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Alcohol a growing problem in the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, report says

April 16, 2009|Richard Winton

There has been a dramatic upswing in the number of Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies arrested for alcohol-related offenses in recent years, suggesting a growing drinking problem within the department, a county watchdog agency reported Wednesday.

Last year, 70 sworn and civilian employees of the Sheriff's Department were arrested. The majority of those arrests involved employees driving off-duty while under the influence of alcohol, according to an annual report produced by the county Office of Independent Review. In many cases, drunk deputies were carrying firearms at the time of their arrests.

Michael Gennaco, the head of the office, said alcohol-related arrests have nearly tripled since 2004. Alcohol-related incidents in 2009 are at the same pace as last year, he said.

In one case last year, an off-duty deputy who drank heavily at a New Year's party inadvertently shot his cousin in the lower abdomen while showing off his new holster.

"From one point of view, this incident was a fluke, an accident that could have been much worse if the bullet had struck a vital area," Gennaco wrote in his report. "But the investigation of the incident made it clear that the event would likely not have happened if either the deputy had not been intoxicated or he had not had his firearm on him."

As a result of that incident, Sheriff Lee Baca sought to implement one of the nation's toughest policies barring deputies from carrying firearms while under the influence of alcohol. The unions have opposed the policy, saying that it would endanger deputies. The matter is now with the county's employee relations commission.

Gennaco's report also cited two cases in which deputies drew their guns after coming out of bars. In one case, a deputy followed a bar hostess to her car, flashed his badge, told her he'd "like to molest her" and kissed her on the neck. He displayed his handgun before kissing her again, according to the report. The deputy pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of disturbing the peace and was suspended for 15 days, the report said.

In the other case, an intoxicated deputy got into an argument with bar patrons and waved his handgun to prove he was an officer, the report stated. That deputy received a "significant suspension," according to the report.

Gennaco said the department, which in the past had been reluctant to talk about alcohol abuse with its employees, has recently taken steps to educate them about the problem.

For example, Undersheriff Larry Waldie now e-mails employees, describing the conduct of deputies involved in alcohol-related arrests, Gennaco said. In one e-mail, Waldie revealed that a nine-year veteran was arrested for driving under the influence after being involved in a traffic collision. The deputy went into a "long tirade of verbal abuse and profanity toward police officers," Waldie said. The deputy's companion, who was also a deputy, was arrested for being drunk in public. That deputy was vomiting at the scene and paramedics feared he had alcohol poisoning, according to the report.

In the past, Gennaco said, officers may have overlooked the transgressions of a colleague who drank too much and got into trouble. But today, law enforcement attitudes toward excessive drinking have changed, he said.

"The era of professional courtesy is over. In the old days officers from other departments would stop a drunk deputy's car and as courtesy drive them home. That has gone away, and I am not sure all deputies understand that," he said. "In a lot of cases the stopping officer now reports the deputy is angry they are not being given special treatment."

Baca acknowledged Wednesday that the number of alcohol-related arrests indicated that some deputies have a drinking problem.

"This is a personal failure that has public consequences," Baca said. "I don't know how they can look anyone from Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the face."

Gennaco's report praised the department for improving its policies on the use of stun guns and on removing an unruly inmate from a jail cell. The reforms followed a February 2007 incident in which a deputy stunned an inmate who was standing on top of a bunk bed in his cell. The inmate fell to the floor and was left paralyzed from the chest down.

Gennaco's report, however, expressed concern that deputies in field assignments were being transferred to work in the jails as a punishment for misconduct.

--

richard.winton@latimes.com

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