For cops at the front lines of the drug wars, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department money-skimming scandal set off mixed emotions from the start.
At some level, they could not help but hope the case would vanish. “In the ranks they’re still like brothers,” noted Sgt. Ralph Freeze, who heads the drug squad at the Bell-Cudahy Police Department. “They were police officers and they had a lot of time in. . . . It’s affected their family, loved ones and friends. . . . You hate to see it.”
After the convictions on Monday, however, Freeze and others also were recounting the toll from the case--which tarnished the once-glittering reputation of California law enforcement, prompted some departments to retrench their drug-fighting efforts and led others to institute new controls over the handling of money.
“We were a little naive,” concluded Sgt. Dale Schirman, a supervisor in the sheriff’s narcotics administrative unit. “A fellow policeman could do no wrong.”
“I think most police officers have a certain ambivalence here,” said Lt. Mike Post, who supervises the Glendale drug unit, among the most active in the region. “But there aren’t too many cops at any level who won’t tell you if a cop’s dirty, he has to fall.”
Indeed, with the jury having spoken, even veteran deputies at the sheriff’s training center in Whittier were no longer closing ranks around colleagues in trouble.
“If they’re guilty,” said one, “they had it coming.”
But around the sprawling campus of the Sheriff’s Training Academy and Regional Service Center, they also searched for some positive value in the seven convictions. One deputy found it in the sight of new recruits, still dressed in their civilian suits, being put through marching drills on a parking lot under a warm afternoon sun.
“It will be a classroom example,” he said. “This is an absolute deterrent” to corruption.
Until the sheriff’s scandal, specialized squads targeting “major” narcotics violators seemed to be one of the unqualified success stories of Southern California law enforcement. One department after another formed such units following passage of the federal Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which allowed law enforcement agencies to keep up to 90% of the assets they seized. Soon the total cash confiscated yearly from drug dealers in the region rose above $100 million--more than anywhere else in the United States.
Cash seizures by the Sheriff’s Department alone jumped from $2.8 million in 1984 to $33.9 million in 1988.
Squads from mid-sized cities such as Glendale, Simi Valley and Torrance also roamed well beyond their municipal borders to make splashy busts, in the process financing the purchase of new helicopters and computer systems for their departments.
When allegations surfaced last year that members of the sheriff’s units may have been pocketing a large chunk of the cash they seized, the reverberations were felt throughout the law enforcement community.
“It’s been very traumatic,” said Capt. Jim Oman, whose Brea drug task force used to back up the sheriff’s teams several times a week.
After the first group of deputies was suspended from duty, Oman reported that officials in his own Orange County department “had several sessions where we brainstormed,” then decided on a somewhat less-ambitious drug-fighting strategy. “We’re probably doing cases that are more related to our geographic boundaries,” he said.
“We don’t have day-to-day contact (with the L.A. County sheriff’s squads) anymore,” Oman said Monday.
Like other drug-fighting officers, he said he sympathized with the deputies when they went to trial. Even so, “as time went by, the evidence seemed to indicate there had been irregularities,” he said.
Much like the jurors in the case, Oman found it hard to swallow the deputies’ explanations that they accumulated tens of thousands of dollars in cash by gambling, refurbishing cars and through wives’ jobs baby-sitting and working in a beauty parlor.
“If one person had come up with a story like that . . . but a whole group? It just was kind of unbelievable,” he said.
“I’m real sorry that it happened . . . I hope that justice was done,” Oman said. “It’s too bad for all law enforcement.”
Glendale’s Post said the case created “a heightened sense of awareness” in drug-fighting circles, “that the possibility of police corruption is not something left over from our history of decades ago. . . . It’s an issue that has to be constantly monitored.”
In his own unit, “there have been some tightening of existing procedures,” Post said, including a requirement that a supervisor immediately report the estimated amount of cash found in a raid. In addition, there are rules for quickly locking the cash in tamper-proof bags so that “even the chief of police” could not remove it at the scene.
Schirman, who helps oversee 189 employees with drug-fighting assignments, including 120 sworn deputies, said there now is “a little more supervision” at every step of the seizure process, from serving search warrants to logging in and transporting drugs and cash.
But he and others noted that the skimming scandal, while illustrating the need for stringent regulations, also demonstrated their limits. One of the key pieces of prosecution evidence was a secret videotape of deputies putting aside wads of cash before placing the rest in the official packages.
“You can never remove the human element from the equation,” Post said.