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Police agency may face charges over lead found at school

The L.A. County District Attorney is considering charges against Redondo Beach Police, whose shooting range is across the street from the campus. Officials say they've stopped using lead bullets.

April 14, 2009|Jeff Gottlieb

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office is considering whether to file criminal charges against the Redondo Beach Police Department after hundreds of potentially hazardous lead bullet fragments from its firing range were found at a nearby elementary school and in the surrounding neighborhood.

Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the district attorney, said Monday that prosecutors were "looking at specific criminal violations" and were continuing to review the material. They could also file civil charges against the police department.

According to documents from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which turned over the results of its investigation to prosecutors, the lead fragments appear to have come from the police department's outdoor shooting range. During training, lead bullets hit metal targets, broke into fragments and ricocheted into the Torrance neighborhood that grew around the shooting range, which was built more than 60 years ago.

After toxic control found "elevated lead levels" in the sandbox at Towers Elementary School, across Beryl Street from the shooting range, the school replaced the sand, finishing the job a day before school opened in September.

Besides cleaning the sandbox, the field was vacuumed and the rooftops and rain gutters were cleaned.

According to a letter from toxic control to Redondo Beach City Manager Bill Workman and Police Chief W. Joseph Leonardi, this "emergency removal action was warranted at the school to prevent possible ingestion by children of the small metal fragments containing heavy metals . . . which would cause acute poisoning and serious health effects."

The letter also says "additional site assessment and possible cleanup" are needed for nearby Dominguez Park and homes near the elementary school.

Dwight Hoenig, the city's environmental consultant, said no further cleanup was done because he found lead fragments only on the pavement and roofs of buildings, not on the playground.

City Atty. Michael Webb said the shooting range had been cleaned up and officers have stopped using lead bullets when training there.

He said toxic control had issued the city a notice of violation and the agency had canceled a March 25 meeting to discuss it.

"We think there's no basis for filing criminal charges, and we'll deal with it if and when it occurs," he said.

Jeanne M. Garcia, spokeswoman for toxic control, said that in her nine years at the department, no police agency had been charged criminally or civilly as a result of a department investigation.

Leonardi and Mayor Mike Ginn referred questions to the city attorney. Months ago, the city hired Carmen "Nuch" Trutanich, who is running for Los Angeles city attorney, to help with the case.

Toxic control found 330 metal fragments at the elementary school, including on the cafeteria roof, seven in a sandbox at the park and others on the roofs and lawns of homes, according to the letter to Redondo Beach officials.

Webb disputed the state's contention about the lead's origin. "I think evidence as part of our investigation is that there are neighbors who are spreading the lead," he said. "Certainly we think people for their own political agenda, to get the range closed down, were salting the mine, so to speak."

A group of about six people called Concerned Residents Against Pistol Range Redondo have complained for several years about noise from the firing range.

Two residents, who at the time were not connected to the group, brought up the issue of lead contamination at a Torrance City Council meeting last year. One of them even gave the mayor a bag of lead fragments that he had collected, but their concerns were brushed off, said Harry Stuver, founder of the group.

"It was one thing for us to put up with the noise, but to find out about the lead is like putting salt in the wound," he said.

Toxic control said its investigation began after it received complaints from people living near the range and the school.

A toxic control report said that when two officials visited the range for the first time in April 2008, they found bullet fragments at the school, at two parks, on sidewalks on both sides of Beryl Street and at homes 150 yards away.

The police department closed the range at that time and reopened it about three months later.

Meanwhile, the school's then-principal sent a letter to parents reassuring them. "Neither Towers staff nor myself have ever seen anything on our campus to indicate that unsafe material was making its way to our site," Joyce M. Hallgren wrote.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead poisoning can affect almost every part of the body and initially show no symptoms. It can cause learning disabilities in children, behavioral problems and, at high levels, seizures, coma and death.

The school opened in 1953, raising the question whether any of the thousands of students who attended school there or people who lived nearby were affected by the lead and possibly opening the police department and school district to lawsuits.

"I don't think there's any rational basis for a claim," Webb said, "but you never know, particularly in difficult economic times, what people are going to pursue."

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jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

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