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Maywood employs police officers with a history of trouble

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

THE Maywood Police Department -- a 37-man force that patrols a gritty square-mile city south of downtown Los Angeles -- has become a haven for misfit cops who have been pushed out of other law enforcement agencies for crimes or serious misconduct.

Among those on the job: A former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy terminated for abusing jail inmates; a onetime Los Angeles Police Department officer fired for intimidating a witness; and an ex-Huntington Park officer charged with negligently shooting a handgun and driving drunk.

Other officers were hired by Maywood after flunking out of training programs elsewhere, a Times investigation has found.

In all, at least a third of the officers on the force have either left other police jobs under a cloud or have had brushes with the law while working for Maywood. Several officers in recent years have left Maywood after being convicted of crimes.

Even the newly appointed police chief has a checkered past: He was convicted of beating his girlfriend and resigned from the El Monte Police Department before he could be fired. His conviction was later overturned on appeal because the defense was not allowed to exclude a juror who had previously worked with domestic violence victims. He was ultimately convicted of a lesser charge of making a verbal threat.

Known among law enforcement circles as a department of "second chances," Maywood's police department is one of nearly 50 independent police agencies in Los Angeles County. The department, whose officers are mainly white and Latino, serves a densely populated city of roughly 30,000 that is 96% Latino. There are no women or African Americans on the force, which also patrols the nearby town of Cudahy.

"Are there things that are bad in our department? I would venture to say that there are," said Maywood City Councilman Samuel Pena. "But I think you would find bad things in other departments if you looked closely at them.... There are bad apples in every department."

Although Maywood's police department has rarely been in the news, in part because it is dwarfed by the nearby LAPD and county sheriff's department, allegations of corruption and brutality have thrust it and city officials into the spotlight in recent months.

The brewing scandal has included accusations that police and city leaders were on the take from the owner of a local tow company; that a longtime officer was extorting sex from relatives of a criminal fugitive; that a police officer tried to run over the president of the Maywood Police Commission in the parking lot of City Hall; that an officer impregnated a teenage police explorer; and that officers had covered up the truth surrounding a fatal police shooting that resulted in a $2.3-million legal settlement.

The Los Angeles County district attorney, the California attorney general and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have active probes into the Maywood department.

Amid the chaos, Bruce Leflar, still listed on the department's website as chief, abruptly stopped showing up for work last fall.

And the officer whom he'd appointed to clean up the department, Al Hutchings, agreed to resign his post after being told a videotape had been made of him allegedly having an on-duty liaison with the female owner of a local doughnut store.

Hutchings, who has been a vocal critic of the Maywood police and casts himself as a whistle blower, said the allegation that he was involved in an improper relationship was fabricated "to blackmail me into stopping the work that I was doing."

As is the case with many of his fellow officers, it was not the first time Hutchings had been accused of misconduct. As an LAPD officer he was convicted of bilking the department for bogus overtime pay.

In an interview, Hutchings said he disclosed the conviction on his application to the Maywood department. Though he contends that a supervisor had approved all of the overtime he worked, he said he entered the plea so as to quickly dispose of the case, which he alleges was filed in retaliation for his having reported misconduct by a high-ranking LAPD official.

In addition to hiring officers shunned by other agencies, Maywood has been slow to adopt policing practices in place at bigger departments, which are aimed at ensuring professional conduct and increasing public trust. For example, Maywood officers accept free meals from local restaurants, a perk that even the past chief acknowledged partaking in.

And supervisors at the department don't always see the need for documenting citizens' complaints, a practice mandated at other agencies. In a recent deposition, the lieutenant in charge of internal affairs said complaints were often "resolved casually" in the lobby of the police station.

Officers are also permitted to carry a leather-encased, lead-filled hand weapon, known as a sap, which many agencies have outlawed because of the brutal injuries they can inflict.

"Everything that could go wrong seems to have gone wrong at Maywood," said lawyer Merrick Bobb, a law enforcement expert who has consulted with the U.S. Department of Justice on policing practices. "This department needs to be put into receivership."

Bobb, who also is special counsel to the Board of Supervisors on matters about the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said he was particularly concerned that officers expelled from other agencies could find employment at Maywood without any public accountability.

"The phenomenon of misfit cops going from agency to agency is a terribly serious one," Bobb said. "It makes for one of the strongest arguments for public access to discipline records of police misconduct."

A state Supreme Court ruling last summer has had the effect of greatly restricting public access to police discipline records. The state's Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training compiles information about terminated officers from departments throughout California but refuses to publicly disclose the data.

But a Times review of court and police records suggests that, compared with other agencies, Maywood officials are far less discriminating in whom they employ.

Maywood Officer Brent Talmo was hired in 1998 after being terminated from the county sheriff's department in 1986 for displaying a pattern of "bizarre behavior and unprofessional conduct," records show:

Talmo poured dirt into the gas tank of a county vehicle; placed a dead gopher in a prisoner's pocket as an apparent prank, then lied about it and tried to get another deputy to lie on his behalf; tipped over the bed of a sleeping prisoner, causing him to fall face first onto the floor and bloodying his nose; and telephoned a fellow jail guard and referred to him as a snitch and used a racial slur.

When Talmo was fired, then-Sheriff Sherman Block publicly singled him out as "the primary culprit" in a campaign of harassment aimed at prisoners.

Talmo, still an officer on the Maywood force, did not respond to requests for comment.

Frank Garcia is another officer given a second chance by Maywood police.

In March of 2003, Garcia was charged with drunk driving and the felony offense of discharging a firearm in a grossly negligent manner. As a result, he was required to resign from his job as an officer with the police department in nearby Huntington Park.

He later entered into a plea bargain in which he agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of firing a gun from a public roadway. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail and three years' probation.

According to court papers, disclosing the conviction on job applications made it difficult for Garcia to find work -- until he applied with Maywood. He was hired there just one year after committing the offense.

Garcia's lawyer called the crime a "boneheaded mistake" that his client deeply regrets.

Other recent Maywood hires include: an officer who was rejected by 25 other police departments because he admitted on his applications that he pilfered money from a previous employer; an ex-LAPD officer who was hired even though he was under criminal investigation for -- and later convicted of -- beating a gang member as part of the notorious corruption scandal centered in the Rampart Division; and an officer who has a juvenile record for malicious mischief, vehicle tampering and carrying a concealed weapon.

Richard Lyons, the acting police chief with his own criminal past, said there is nothing wrong with giving somebody a fresh start.

"It's OK to give a person a second chance if you learn from your mistake," said Lyons, who recently was catapulted from the rank of officer to chief.

Nonetheless, Lyons said he was not pleased with the background checks that were done on some of the current officers on the force. As a result, he said, he wants to bring in outside consultants to help vet future candidates.

"A couple of people have slipped through the cracks that shouldn't have slipped through the cracks," he said.

Maywood's starting pay of $52,600 is among the lowest for police officers in Southern California, city officials said. That might explain why better qualified candidates apply elsewhere. It also might be the reason the turnover rate is extremely high. Most of the officers there have been hired since 2000, records show. Although many officers have left for other agencies, some have been forced to leave after breaking the law.

Officer Sergio Fernandez, for example, resigned after a federal grand jury indicted him for participating in a sophisticated real estate scheme that bilked $3.5 million from a federal home loan program.

He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to serve a year in federal prison and pay about $250,000 in restitution.

Two months ago, Officer Timothy O'Keefe was forced to leave the department after an off-duty shooting at an Orange County bar. He was convicted of negligently discharging his weapon.

Maywood City Atty. Francisco Leal said the department needs to reorganize and embrace reforms to bring the agency in line with modern policing practices.

"There's definitely a problem with the police department," he said. "There's no getting away from that."



Times staff writer Hector Becerra contributed to this report.

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