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Bell police memo outlines 'baseball game' targeting drivers

The memo calls parking tickets 'singles,' impounds 'doubles' and felony arrests 'home runs.' It's not clear if administrators condoned the memo.

February 28, 2011|By Ruben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb, Los Angeles Times

A memo discovered in files of the Bell Police Department appears to outline a game in which police officers would compete to issue tickets, impound cars and arrest motorists.

Titled the "Bell Police Department Baseball Game," the memo assigns "singles," "doubles," "triples" and "home runs" to progressively more serious infractions, starting with parking tickets and moving up to impounded vehicles and felony arrests. "Non performers," the memo said, would be "sent for minor league rehab stint."

DOCUMENTS: Read the memo and other reports

The discovery of the memo comes as the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether Bell police violated the civil rights of residents through improper towing of cars and code enforcement activities. Part of the investigation focuses on claims by some police officers that the department had quotas for issuing tickets and impounding cars. The officers say the enforcement actions were aimed at raising revenue for the city. Some officers have said they were reprimanded when they did not meet their goals.

The one-page document, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, is the first to provide written evidence of a concerted effort to have officers pull over more cars, although it's unclear who wrote the memo or whether department officials had condoned it.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office said prosecutors received the document last week and have launched an investigation. Prosecutors already have charged eight current and former Bell officials with public corruption, including former City Administrator Robert Rizzo, who earned more than $800,000 a year.

The memo and the alleged game could also play a role in the continuing debate over the future of Bell's Police Department. The city faces a daunting budget problem, and some officials have suggested closing the department and contracting with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to save money. The police, however, are major backers of some candidates running for the Bell City Council in next week's election.

Two Bell police officials said they were familiar with the memo, which they said had circulated a few years ago. Capt. Anthony Miranda said he thought a few patrolmen wrote the memo "to challenge themselves" and that when department leaders found out about it, they "squashed it."

"I think guys created it on their own, and when the administration heard about it they put a stop to it," said Lt. Ty Henshaw. Department leaders' response, he said, was: "It's cool and fun, and we appreciate the motivation, but it's not going to look good."

Whether or not the game was officially condoned, however, its rules appear to reflect the actions of Bell's police as described by some officers and by residents who claim to have been targeted in enforcement actions.

After the Bell salary scandal broke last summer, residents complained that police had improperly towed cars, fined drivers and charged exorbitant impound fees in an effort to boost city revenues. One of the most persistent complaints is that police aggressively targeted illegal immigrants, who can't get driver's licenses in California. About 50% of Bell's population is made up of immigrants.

Bell's budget shows that over the years the city has generated increased revenue from fees and taxes. City records show Bell levied nearly $1 million in impound fees in fiscal year 2008-09 alone. Bell charged $300 for unlicensed motorists to retrieve their cars, triple what Los Angeles County and neighboring cities charge.

Bell police officers said in interviews this summer that they often spent their shifts pulling over drivers for small infractions in the hope that they would be unlicensed. Although officers didn't look exclusively for illegal immigrants, it was clear that the majority turned out to be, Officer Kurt Owens said in August.

He said he would look for run-down cars with broken lights, tinted windows and loud music, which tended to be driven by people in their 20s and 30s.

On Monday, Owens said he had never seen the memo. "It sounds like a joke, there's a lot of jokes going around there," he said.

Several officers also have said top brass gave them what amounted to a daily quota of cars to tow, with some saying that their jobs were at risk if they didn't meet the goal. Miranda has said that in 2009, officers were given a daily goal of two towed cars, three moving-violation tickets and one arrest. He said the goal was to make the city an undesirable place for gang members by cracking down on traffic enforcement.

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