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MTA security guards accused of roughing up commuters

Sheriff's Department investigates 11 cases of abuse in two years. The guards are not authorized to act as law enforcement officers.

May 18, 2009|Richard Winton

Los Angeles commuters have been improperly detained, pushed, choked and struck by Metropolitan Transportation Authority security guards, according to interviews and internal law enforcement memos obtained by The Times.

Alleged assaults over the last two years have prompted at least 11 investigations by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, which has repeatedly complained to MTA officials about abusive security officers, as the guards are called within the MTA.

Three incidents were captured on surveillance cameras at subway and light-rail stations.

Although the 97 MTA security guards carry guns, batons and pepper spray, they are not legally authorized to act as law enforcement officers. Their main responsibilities are protecting MTA property, guarding revenues and closing subway stations when daily service ends.

"They are not meant to be acting as police officers," said Sheriff's Cmdr. Dan Finkelstein, who oversees the department's transit bureau, which has a contract with the MTA to police local rails and buses. " 'Observe and report' here has become 'observe and take action.' "

MTA security officers operate separately from the Sheriff's Department. The security officers used to report to a Sheriff's Department supervisor, but that was changed two years ago and guards now report directly to the MTA.

An MTA consultant, retired Sheriff's Department commander Charles "Sid" Heal, recently found that the relationship between sheriff's deputies and security officers was strained, in part because their roles were not clearly delineated.

In a report to the MTA board, the consultant said security officers sometimes engaged in police activities even though they lack the legal authority and liability protections that sworn law enforcement officers have.

A new contract between MTA and the Sheriff's Department is under negotiation, and it is expected to return security officers to Sheriff's Department supervision, said MTA spokesman Marc Littman.

"That should provide better communications, integration and oversight," Littman said in an e-mail to The Times.

Sheriff's officials have written letters to MTA officials over the last year alerting them to improper conduct by their security officers.

In one such letter, a Sheriff's Department captain complained that MTA Officer Miguel De La Cruz had attacked a "near comatose and intoxicated" man without provocation at a downtown subway station. The Sheriff's Department sent its findings to prosecutors, who filed criminal charges against De La Cruz. Last month, a jury convicted him of battery, false imprisonment and filing a false report. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail and was fired by the MTA.

Art Leahy, newly appointed chief executive of the MTA, said in an interview with The Times that he only recently learned of allegations of misconduct by security officers and that he is adopting a zero tolerance approach to verbal or physical abuse.

"We are not going to tolerate any employee abusing a passenger or a member of the public," Leahy said.

Leahy said he is asking Mike Gennaco, head of the Office of Independent Review, the county's civilian watchdog of the Sheriff's Department, to immediately advise him of ways to overhaul policies and procedures.

Under the California Public Records Act, The Times requested copies of letters between the Sheriff's Department and MTA.

The Times also obtained confidential memos on some of the incidents. Among the cases:

* A security officer used his baton on an incoherent man in an elevator who was in diabetic shock. The man suffered two broken fingers and numerous bruises on his arms. The officer said the man grabbed his shirt with both hands, so he struck him once with a baton. A Sheriff's Department investigation found that the injuries were "indicative of being struck several times" and that the officer used "potentially excessive" force, then failed to render medical aid. The officer was the subject of three other excessive force complaints and has recently been removed from field duties to be retrained, an MTA official said.

* A security officer was captured on closed-circuit TV cameras pushing a transient against a ticket vending machine. As a result, the person fell to the ground, cut his head and lost consciousness.

* A security officer said he used pepper spray on a drunk man who was belligerent during a train sweep at Union Station. Footage from a surveillance camera, however, showed the officer pushing the man out of a train onto the platform floor. When the man stood up, the security officer hit him across the chest and legs with a baton and then pepper-sprayed him in the face.

It was a video camera at the Metro's 7th Street Station that convinced a jury that De La Cruz battered Carl Gutierrez and filed a false police report accusing the young man of assaulting him.

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