Officer's Firing Casts a Harsh Spotlight on Torrance Police Force

Times Staff Writer

A ranking officer this week portrayed the Torrance Police Department as a special fraternity bound together by trust, supported by its community and sensitive to the way policemen conduct themselves.

But a lawyer appealing the firing of a policeman described a very different Torrance Police Department--one where the rank-and-file spread corrosive rumors, the brass foster tough-guy macho posturing and discipline is not enforced evenhandedly.

These conflicting views are being presented before the Torrance Civil Service Commission in an extended hearing on the firing of Officer John Maley, 28, who is accused of pulling a knife on a fellow officer during a midnight dispute in the police station parking lot Dec. 6.

Maley had been involved three months earlier in the controversial killing of Bryant John Leadbeater at Del Amo Fashion Center. Leadbeater, 32, of Redondo Beach, who was suspected of theft, lunged at Maley with a 10-inch boning knife and was shot 24 times by Maley and two other officers.

Maley's actions in those incidents and during the rest of his police career are receiving scrutiny as the city seeks to portray him as an officer subject to uncontrollable outbursts of abusive behavior who broke all acceptable bounds in the knife-pulling incident Dec. 6.

Dirty Laundry

But the Police Department, which has 234 sworn officers and 75 civilians, is under an uncomfortable spotlight as well.

Maley's attorney, Richard Shinee, began airing departmental dirty laundry Tuesday in an attempt to show that other Torrance police officers involved in abusive behavior had not been punished as severely.

Shinee cited an incident that happened June 28, 1984.

An off-duty Torrance policeman who had been drinking reacted sharply when a recent West Point graduate accidentally bumped into the policeman's brand new Corvette in the parking lot of a bar.

"He jumped out and punched him one punch and that was it," testified Capt. Mel W. Hone. The Army man lost some teeth and required eight stitches, according to Shinee, who read from a censored police report with the names removed.

Other Officers Disciplined

Torrance policemen who responded to the scene were subsequently disciplined for initially failing to write a report, Hone said.

The policeman received a written reprimand after a complaint of battery was reduced to disturbing the peace and the officer paid $300 in medical bills.

Explaining why the penalty was not more severe, Hone said: "It was not a brawl and he had been drinking."

In February, 1980, another off-duty Torrance policeman who had been drinking got into a fistfight with Hermosa Beach police in a bar incident that Shinee cited from police reports. The officer, whose name also was not disclosed, received a three-day suspension.

"He was going to help his buddy who was being ejected by the Hermosa Beach police," Hone said.

Damaging Morale

Departmental conduct during the hearing entered the debate Tuesday when Shinee accused Sgt. Michael Dersham, the internal affairs investigator who put together the department's case against Maley, of badgering the officer's witnesses outside the hearing room this week. Dersham denied it.

Hone, who testified this week about his recommendation that Maley be fired, acknowledged later that the hearing was damaging morale.

"Any time you have officers testifying against each other, it is divisive," he said.

The Maley case has had policy repercussions as well.

In the wake of the mall shooting, the Police Department dropped a policy of voluntary counseling for officers involved in fatal shootings and began insisting that they see a psychologist.

They 'Work It Out'

Maley declined counseling after the shooting. In what Shinee termed a "macho" mentality, the lawyer said a superior told Maley that "good" officers don't need counseling, they "work it out for themselves."

Much of the testimony this week focused on Maley's personality.

Hone testified that Maley showed a pattern of abusive conduct, citing a string of incidents that began when the officer was training at the Sheriff's Academy.

Hone did not elaborate on the incidents at the academy. But he testified that later, on Jan. 10, 1983, the off-duty Maley got into an argument at an unspecified location and challenged someone to "go outside," according to a reprimand written by Chief of Police Donald Nash on Feb. 18, 1983.

"Overall," the reprimand said, "the entire event smacks of arrogance and antagonistic behavior on your part, which is regarded as unacceptable."

Verbal Abuse Accusation

Four days later, Maley was again in trouble.

The department notified him of a disciplinary hearing, accusing him of directing verbal abuse to a suspect who had been "detained and handcuffed without cause." Maley was suspended without pay for 10 days for insubordination and for five days for conduct unbecoming an officer.

The 15-day suspension was the maximum the chief could impose without approval from the city manager. It occurred as Maley was coming off his 18 months of probation as a new officer.

"It was an agonizing decision not to terminate him," Hone testified. The captain testified later that he could not recall any other Torrance police officer receiving a 15-day suspension while on probationary status.

Maley was admonished for showing bad judgment in September, 1983, when he failed to arrange immediate medical care for three injured suspects he had arrested.

'Arrogant,' Then Patient

A police evaluation for February through July, 1984, said Maley "can be very short and abrupt with people, imply an arrogant and hostile attitude. He can then show patience and concern with the very next contact, with the arrogance just barely suppressed. His peers and supervisors are expressing concerns about this." The evaluation rated Maley an average police officer.

On Monday, the commission heard testimony from Officers Manuel Lopez and Edward LaLonde, who were partners the night that Maley displayed a knife during a dispute with LaLonde.

LaLonde denied saying during the argument that he told Maley he could have disarmed the man in the mall shooting with a police baton, commonly known as a nightstick. Lopez corroborated LaLonde's testimony. Officer Chester Pitts, another witness for the city, had testified earlier that LaLonde, a departmental instructor in the use of the baton, had made the comment.

LaLonde also rejected suggestions by Shinee that he had spread rumors about Maley.

In LaLonde's account of the argument, Maley drew his knife, dropped into a crouch, took several steps forward and shouted, "If you're so good with that baton, come on."

Hone, head of the administrative bureau, dwelt on the knife display when testifying about his recommendation for termination:

'Absolute Support' Crucial

"This case goes right to the core of what police service should be about. As a police fraternity, we rely on the absolute support and trust of your fellow officers.

"When an officer conducts himself as Maley did, allowing his self-control to be lost completely, pulling a knife and aggressively going forward to attack an officer, this goes beyond the imagination of any police officer in the department. . . . There is no way this officer can continue to function in the Torrance Police Department.

" . . . An officer engaging in knife fights in the police parking lot is inconceivable and does much to destroy the esteem in which citizens have held the department."

Under cross-examination, Hone dismissed as "ludicrous" Shinee's suggestion that any superior would have told Maley not to seek counseling after the mall shooting.

However, he conceded that such a statement could have influenced the officer not to see a psychologist. Hone also conceded that the parking lot argument could be mitigated somewhat if Maley could show he had been the object of a rumor campaign criticizing him for the mall shooting. But the department found no evidence that there was such a campaign.

Hone said he had read Maley's statement carefully when making his recommendation to fire him and found that Maley's claim that the knife incident was a training exercise "without any merit."

The next session of the hearing is set for 6:30 p.m. Monday in City Council chambers. Witnesses for Maley have not yet testified.

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