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Some L.A. Deputies Skirt Discipline Rules

An audit finds a lack of accountability and monitoring of county sheriff's officers being counseled or trained after misconduct.

August 27, 2003|Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writer

Some deputies who promised to undergo counseling or training in return for reduced misconduct penalties have not done so, and managers have failed to follow up to ensure compliance, a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department audit has concluded.

The audit found that, in a sample of 19 so-called "settlement agreements," deputies or civilian employees in nine cases had not fulfilled their promises.

"This demonstrates that measures designed to address wrongdoing at the department were never properly monitored," said Michael Gennaco, head of the Office of Independent Review, which tracks internal discipline for Sheriff Lee Baca. Gennaco's agency did the audit.

"It also says that there was no system in place to ensure sufficient accountability," Gennaco said.

Like courtroom plea bargains, settlement agreements allow sheriff's employees to reduce penalties for misconduct -- usually days off with pay -- by promising to obtain alcohol counseling or training in anger management, leadership or use of force.

With approximately 200 such agreements annually, it was unclear how many sheriff's employees have been skirting department disciplinary requirements. Gennaco said the problem appeared to be widespread.

The compliance issue surfaced in January when an off-duty deputy got drunk and fought with his wife. In an effort to reduce his punishment, he agreed to attend Alcoholics Anonymous counseling and to not drink alcohol.

In reviewing his disciplinary history, officials could not determine whether the deputy had lived up to the conditions of an earlier settlement. And that set off alarm bells at the Office of Independent Review.

The office examined cases from 2000 to 2002 and found that, in half the cases, employees had not bothered to complete training or could not provide records to show they had fulfilled the terms of their settlements.

Gennaco acknowledged that the sample number of cases was small and said that his investigators had difficulty locating discipline records scattered across the department, the largest law enforcement agency in Los Angeles County with 8,000 deputies and 8,000 civilian employees.

Tracking problems has not been confined to the Sheriff's Department. For years, the Los Angeles Police Department struggled to identify its problem officers and monitor them.

"The department has been looking at this issue for more than a decade," said LAPD spokesman Officer Jack Richter.

A departmentwide database and personnel tracking system contains instant information on an officer's time on the job, including commendations, complaints, discipline and use-of-force complaints.

"It's basically like an in-house resume," Richter said. "When we apply for a job anywhere within the department, copies are submitted for consideration."

The tracking system is being expanded under the 2001 consent decree signed after the Rampart corruption scandal. The city and the U.S. Justice Department negotiated the agreement after the federal government filed a complaint alleging that the LAPD had for years engaged in a "pattern or practice of civil rights violations."

Unlike the Sheriff's Department, the LAPD does not negotiate settlement agreements in exchange for lighter discipline.

"An individual found guilty can be handed down training, days off or both," Richter said. "But it's not a plea bargain situation."

Gennaco said that, despite the ineffective tracking of settlements, the overall system of monitoring complaints and discipline for the department is considered one of the best in the country.

"But I think it shows the need for vigilance in monitoring all aspects of employee discipline," Gennaco said.

As for settlement agreements, Baca defended them as "a win-win situation" for the employees and his department, saying counseling or training was an "effective tool" for dealing with those who exercise poor judgment or immaturity.

Gennaco said a new system for tracking employees' compliance with settlement agreements would strengthen efforts to provide "remedial measures." New checks and balances monitored by a centralized system would ensure that employees were receiving the counseling or training they needed and hold bosses accountable as well.

The goal is to "make employees more accountable, prevent future misconduct and leave a paper trail," he said.

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