Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Lax Control Over State Humane Officers : Law enforcement: Animal control 'deputies' may wear uniforms, carry guns and make arrests, but their ranks are virtually unregulated.

November 06, 1994|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Capt. Barbara Fabricant ordered that Steven Hazzard give up his beloved guide dog, Starsky, while she investigated allegations that he kicked the animal, the blind computer programmer balked, but obliged out of deference to the law.

Although Fabricant had neither interviewed Hazzard nor examined Starsky to determine if the charges were founded, she was, after all, not only a state humane officer, but "director of criminal investigations."

And Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Bay Area group that trained Starsky, told Hazzard that Fabricant had threatened to haul in their executives on felony charges, too, if he did not cooperate. So Hazzard, of Westchester, spent the next five months unemployed and mostly homebound, without his "eyes" and his best friend.

What Hazzard and the guide dog association did not know was that the .357-magnum-toting, uniform-wearing "Capt." Fabricant is a strange sort of cop, one of a little-known group of non-governmental peace officers.

They are authorized by the state of California to carry guns, conduct criminal investigations and make arrests throughout the state. They can wear uniforms and badges nearly identical to those of Highway Patrol officers. Yet despite the powers conferred on them under an obscure civil code, a Times investigation has found that humane officers such as the 68-year-old Fabricant operate virtually unregulated and unsupervised.

They are nominated for their positions by private animal welfare organizations--which can be founded by a single person--and in many cases are given badges and are authorized to carry guns with little or no training. They are on no government payroll. They belong to no police department. They have no chief.

*

No government agency supervises them, or even keeps track of who they are or how many are out there--not even the California Department of Justice, which oversees the professional qualifications of other peace officers throughout the state.

"It's scary," said Norman Boehm, executive director of the state Justice Department's Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, in a recent interview. Like other state officials, he said he was unaware of the police powers and lack of oversight on such officers until asked about them.

"I don't know what they're doing. Who in the world is out there carrying guns? . . . I have no idea where they get their authority. You need a job with a government organization in order to act as a peace officer."

Actually, according to Civil Code 607f, you don't.

Under the code, private animal-welfare groups submit names of humane officer candidates to the presiding judge of the county's Superior Court for approval. The candidates pay a $5 fee and need only 12 hours of training in animal care and a course in state humane laws within a year of receiving the badge. (Fabricant holds classes at her Canoga Park home.)

Los Angeles Superior Court official Georgene Nagamine said: "Our job is to just send the forms up north for processing."

If training is not available within 100 miles, the law says humane officer candidates are exempt from even that requirement, as are people who became officers before 1977.

All it takes to slap on a gun belt and carry a weapon is an introductory firearms course available from community colleges, a course that Boehm said "amounts to nothing."

The candidates' fingerprints are sent to Sacramento for a cursory Justice Department check for a criminal record. After that, they are on their own until they have to reapply three years later.

The records of state humane officers' identities are kept in each county's principal courthouse or recorder's office. State officials say they have no idea how many there are, or who they are.

"I don't see any oversight," said Michael Van Winkle, spokesman for the Justice Department's law enforcement division. "No one here is aware of any."

Humane officers have been around for more than 80 years, throwbacks to a time when cities and counties had nobody trained or available to investigate complaints of animal abuse, poisoning and theft. Local humane societies were authorized to provide deputies to fill the gap.

Although many California counties and most large cities now have paid, professional animal control officers, the humane officers linger as "one of those loose things from way back in history," said Darrell Stewart, a former state highway patrolman and current spokesman for the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, which sets standards for all law enforcement officers in the state.

After a lobbying effort aided by protests from organizations for the blind over Hazzard's loss of Starsky, a private association of state humane officers persuaded the state Legislature this summer to enact stricter training requirements, effective next year. But some critics, and some animal rights groups, say much more needs to be done.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|