beer, cartons of cigarettes and a roll of nickels from a gas station mini-mart.
One suspect was nabbed quickly. But a second man, Gilbert Gutierrez, hid in nearby bushes for more than 20 minutes until he was found by Price and Shearen.
When the officers delivered Gutierrez to the police station later that night, he had a fractured rib, a gash in the side of his head and a black eye. The injuries, the officers said, came after Gutierrez fled and was tackled and fell onto a pile of metal rubbish.
The incident would have ended there, Shearen and his attorneys said, but for the videotaped beating of King three weeks later on March 3. That snippet of blurry tape, replayed again and again on television, became a symbol of the everyday violence many claimed has been endured by racial and ethnic minorities at the hands of abusive police.
About three weeks after the tape hit the news, Baldwin Park Police Officer Steven Julian came forward with allegations that Price and Shearen had used excessive force during the burglary arrest.
Julian, who also was at the burglary arrest, reported to superiors that he had heard a thud and turned to see Price swinging a flashlight and Shearen a baton to strike something on the ground. Although Julian said his vision was obscured by a tabletop and a 3-foot hedge, he could make out the figure of a man.
The officers stopped, Julian said, only when Sgt. Robert Curtis yelled out, "All right, that's enough. Cuff him up."
An internal police investigation followed. Curtis admitted telling the officers to stop. He said he could see Price and Shearen struggling with Gutierrez but couldn't tell whether they had struck the man. Curtis later refused to testify in the criminal case, citing his right against self-incrimination.
At the end of the investigation, Lanza dismissed Shearen in June, 1991, while the King controversy still raged. Price, a new officer on probation who had no right to appeal, resigned rather than risk being fired.
"I can imagine the chief was listening and watching the TV every night," Shearen said. The former officer believes Lanza acted swiftly to avoid being accused of having a Rodney King-like problem in his city.