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California attorney general seeks reform of Maywood police

April 29, 2009|Scott Glover and James Wagner

After a 16-month investigation that revealed "gross misconduct and widespread abuse" by the Maywood Police Department, California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown announced Tuesday that he would seek a court order to impose reforms on the troubled force.

His comments coincided with the release of a 30-page report that detailed the findings of the investigation into the tiny department, which polices the densely populated cities of Maywood and Cudahy southeast of downtown Los Angeles.

"The badge and the gun -- they're power. And that power has to be exercised with restraint under the law," Brown told reporters at a morning news conference. "In Maywood, this wasn't the case."

A veteran policing expert who oversaw the attorney general's probe called Maywood "one of the worst" departments he had ever seen.

The attorney general's office launched its investigation in April 2007, shortly after The Times published an article calling the department "a haven for misfit cops." The article revealed that at least a third of the officers on what was then a 37-member force had either been forced out of previous police jobs or had had brushes with the law while working in Maywood.

The attorney general's report offered a top-to-bottom critique of the department, citing inadequate screening of officers before they were hired and a lack of proper training and supervision once they were on the job.

The culture of the department, the report found, was "permeated with sexual innuendo, harassment, vulgarity, discourtesy to members of the public as well as among officers, and a lack of cultural, racial and ethnic sensitivity and respect."

The report's authors faulted the Maywood City Council for failing to hold the Police Department accountable.

At what appeared to be a hastily arranged news conference Tuesday afternoon, the police chief and several City Council members said they had already begun to overhaul the department.

"My belief is that the things in that report are things of the past," said Chief Frank Hauptmann, who was appointed to the job in December.

The attorney general's report acknowledged some recent improvements, but said that the current reform effort was "in its infancy" and that "the underlying structural and cultural causes of many of the deficiencies . . . have not been remedied."

If Brown convinces a judge to grant the reform order, it would be the only one in effect in California, said Scott Gerber, a spokesman for the attorney general.

Gerber said he was aware of only one instance in which a similar order had been granted, that one imposing reforms on the Riverside Police Department from 2001 through 2006.

In Maywood, investigators examined the department's operations between January 2002 and April 2007, reviewing more than 30,000 pages of documents and conducting scores of interviews, officials said.

The probe found that officers routinely used excessive force, made arrests without probable cause and failed to investigate citizen complaints.

The report detailed eight instances of alleged excessive force, half of them involving allegedly inappropriate use of a Taser stun gun. In one case in 2006, a young man asked an officer for his badge number after witnessing what he thought was excessive force. As he wrote it down, he was beaten by a group of officers, then handcuffed and shocked with a Taser, the report states. When the young man's father yelled, "What are you doing to my son?" he was assaulted by several officers, the document states.

State investigators also criticized the Police Department's "aggressive policy of stopping and citing drivers and impounding their vehicles," concluding that Maywood's actions violated state and federal laws.

Brown called for a host of reforms, including more stringent hiring practices, improved training, the implementation of an early warning system to track problem officers and the hiring of an outside expert to evaluate the department's command structure.

"I'm dead serious about this," the attorney general said. "When you have rogue cops, it's just intolerable in a free society."

Brown said the challenge will be to heighten scrutiny of officers to ensure that they operate within the law and to also "make sure we back them up" in their fight against crime.

Two Maywood officers have been charged with crimes in recent years.

Former Officer Michael Singleton was convicted last year of slamming a handcuffed arrestee's head into a wall and then covering it up. Former Officer Ryan West is awaiting trial on charges that he sexually assaulted three women while on duty.

A district attorney's source said other officers remain under investigation. The source, who was not authorized to speak publicly about an ongoing investigation and requested anonymity, added that prosecutors were unaware of several potentially criminal acts by officers referred to in the attorney general's report.

"We knew nothing about some of those things," the source said.

Brown and other officials said their efforts in Maywood were hampered by a police "code of silence" in which officers refused to speak candidly about the misdeeds of their colleagues.

Brown's report noted that there were more than a dozen civil lawsuits pending against the department as of two years ago alleging false arrest, excessive force and sexual assault.

"They're going to spend a huge amount of money cleaning up the mess their negligence has created," he said.

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scott.glover@latimes.com

james.wagner@latimes.com

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