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Taking over a police department is no easy task

As L.A. County sheriff's deputies sort through cases left behind by the disbanded Maywood police force, some confusion and investigative gaps inevitably arise. The scenario is growing more common.

August 01, 2010|By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times

When Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies moved into Maywood a month ago to fill in for the city's disbanded police force, they were shocked to find 80 reports of suspected child abuse that had seemingly gone uninvestigated by the local police agency.

"We thought 'Oh, my goodness,' " said Capt. Henry Romero of the sheriff's East Los Angeles station.

But after Romero directed deputies to the sites of the alleged abuses, officials were relieved to learn that the cases had been looked at — they just hadn't been cleared and filed away in the rush before Maywood abruptly closed its police force.

The initial confusion, Romero said, speaks to the challenges of suddenly and unexpectedly assuming law enforcement responsibilities and taking over unfinished police work. It's a scenario that has become increasingly apparent on the sprawling department's radar as municipalities across the county consider outsourcing public safety.

Amid fiscal problems, Pomona, Sierra Madre and other L.A. County cities are talking about following Maywood's lead and dropping local policing in favor of sheriff's patrols. Cudahy, which was patrolled by Maywood police, is now also relying on the Sheriff's Department.

The Sheriff's Department already patrols numerous cities as well as unincorporated communities.

Maywood decided in June to disband its police department after learning that the city was losing its insurance. Its provider found the city too risky, mainly because of the high number of claims filed against the police force. The move came as Maywood moved to outsource other municipal operations to the city of Bell, which is now embroiled in a controversy over high compensation to top city officials.

Some Maywood residents complained about losing local police, questioning whether the Sheriff's Department could provide the same level of service and whether deputies would understand their small city.

The Sheriff's Department was taking over an agency that a Times investigation found to be "a haven for unfit cops." The California attorney general's office last year concluded a 16-month probe that found evidence of "gross misconduct and widespread abuse" in the Maywood department.

So far, Romero said, East Los Angeles deputies have not discovered any glaring issues left behind by the Maywood force. Their main challenge, he said, is the clerical backlog.

Still, East L.A. deputies were troubled to find that many cases Maywood police took on in their final two weeks appeared to have gone uninvestigated. Romero said it seems that Maywood cops were taking crime reports but in many cases not following up.

"Cases being investigated were being put on the back burner," he said. "They dropped the ball towards the end."

Failing to investigate complaints was one of the attorney general's primary criticisms against the old force. The department was also found to have used excessive force, made arrests without probable cause and showed racial insensitivity toward the area's predominantly minority population.

Romero blamed the backlog on understaffing at the now-disbanded 60-member force, saying the agency was several months behind in imputing reports. Centralizing crime data helps law enforcement officials notice trends across wider areas and provides a larger pool for leads on fresh investigations.

Eight deputies have been transferred to the East L.A. sheriff's station, and Romero said more help is on the way, mainly from deputies now on jail rotations. The goal is to eventually add 31 bodies to the East L.A. station.

No hires from the old Maywood force are planned, but its station will be transformed into a satellite office for the sheriff's station.

For now, the deputies are sorting old cases.

"We get calls asking 'What's going on with my case?' " Romero said. "And we have to backtrack and pick up cases that are open … and really haven't been worked."

Of the 250 cases reviewed so far from Maywood and Cudahy, 110 have been closed for lack of workable leads. When deputies have solid evidence to run with — like a serial number on a stolen gun or a suspect description in an assault — they're more likely to investigate. More minor and hard-to-trace cases, like a stolen bike, are being closed.

It will take time to see how Maywood residents respond to the sheriff's patrols. After Compton disbanded its police department, the Sheriff's Department won praise for bringing in more officers to quell a spike in homicides. Even so, Compton is now considering bringing back its police department.

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