City Councilmen say it wasn't a single incident that led them to fire Police Chief Geano Contessotto but rather a series of events that divided and embarrassed the small police department.
"The animosities and bickering in the Police Department, and the negative image brought to the community at large, had reached such gigantic proportions," Mayor Thomas E. Jackson said Tuesday morning, that "the council felt that only replacement of the department head could return the city to its prior stability."
After a 1 1/2-hour closed session Monday, the council voted 5-0 to suspend Contessotto immediately, pending dismissal July 24. Four votes were required to remove the police chief.
No official reason was given for the firing, but individual council members said later that Contessotto had ceased to be an effective department head and that he no longer presided over a unified police department.
"A good chief can make a department operate a lot smoother than our department was operating," Councilman Jack W. Parks said. "I'm not saying he wasn't a good chief, but he was having problems."
Contessotto did not return telephone calls Tuesday or Wednesday.
Contessotto and the 48-member department have been under intense public scrutiny since December, when Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner charged two former officers with using a stun gun to torture a juvenile they had arrested and were questioning. At the time, Reiner called the department "embarrassing to all of law enforcement" and said his office would look into numerous allegations against the city's police force.
The Police Department also is the subject of several lawsuits alleging brutality.
None of the councilmen could identify a single event that led them to fire Contessotto. They also said they did not fault him for the actions of the two officers who have been charged in the alleged torture. During the closed session Monday, Contessotto argued to keep his job, council members said.
"It all keeps coming up in differing ways, until you say OK, the bucket's full," Councilman Jim Roberts said, referring to problems with the department.
Contessotto will receive two months' pay after his dismissal in July, said Donald L. Jeffers, Huntington Park chief administrative officer. Contessotto, who became police chief in June, 1983, is paid $4,949 per month.
Capt. Charles Plum will act as interim police chief until a replacement for Contessotto is found.
Matters Came to Head
Despite recent charges and accusations, the council had publicly stood behind Contessotto, 40, who grew up in Huntington Park and joined the Police Department as an officer at 22. In private, however, his support waned.
A host of incidents came to a head this week. The driving force behind that effort was Councilman Herbert A. Hennes, who was the first council member to publicly criticize Contessotto.
Shortly after 1 a.m. Feb. 12, Hennes resigned his ceremonial post of mayor, saying he had tired of publicly defending Contessotto and the Police Department, and that he could no longer be a spokesman for "inadequate performance."
During a closed council meeting that lasted more than 5 1/2 hours, Hennes argued that Contessotto was incompetent and should be fired. But the other four councilmen supported the police chief.
"I thought he was incompetent, and I thought he was performing in an inadequate manner," Hennes said Tuesday, calling Contessotto a "poor administrator."
Tension between Hennes and Contessotto surfaced again earlier this month, when Hennes called for a city investigation into his allegations that Contessotto was trying to discredit him. Contessotto has declined to comment on the allegation.
A decision to investigate Hennes' accusations was to be decided at the Monday meeting. The council chose, instead, to fire Contessotto.
Hennes, who said the investigation "will probably go by the boards now," alleged that Contessotto in April told four officers at the police station that he would welcome anything "that would discredit" Hennes.
Although other councilmen said the call for an investigation did not figure into their decision to fire Contessotto, Hennes' allegations combined with various other incidents that presaged the police chief's ouster.
Contessotto suspended Officer Mark Betor for a month without pay in 1985 after an internal investigation by Capt. Martin Simonoff. The report concluded that Betor may have been aware of and participated in an unsuccessful attempt to cash a forged $5,000 check at the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens in February, 1985.
No one was ever arrested or prosecuted for the incident because of insufficient evidence. Contessotto said he disciplined Betor because he believed the officer was "screwing up his life" by gambling and not because Betor may have committed a crime. As one of the terms of discipline, Betor submitted to professional counseling for gambling, Contessotto said. Betor, who is on disability leave, has said he never participated in any crime.
One of the first signs of internal dissension in the department came when Contessotto tried to discipline Simonoff for releasing the report of his investigation to The Times last year, Hennes said. Contessotto backed off, and emotions flared when Hennes intervened to say Simonoff was not the one who released the report.
But Hennes bristled anew when he found out that Contessotto had issued a work permit to Betor last Jan. 14 to work in the city's own card club--the Huntington Park Club. At the advice of Jeffers, the city's chief administrative officer, Contessotto revoked the permit five days later, officials said.
"I thought it was bad administrative judgment . . . to approve that request," Hennes said.
About the same time, a more serious matter surfaced.
In January, Hennes personally contacted Sheriff Sherman A. Block to request an investigation into reports that a Huntington Park officer solicited a former officer to commit a robbery, Hennes said. According to those reports, the former officer was asked to stick up a man who was to make a $100,000 loan payment in cash, and, if necessary, to "take him out," Hennes said.
The former officer refused the solicitation. Hennes was told Jan. 7 of the alleged incident by Simonoff and Plum. Sheriff's Department investigators concluded that the allegations were "unsubstantiated," meaning that they were unable to discredit or find proof of the allegations, officials said.
On April 1, Contessotto fired the two captains, accusing them of insubordination for not reporting the allegations directly to him. According to attorneys for the captains, the officers bypassed Contessotto and went to Hennes because they feared the police chief would show preferential treatment to one of the principals, as they felt he had done in the past.
The captains appealed the decision to the city's Civil Service Commission and a hearing began June 3. During the second day of testimony, a settlement was reached and the captains were reinstated in their jobs on June 8. As part of the settlement, they apologized in writing to Contessotto.
Hennes said the reason Contessotto and the city decided to settle was to silence negative testimony that would have surfaced during the hearing. The hearing was open at the request of the captains.
The hearing was expected to further strain relations in the department. Plum's attorney, William R. Remery, said he planned to call about 25 witnesses, 18 of whom were officers, to testify for the captains.
Several council members had advised Contessotto against firing the captains because of the tension it would create in the department. At least two council members said they were further "upset" that Contessotto agreed to the settlement.
"Whether he was right or wrong, it was a no-win situation and I advised him not to (fire the captains)," Jackson said. "From that point forward, there was no backing up, and I was extremely upset when he negotiated a settlement."
With the dismissal of Contessotto, city officials expect some of the problems with the police force will be left behind.
Still to be resolved, however, is the case against former Officers William J. Lustig and Robert Rodriguez, who face trial in Superior Court Aug. 10 on charges of felony assault for allegedly using a stun gun on a 17-year-old boy they had arrested.
In addition, the district attorney's office is investigating several allegations against the Huntington Park Police Department, said head Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven A. Sowders. The allegations range from the use of excessive force by officers to faulty record keeping.
The district attorney's office expects to release the results of those investigations next month, he said.
The Police Department, according to a Times survey last July, had the highest frequency of brutality claims in Southeast Los Angeles County during 1984 and 1985.