EX-COPS INSIDE PRISON : Their cases command headlines during trial, but afterward, convicted law officers pass into the uneasy obscurity of a jail cell. ‘You’re subhuman when you’re in this place,’ said one former deputy. ‘You used to be a cop, but you’re not anymore.’
They live in a topsy-turvy world where a one-time hunter may quickly become the hunted.
Their cases command headlines during trial, but afterward, convicted former law enforcement officers pass into the uneasy obscurity of jail or prison. They and correctional officials are left to worry about, and protect against, vengeful inmates.
“They’re (given) about the highest security we could put on someone,” Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Robert C. Ripley said in a recent interview. Many other inmates “hate authority. There might be a contract put out on them.”
On Monday, authorities were given two new charges when a judge sentenced former Huntington Park Police Officers William J. Lustig and Robert Rodriguez to prison and jail for using a stun gun to extract a confession from a teen-age burglary suspect.
Eight former law enforcement officers are now incarcerated in the Los Angeles County Jail system, Ripley said. They are kept in high-security areas in the downtown Men’s Central Jail, Ripley said, and given nearly the same scrutiny as other “high-risk” inmates, such as accused “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez.
The former officers are generally kept isolated in their cells or locked down with other convicted former cops or the convicted relatives of cops, officials and inmates said.
They are not permitted in the exercise yard or in the mess hall with the general inmate population. And if they need to leave their cells for any reason, they are accompanied by deputies, Ripley said.
After the publicity about them has died down, some former cops may be allowed to finish their sentences working as jail trustees at a sheriff’s substation, he said.
Some of the former cops imprisoned in County Jail are now on trial or waiting to be tried. Others were convicted and are serving time or waiting to be transferred to state prison. Some committed crimes when they were officers, others broke the law after they left law enforcement.
“If I hadn’t been brought up here (in high-security) I’d probably be a dead man,” said Gary, a 43-year-old former officer for a Los Angeles-area police department. “Somebody’d recognize you and tell the other prisoners. They’d probably try to stick you.”
Gary, who asked to be identified only by his first name, was convicted of drug possession, officials said. He entered County Jail last month and is scheduled to be released June 11. Gary said he left his job as a police officer in 1982 and worked as a plumber.
The jail inmates interviewed said the heightened security may be a lifesaver, but it also carries its burdens. The inmates said they are deprived of freedoms allowed other inmates, such as reading in the jail library.
Mike Layfield, a former sheriff’s deputy and now a prisoner in County Jail, is serving more than two years for repeat drunk driving. He left the department in 1980.
“You’re subhuman when you’re in this place,” Layfield said. “You used to be a cop, but you’re not anymore.”
In the inmate pecking order in jails and prisons, former cops rank near the bottom, just above child molesters and rapists, authorities say.
State officials say they do not keep track of how many former law enforcement officers make their way into California’s prison system.
Convicted cops usually are placed in the general prison population, but their law enforcement backgrounds are kept secret, state Department of Corrections spokesman Mike Van Winkle said.
If it becomes necessary, they may be moved to other prisons or into a protective custody unit at the state prison in Soledad. Two former law enforcement officers are under protection at Soledad, prison spokeswoman Mary Hunter-Shorter said.
Inmates may also be transferred to prisons in other states, where they could be placed with the general prison population and avoid the restrictions of protective custody, Van Winkle said.
The precautions apparently are effective. State prison and county jail officials said they could not recall incidents in which former law enforcement officers were injured by other inmates.
Law enforcement officials say the number of cops behind bars and those facing criminal charges is relatively small.
About 5% of the criminal cases handled by the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California involve criminal allegations against on-duty officers, President Larry Malmberg said. PORAC is a federation of law enforcement associations that offers members legal defense, insurance plans and other services.
At the end of 1987, PORAC had 26 open criminal cases involving officers, including investigations in which charges had not been filed, Malmberg said. The legal defense fund represents 17,500 law enforcement officers statewide, he said.
John Smith (not his real name) is a former officer who wound up in state prison. Smith was on a small Southern California police department when he raped a woman in her father’s home. Smith, who was off duty when he committed the rape, was convicted and given a three-year sentence.
Smith declined a request for an interview, but his former attorney agreed to talk about Smith’s fear-filled days in prison. The attorney asked that the former officer and the prison where he is incarcerated remain unidentified for safety reasons. The lawyer also requested that he be identified only by his first name--Chuck.
Several months into his term, Smith was confronted in the prison yard by an inmate who recognized him as a former officer, Chuck said.
“He denied he was” a former officer, the lawyer said. “It was very scary because there were other people in the yard listening to this confrontation.
“About the worst thing you can be in prison other than a child molester is an ex-cop,” he said. “He lives in constant fear that he will meet someone in prison who will recognize him.”
Authorities moved Smith to another facility after the prison yard confrontation.
In the federal prison system, the situation is much the same for ex-lawmen.
Former California Highway Patrolman George Gwaltney is serving a 90-year sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Memphis, Tenn. He was convicted in 1984 of the rape and murder of a young woman in the California desert.
Gwaltney refused a request for an interview, and Al Langa, executive assistant to the warden at the Tennessee prison, declined to discuss Gwaltney’s situation, but he spoke in general about the problems of former officers in prison.
“If he’s infamous . . . we would have to place him in some sort of security confinement where he couldn’t be harmed by anyone else,” Langa said. “If they weren’t known to the general inmate population, we merely would not reveal their past employment.”
‘He Was a Bad Guy’
Langa told the exceptional story of one imprisoned former law enforcement officer who openly admitted his past occupation and fit into the prison population without incident.
“He was just a bad guy and everyone knew he was a bad guy,” Langa said. “Because of the type of person he was, he was able to function.”
The potential danger faced by a jailed former cop is acknowledged by judges as well as prison officials. When Superior Court Judge Michael Berg sentenced the former Huntington Park officers, he ordered that both men be carefully placed to ensure their safety.
Lustig was sentenced to two years in state prison, while Rodriguez was sentenced to six months in jail and given three years probation. Lustig, who is in County Jail awaiting transfer to state prison, declined to be interviewed. Rodriguez, who spent a day in jail, is free on $3,000 bail pending his appeal.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven A. Sowders said Lustig was the third Los Angeles-area law enforcement officer to be sentenced to state prison in the three years he has headed the district attorney’s special investigations division, which prosecutes public officials.
He said judges are confident in the ability of correctional authorities to maintain the safety of former officers.
Asked whether the former occupations of Lustig and Rodriguez weighed in the sentencing, Berg said, “It is the responsibility of a sentencing judge to consider all factors.”