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A TIMES INVESTIGATION

Maywood employs police officers with a history of trouble

April 01, 2007|Matt Lait and Scott Glover | Times Staff Writers

"Everything that could go wrong seems to have gone wrong at Maywood," said lawyer Merrick Bobb, a law enforcement expert who has consulted with the U.S. Department of Justice on policing practices. "This department needs to be put into receivership."

Bobb, who also is special counsel to the Board of Supervisors on matters about the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said he was particularly concerned that officers expelled from other agencies could find employment at Maywood without any public accountability.

"The phenomenon of misfit cops going from agency to agency is a terribly serious one," Bobb said. "It makes for one of the strongest arguments for public access to discipline records of police misconduct."

A state Supreme Court ruling last summer has had the effect of greatly restricting public access to police discipline records. The state's Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training compiles information about terminated officers from departments throughout California but refuses to publicly disclose the data.

But a Times review of court and police records suggests that, compared with other agencies, Maywood officials are far less discriminating in whom they employ.

Maywood Officer Brent Talmo was hired in 1998 after being terminated from the county sheriff's department in 1986 for displaying a pattern of "bizarre behavior and unprofessional conduct," records show:

Talmo poured dirt into the gas tank of a county vehicle; placed a dead gopher in a prisoner's pocket as an apparent prank, then lied about it and tried to get another deputy to lie on his behalf; tipped over the bed of a sleeping prisoner, causing him to fall face first onto the floor and bloodying his nose; and telephoned a fellow jail guard and referred to him as a snitch and used a racial slur.

When Talmo was fired, then-Sheriff Sherman Block publicly singled him out as "the primary culprit" in a campaign of harassment aimed at prisoners.

Talmo, still an officer on the Maywood force, did not respond to requests for comment.

Frank Garcia is another officer given a second chance by Maywood police.

In March of 2003, Garcia was charged with drunk driving and the felony offense of discharging a firearm in a grossly negligent manner. As a result, he was required to resign from his job as an officer with the police department in nearby Huntington Park.

He later entered into a plea bargain in which he agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of firing a gun from a public roadway. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail and three years' probation.

According to court papers, disclosing the conviction on job applications made it difficult for Garcia to find work -- until he applied with Maywood. He was hired there just one year after committing the offense.

Garcia's lawyer called the crime a "boneheaded mistake" that his client deeply regrets.

Other recent Maywood hires include: an officer who was rejected by 25 other police departments because he admitted on his applications that he pilfered money from a previous employer; an ex-LAPD officer who was hired even though he was under criminal investigation for -- and later convicted of -- beating a gang member as part of the notorious corruption scandal centered in the Rampart Division; and an officer who has a juvenile record for malicious mischief, vehicle tampering and carrying a concealed weapon.

Richard Lyons, the acting police chief with his own criminal past, said there is nothing wrong with giving somebody a fresh start.

"It's OK to give a person a second chance if you learn from your mistake," said Lyons, who recently was catapulted from the rank of officer to chief.

Nonetheless, Lyons said he was not pleased with the background checks that were done on some of the current officers on the force. As a result, he said, he wants to bring in outside consultants to help vet future candidates.

"A couple of people have slipped through the cracks that shouldn't have slipped through the cracks," he said.

Maywood's starting pay of $52,600 is among the lowest for police officers in Southern California, city officials said. That might explain why better qualified candidates apply elsewhere. It also might be the reason the turnover rate is extremely high. Most of the officers there have been hired since 2000, records show. Although many officers have left for other agencies, some have been forced to leave after breaking the law.

Officer Sergio Fernandez, for example, resigned after a federal grand jury indicted him for participating in a sophisticated real estate scheme that bilked $3.5 million from a federal home loan program.

He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to serve a year in federal prison and pay about $250,000 in restitution.

Two months ago, Officer Timothy O'Keefe was forced to leave the department after an off-duty shooting at an Orange County bar. He was convicted of negligently discharging his weapon.

Maywood City Atty. Francisco Leal said the department needs to reorganize and embrace reforms to bring the agency in line with modern policing practices.

"There's definitely a problem with the police department," he said. "There's no getting away from that."

matt.lait@latimes.com

scott.glover@latimes.com

Times staff writer Hector Becerra contributed to this report.

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