Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies broke department regulations in their handling of actor Mel Gibson after his drunk driving arrest last year, but sheriff's officials did not give preferential treatment to heiress Paris Hilton this summer when they released her from jail three weeks early, a review panel announced Thursday.
Despite months of denials by the Sheriff's Department, a panel of six attorneys charged with reviewing a number of controversial cases found that Gibson was treated differently than most arrestees after he was stopped on Pacific Coast Highway.
According to the report, Gibson was allowed to leave the Malibu/Lost Hills sheriff's station without providing a palm print as required and without signing a statement promising to appear in court. He also was driven personally by a sheriff's sergeant to retrieve his car from a county tow yard.
The actions amounted to minor infractions of department rules, but they made it look like Gibson received preferential treatment, said Michael Gennaco, chief attorney for the sheriff's Office of Independent Review.
"It certainly creates an image of celebrity justice," he said.
In addition to the Gibson and Hilton cases, the panel reviewed the Sheriff's Department's response to the deaths of jail inmates and a contest meant to encourage arrests by deputies.
In the Gibson case, investigators raised questions about the way information was released to the media but found that those actions did not violate department policy.
Upon his arrest, Gibson was "belligerent," made bigoted remarks, and "bolted toward his own vehicle rather than get in the radio car," according to an internal investigation cited in the document.
But the initial news release on his case said that the actor was arrested without incident, and the discussion of his behavior and the comments he made was omitted from the initial report. That information was put back into the record later by a supervisor, but only in the form of a supplemental memo to be shown only to the district attorney's office.
The information became public when it was leaked to a celebrity gossip website.
"It didn't amount to a violation of policy, but we feel that the department should have a clear policy on the release of information," Gennaco said.
The decision to withhold the information on Gibson's behavior was related to his fame, Gennaco said.
"Yes, it had to do with his notoriety and it had to do with the fact that the station command recognized that it would be newsworthy," he said.
The film actor and producer also was allowed to use a station telephone, but the report said that it was common practice in the substation, where cellphone signals are not always reliable.
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore disputed the idea that Gibson was treated better than others because of his fame.
"It's different treatment, but was it special?" Whitmore asked. "People do get rides to their cars from time to time."
Actions in the Hilton case did not violate policy, according to the report. Combined with Gibson's case, however, it raised questions about how the department should handle high-profile inmates and detainees.
Hilton's detention last summer stirred up controversy after she was released just a few days into her sentence for a probation violation and ordered to wear an ankle monitor at her home instead of staying in jail.
At the time, Sheriff Lee Baca said that Hilton was released because of medical problems, but critics questioned the validity of the claim.
In their report, the attorneys from the Office of Independent Review said that two county doctors had come to the Sheriff's Department personally after examining Hilton and recommended that she serve the rest of her time at home.
Even though such action was "extraordinary," according to the report, Baca had not violated policy in ordering her to be released. Moreover, the attorneys said, most female misdemeanor offenders serve only four days of their sentences, so Hilton's release was not out of the ordinary.
What was out of the ordinary, Gennaco said, was that the heiress was expected to serve her full term.
"The perception was that Miss Hilton was getting a sweet deal, when in fact any woman who comes into the jail is given a sentence that is markedly below what the judge says she deserves," Gennaco said.
The report also examined a spate of deaths in county lockups, looking at cases from 2007 as well as some from prior years.
The reviewing attorneys, who have been critical of the department in recent years, said that sheriff's officials have responded in a more timely way this year to deaths in custody. Most of the 27 deaths in custody this year were investigated within 60 days, the report said.
In the case of Ramon Camarillo Gavira, who was found hanging from a bedsheet at the Men's Central Jail in 2002, the report said that despite serious injuries and the claim by other inmates that a guard had beaten Gavira, evidence showed that his death was a suicide.
Still, the report was sharply critical of the department's investigation of the incident, saying that it was impossible to know what really happened because officials did not properly investigate the death when it occurred.
Moreover, the report said that Gavira did not receive appropriate medical care. Officials investigating his death did not consider his many bruises and injuries, saying that they were not relevant because they did not cause his death.
The annual report also investigated a contest that had been held to encourage deputies to make more arrests. The panel called the contest "misguided."