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Game over

An ill-conceived arrest 'contest' among deputies is another sign the Sheriff's Department is in disarray.

October 05, 2007

Quotas on arrests or citations are never a good idea, and are illegal for California traffic officers, but the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has been doing the next worst thing. A Times investigation discovered that the department has been holding informal competitions among deputies since July to see how many people they could arrest in a 24-hour period, or how many vehicles they could impound.

A contest that encourages officers to boost arrests without regard to their quality leads to abusive police conduct and public cynicism. Aside from the obvious fact that it could prompt questionable arrests by officers eager to win, it could taint some criminal cases. Indeed, on Thursday, the county public defenders office launched an investigation into the arrests made during one of the contests, and may challenge them in court. The organizer of the contests, Lt. James Tatreau, says they were simply an effort to motivate deputies, and the award for winning was nothing more than "bragging rights." Good-conduct citations are a more fitting motivational tool.

To his credit, Sheriff Lee Baca stopped the contests after he was informed about them by a reporter. But why did he find out about them from The Times, which learned of the contests from an internal Sheriff's Department memo?

Baca operates the nation's biggest jail system and oversees about 8,000 deputies. The scale and complexity of his agency are such that he usually gets the benefit of the doubt when, say, a jail inmate is improperly classified and ends up strangling his cellmate, as happened in May; or a celebutante sentenced to 45 days in jail is released after less than four, as happened in the Paris Hilton case in June; or auditors reveal that sheriff's executives have been accepting expensive gifts and entertainment from a jail contractor, as happened last week.

These things do start to pile up, though. In addition to the above, Baca has failed to break up a disturbing, gang-like clique of deputies in Lynwood even though the same station was hit with multimillion-dollar lawsuits for similar activity in the 1990s, and his claims of poverty as an excuse for not fixing overcrowding in the jails have worn thin in the face of ever-larger budget allocations from county supervisors. Whether the Sheriff's Department is a rudderless ship or one that's too unwieldy for any captain to steer straight is an open question, but it's hitting too many rocks.

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