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L.A. County court guard with checkered past raises concerns

Daniel Bissman's history of violence and theft could have been enough to disqualify him. One thing potentially in his favor: His mother is the longtime personal secretary for Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

October 12, 2012|By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times

Daniel Bissman was not an ideal candidate to join the ranks of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, even as an unarmed courthouse security guard.

His history of theft and violence could have been enough to disqualify him under the sheriff's hiring guidelines. Same goes for his admitted liaisons with prostitutes.

When he applied for the job, he was still on probation for punching a man unconscious. Then there was his drug use, dishonesty and involvement in what he estimated to be as many as 100 domestic violence incidents, according to confidential sheriff's employment records reviewed by The Times.

One thing potentially in Bissman's favor was a connection to the second-in-command at the Sheriff's Department: His mother is the longtime personal secretary for Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

Despite an extensive background investigation detailing Bissman's misdeeds, he was hired for the $25,944-a-year job in November 2009. After a reporter's inquiry, Bissman, 36, was placed on leave and an internal sheriff's investigation was launched into the circumstances of the hiring, including whether Bissman received special treatment, according to a department spokesman. Records reviewed by The Times do not explain why Bissman was hired or who made the decision. Tanaka, Bissman and Bissman's mother declined to comment.

Experts expressed shock that the Sheriff''s Department would hire someone with Bissman's background. Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore also said that people with histories like Bissman's should not be in law enforcement.

Though several of Bissman's transgressions could have been grounds to reject him, the department's confidential hiring guidelines do not specifically disqualify someone with Bissman's background, even from being hired as an armed and sworn deputy. The sheriff's rules give officials wide discretion in making hiring decisions. Some experts said the sheriff's guidelines allowed for too much leeway, especially when it came to serious misconduct such as lying, stealing and violence.

Maria Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who specializes in police ethics and training, said it was unethical to employ someone with Bissman's background in law enforcement. "It's plain wrong and it sends a very corrupted message," she said.

Pierce Murphy, ombudsman for the Boise police and a national advocate for police oversight, said hiring someone with a background such as Bissman's is a potential public safety threat. Even someone hired into a relatively low-level law enforcement position, he noted, would have access to sensitive locations and information.

According to sheriff's records, the duties for Bissman's position include providing court security, preventing "unauthorized items" from entering the court and detaining "unauthorized persons" in restricted areas.

Whitmore said that since being hired, Bissman has done a good job.

"Obviously there have been some things overlooked, so we want to make sure we don't overlook anything else," Whitmore said. "When you're in law enforcement, you're there to preserve the law, to protect the law, not violate the law."

Though the department's investigation into Bissman's hiring has just begun, Whitmore said there was no immediate evidence of special treatment. Bissman's hiring wasn't the first time that an applicant with ties to a top sheriff's official has been accepted under unlikely circumstances. Last year, The Times reported that a recruit with ties to Sheriff Lee Baca's son was taken on during a hiring freeze for rookie deputies. In that case, the recruit had a stellar background by all accounts.

The Times reviewed the contents of Bissman's background investigation, which included police and court records, and descriptions of the applicant's interviews with investigators. The records show Bissman gave inconsistent and conflicting answers during his application process, which concerned the deputies evaluating him.

"The applicant's honesty and integrity came into question throughout the background interview," one investigator noted.

For example, Bissman gave conflicting statements about his experience with prostitutes. On one occasion during the interview process, records show he failed to disclose having paid for sex. At another point, however, he stated he had paid for prostitutes on two or three occasions. Yet, during a third inquiry, he revealed that he had had sex with three prostitutes in Mexico but someone else paid for them, according to employment documents.

On several instances during the background investigation, he denied ever stealing. Eventually, however, he admitted that as an adult he had stolen baby formula from markets on about eight occasions, one sheriff's investigator noted in Bissman's file.

At another time, Bissman said that he smoked marijuana only once. Later, he acknowledged using the drug six times, according to the records.

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