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Report Is an Eye-Opener on Deputies' Misconduct

April 17, 2004|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

One uniformed deputy had a tryst in his squad car with an exotic dancer.

Another was so smitten with a woman that he followed her to her home in Orange County, talked his way inside, tried to rub her back, gave her his telephone number and then left.

Then there is the team of deputies who chased a man into the San Gabriel River, shot him with soft bullets and when he refused to surrender, waited for three hours. The suspect drowned.

The incidents are from the most recent quarterly review of misconduct in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Prepared by the county's Office of Independent Review, the report opens a window onto the world of those who police the police.

The 39-page report covers actions taken during the last three months of 2003 on allegations involving more than 100 deputies.

Sheriff Lee Baca fired 37 of his 8,200 deputies last year for offenses ranging from theft, drunk driving and drug use to the mishandling of a 911 caller seeking protection who was murdered.

Michael Gennaco, a former prosecutor who has won convictions of judges, police officers and a white supremacist, heads the office, which was created nearly three years ago after the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division corruption scandal.

"This isn't a matter of washing the dirty laundry in public," Gennaco said. "We're trying to ensure integrity and transparency in the investigations. We are trying to get the department to do [its] job better."

Baca gave Gennaco, former chief of the civil rights section of the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, freedom to review charges of and investigations into police misconduct. He can intervene, directing investigators to conduct further investigations and interviews.

"I think the boldness of these reports establishes the credibility of the department when it comes to accountability," Baca said.

"As law enforcement officers, those in this department must be held accountable to a higher standard."

Since Gennaco and his five-attorney team began issuing reports, firings have climbed from 19 in 2001 to 37 last year.

His office discovered 800 claims of wrongdoing that were never investigated, and found that many deputies who promise to undergo training or counseling to avoid more severe punishment fail to do so.

Reviewing complaints, the office determined that one brand of handcuffs deputies were using was defective.

Gennaco's current review and his previous quarterly reports are posted on the Office of Independent Review's website at www.laoir.com.

But no deputies are named -- a fact that he said is dictated by the state Legislature. "We are as transparent as law allows," Gennaco said.

The unnamed deputy who encountered the exotic dancer also went to a nightclub while on duty. Baca fired him for immoral conduct and making false statements after an investigator interviewed the dancer. The deputy is appealing the decision.

Gennaco said he has identified on-duty sexual conduct as a troubling trend, from consensual acts to improper relationships with minors, to the use of patrol cars to follow women.

According to the latest report, Baca fired the deputy who followed the woman home. But that discharge was reduced to a 25-day suspension by a county civil service hearing officer -- a decision the sheriff is appealing.

Then there is the case of the male deputy who inappropriately searched a woman, and then let another deputy claim he arrested her and searched her. Both have challenged their discharges. The second deputy also entered a no-contest plea to a criminal charge of delaying the investigation.

Another deputy assigned to work with a child sports program was fired for engaging in an "inappropriate relationship with a 17-year-old female."

The deputy, according to the report, had sex with her in his office -- when officials say she was 18 -- and continued to pursue her even after she complained to the department about his conduct.

One female deputy also was fired last year for what was termed "inappropriate conduct" with a female inmate in a county jail, which Baca runs.

By contrast, a deputy caught in a "romantic relationship with a 17-year-old Explorer Scout" was suspended for 15 days, but has returned to the job, according to the report.

Much of Gennaco's report is devoted to complaints about poor tactics and use of excessive force.

For instance, Lt. Patrick Maxwell and a sergeant were each suspended for five days last year for their role in the drowning in the San Gabriel River.

The suspect, who was armed with a knife, had been questioned by deputies in a nearby parking lot, fought with them and fled into the water, where officers used nonlethal projectiles. He threatened deputies for three hours and refused to surrender, and then drowned.

Maxwell was the lieutenant who decided to use road flares to "burn out" an armed murder suspect who had been hiding in a house near Palmdale. The man died of gunshot wounds and burns.

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