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City Lacks a System to Track Complaints Against Firefighters

A murder charge against an L.A. fire captain with an alleged history of domestic abuse highlights the problem.

September 08, 2006|Lisa Richardson and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles Fire Department doesn't have a system for tracking criminal and civil complaints filed against firefighters, a problem that has come into sharp focus in the weeks since a fire captain once accused of domestic abuse was charged with murdering a female acquaintance.

Unlike L.A.'s department, several other big-city fire agencies as well as the Los Angeles Police Department keep a detailed record of personnel with criminal or civil complaints for domestic violence and other alleged misdeeds.

L.A. Fire Chief William Bamattre acknowledged this week that his department could do a better job of staying on top of accusations of wrongdoing and said he is pushing to create a tracking system similar to the LAPD's, perhaps using that agency's software.

The LAPD has a computer system designed to track every time an officer uses force, discharges a firearm, engages in a car chase, is involved in a traffic accident, receives training or discipline, or is the subject of a citizen's complaint, internal affairs probe, civil claim or lawsuit.

Additionally, the Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau has multiple databases that can track arrests and temporary restraining orders, as well as red-flag officers with recurring complaints that could indicate malfeasance.

By contrast, the Fire Department doesn't have an internal affairs bureau. It has an understanding with the LAPD that the Police Department will notify the Fire Department if a firefighter is arrested. Also, since 1999, new recruits have been fingerprinted.

But other fire departments have been adopting elaborate tracking systems.

The Chicago Fire Department, with 5,000 firefighters and paramedics, has used a disciplinary system database that tracks both criminal and internal matters. Each employee can be searched by name, employee number and investigative review number, which is assigned by internal affairs at the department.

The need to improve tracking systems in the L.A. Fire Department has come into focus since Capt. David Del Toro, the supervisor of Fire Station 1 in Lincoln Heights, was charged last month with killing Jennifer Teresa Flores, 42.

A coroner's report found that Flores had been strangled and beaten before her body was found about a mile from Del Toro's home, with a trail of her blood leading to the residence.

According to a 2002 court declaration, Del Toro trained fellow firefighters in prevention of sexual abuse and was involved in firefighter peer support groups.

The captain also was the subject of a temporary restraining order in March 2002, a month before he was charged by the Los Angeles city attorney's office with four counts of misdemeanor violence against a girlfriend. The city attorney's office dropped the criminal case, citing a lack of evidence, and at the time Del Toro asserted that the allegations against him were "outlandish."

City Controller Laura Chick said the Del Toro case has highlighted a problem that Fire Department officials have been grappling with for some time.

"Unfortunately, it's the kind of example that gets outrage and action," Chick said. "I can tell you that 11 years ago there was a big scrutiny of these issues and exposure of these issues with the Fire Department, and this chief was chief then."

Chick's office completed an audit last year that found the department lacking in the area of firefighter tracking and discipline compared with other agencies.

Many large fire departments, Chick's audit found, have separate internal affairs departments, including Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Sacramento and Dallas. Sacramento's department is in the process of implementing commercially available internal affairs software and will rely primarily on electronic documentation in its investigations.

The audit found that discipline within the L.A. Fire Department is subjective and biased. Disciplinary guidelines are so broad that they provide a range of punishment that runs from a simple reprimand all the way to termination for the same offense. Also, the study found, captains and chiefs often lack the necessary training to conduct in-depth inquiries.

Disciplinary procedures and tracking can vary from supervisor to supervisor and station to station, auditors concluded.

"We should be so much further along in eradicating the problems that were raised and exposed in the audit and in preventing the kind of horrific tragedy that this recent homicide represents," Chick said.

Bamattre said he now wants to keep all complaints against firefighters in computerized personnel files, with notations as to whether the allegations were founded or unfounded, along with explanations and context. Right now, he said, such records are not always kept in personnel files in order to prevent unfairly casting a cloud on the subject's record.

Bamattre said he also wants to overhaul disciplinary procedures and will seek to amend the City Charter in several areas.

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