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Sheriff's Department admits wrongly hiring about 80 problem officers

Law EnforcementCrime, Law and JusticeLee BacaFBILos Angeles Police Department

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officials in 2010 hired about 80 people they shouldn't have because of serious problems in their backgrounds, a department official acknowledged Tuesday.

Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers said he was troubled by the department’s preliminary findings and plans on “making some swift changes.”

The reforms were prompted by a Times investigation earlier this month that found the agency hired dozens of officers from a disbanded county police force even though sheriff’s investigators had found significant misconduct in their backgrounds. Internal agency files showed that jobs were given to officers who accidentally fired their weapons, had sex at work, committed theft, solicited prostitutes or falsified records.

INTERACTIVE: A look inside the hiring files

The department is now evaluating what to do with the problem hires. 

Rogers said sheriff’s officials are considering terminating some but likely won’t be able to legally fire employees for misconduct that sheriff’s officials knew about when they hired them. What’s more realistic, he said, is moving the problem hires to less sensitive positions, giving them more training and putting them on administrative monitoring to limit future misconduct.

Rogers said that the identification of 80 officers who shouldn’t have been hired – a number that is still preliminary – was determined by comparing their background files to the department’s hiring standards. Some, he said, should have been disqualified automatically and others had problems that were less “black and white.” He said he is legally restricted from providing the names and detailed histories of the 80 officers but said the problems included significant criminal convictions, on-duty misconduct, poor job performance and financial problems.

IN-DEPTH: Behind the badge

Rogers said the fact that the department hired problem officers is so troubling because "almost everything we do is predicated on public trust."

"People have to trust that we’re hiring the best and brightest … because of the awesome authority and responsibility our deputies have," he said.

The records reviewed by The Times showed that for nearly 100 of the roughly 280 hires, investigators discovered evidence of dishonesty, such as making untrue statements or falsifying police records. At least 15 were caught cheating on the department's own polygraph exams.

The officers all once worked at the county’s smaller police force, the Office of Public Safety. To save money, the county disbanded that agency about four years ago and its responsibilities -- patrolling county buildings, parks and hospitals -- were handed over to the Sheriff's Department.

Sheriff’s officials were not required to hire any of the former county officers, officials said, but gave them the first shot at applying for the new sheriff’s jobs. The department hired about 280. The majority were taken on as sworn deputies, while others were hired as custody assistants in the department's troubled jail system, security guards or for other lower-level positions.

One applicant had been fired from another agency amid allegations he abused inmates but was hired by Baca's agency to work the jails. Another was forced out of the Los Angeles Police Department after lying to a supervisor. A third admitted to using her service weapon to shoot at her husband while he ran away from her.

After the Times report, the county Board of Supervisors demanded that Sheriff Lee Baca report back about the mass hiring. In a letter he sent to the board, Baca responded and acknowledged that the hiring standards were violated. He said that he had delegated the authority for making the hiring decisions to his undersheriff at the time, Larry Waldie.

“My direction was unequivocal that we were to only hire qualified candidates,” Baca says in the letter. 

A sheriff’s audit found that the former undersheriff was responsible for hiring “several” officers who did not meet sheriff’s standards, but no administrative action can be taken against him since he is now retired, according to the letter.

Waldie has told The Times that he was under pressure from county officials to hire as many former county police officers as possible.

Baca’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said the sheriff “understood there are significant issues here.”

“This is how he’s responding,” Whitmore said. “He’s fixing it.”

The department is still reviewing the mass hiring but is already planning to implement reforms.

Rogers, who oversees the personnel division, said the problem appears to be Waldie’s decision-making and that the department’s investigators did their job by completing thorough background checks.

Still, Rogers said he’s met with every background investigator, as well as the investigators' supervisors,  to clarify the department's position on hiring.

“I expect them to only hire people who meet our hiring standards, period,” he said.  “We’re only going to hire the best. There’s no equivocation.”

The department is also changing the way it hires, Rogers said. Currently, the decision is made by a supervisor within the personnel division and formally finalized by an assistant sheriff. The department now plans to create a panel of lieutenants and one civilian employee to make hiring decisions, with wobblers sent to a panel of commanders.

“I believe we need to confront this head-on,” Rogers said. “That’s what we’re doing.”

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Twitter: @robertfaturechi | @bposton

robert.faturechi@latimes.com

ben.poston@latimes.com

 

 

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