Block Says County Has Its Share of Rogue Deputies : Law enforcement: He stresses that the department is committed to aggressively deal with misconduct.
Just hours after the third fatal shooting this month by one of his deputies, Sheriff Sherman Block on Wednesday conceded that his agency has its share of rogue officers as he fended off the kind of snowballing criticism that led the Los Angeles police chief to announce an early retirement.
In candid, introspective comments that came during his monthly open house with the media, Block acknowledged that there have been deputies who are “dishonest, bigoted,” and have shown “racial biases.” But Block stressed that his department has always been committed to “deal with that very aggressively.”
“We’ve had people in this department who have been brutal,” the sheriff said. “In the future, I’m sure we’ll have people who will be brutal. We’ve had people in this department who have just been plain stupid, who have done some dumb things which have gotten them in trouble and have brought great discredit to the department, and I’m sure that will happen in the future.
“But,” he added, “I think the larger question is not that these incidents occur but what is the organizational response? How do we deal with these people who are, in fact, engaged in misconduct?”
To that end, Block said he had accepted Supervisor Gloria Molina’s offer to participate in a public hearing next month with the county Board of Supervisors--provided he is permitted to speak freely and directly question critics of his 8,000-member department.
The sheriff, who in the past has rejected the idea of an inquiry similar to the recent Christopher Commission investigation of racism and brutality in the LAPD, also said he had spent $800 to ensure that all his top executives received their own copy of the report.
For the first time, too, he seemed to indicate he might be willing to cooperate with such a panel, although his comments appeared critical of the kind of people who composed the blue-ribbon commission.
“I would cooperate with any legitimate body,” Block said. “I will not cooperate in those efforts that are ad-hoc, that somebody puts together with a preconceived agenda. . . . Putting together a group of lay people or people who may be attorneys or accountants or experts and proficient in their field does not mean they can conduct what would be an appropriate inquiry.”
His remarks came shortly after he had been briefed about Wednesday’s predawn slaying by a deputy of an unarmed teen-age car theft suspect in Artesia. David Angel Ortiz, 15, of Montebello died about 1:30 a.m. after being hit by three shots fired by an officer who believed the youth was reaching for a weapon in his waistband while fleeing, authorities said.
One witness, however, contradicted the official version. The mother of a boy who had been a passenger in the stolen car contended that Ortiz had stopped running from the deputy and was shot in the back.
It was the third controversial shooting since Block last met with the media a month ago. On Aug. 3, a deputy shot and killed Arturo Jimenez, 19, at the Ramona Gardens housing project in East Los Angeles during a struggle in which Jimenez allegedly hit a second officer in the head with a flashlight. Residents of the 497-unit complex who witnessed the incident said the shooting was unprovoked.
Ten days later, a deputy shot and killed Keith Hamilton, a 33-year-old former mental patient, after he reportedly reached for a knife during a struggle in Ladera Heights. One neighbor who disputed the deputies’ account of the incident contended that the officers placed a metallic object on or near Hamilton’s body after he was shot.
The incidents come in a year in which deputies so far have fatally shot 18 people, according to statistics supplied by the Sheriff’s Information Bureau. That is more than any other year in the last decade except 1987, when 19 people were killed. Block, however, pointed out that four of the shootings this year involved off-duty deputies defending themselves against would-be robbers while withdrawing money from automatic bank teller machines.
Block declined to pass judgment on any of the recent shootings. But he vowed that the results of all investigations--"be they favorable or unfavorable"--will be made public as soon as they are completed.
“One of the things that we do on an ongoing basis is engage in some very serious introspection and evaluation and re-evaluation,” Block said. “Any incident that is deemed to be improper, or inappropriate, has to be dealt with so we don’t lose the confidence of the community.”
Asked if he thought the recent, highly publicized shootings had spawned a growing perception that his deputies are too quick to pull the trigger, the sheriff said: “I don’t disagree with that at all.”
But Block, who is an elected official, said local politicians--especially those who have called for a review of his department--should also bear responsibility for the social conditions that he believes have spawned so many violent encounters.
“I suggest that while they’re encouraging agencies such as mine to engage in this introspection, which we’re doing, that perhaps they ought to engage in a little personal introspection and see whether their actions or inaction have contributed to what’s happening.”
His remarks Wednesday won praise from both critics and supporters of the department, who said they were impressed with his frankness in discussing problems that they believe few top law enforcement officials have been willing to address.
“I applaud his candor, I really do,” said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “I think it is wise for him to be introspective about his department.”
Molina, who on Tuesday introduced a motion to the Board of Supervisors to hold a public hearing Sept. 10 on deputies’ use of excessive force, said she was pleased by the contrasts she has observed between Block and Los Angeles Police Department Chief Daryl F. Gates, who has announced he will retire next April in the wake of the Christopher Commission report.
“Very frankly, you have a whole very, very different person here,” said Molina, who was critical of Gates while she served on the Los Angeles City Council. “The sheriff is not operating like some kind of cowboy out there. He’s much more responsive.”
There was disagreement, however, on whether Block’s candor was the result of a turbulent period in Los Angeles law enforcement that began in March with the videotaped beating of Rodney G. King by LAPD officers.
Lt. Jeff Springs, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department, said that his boss has always been candid with the media and denied that Block was changing gears because of recent public scrutiny.
“It’s not a matter of any damage control or any other cliche you can think of,” Springs said. “He’s a realist and he understands reality.”
But Robert Feliciano, a former sheriff’s sergeant who now works as a management consultant to various law enforcement agencies, said Block appears to be trying to avoid the problems with have engulfed Gates and the LAPD.
At a luncheon on Tuesday, Feliciano said the sheriff spoke to a room full of former police officers and was just as candid about the problems in his department as he was at Wednesday’s media gathering.
“He said some things in front of a police audience that, 10 years ago, many of these guys would have stood up and walked out,” Feliciano said. “That was the first time I had ever heard Sheriff Block talk about some of these problems publicly.”
THEFT SUSPECT SLAIN: An unarmed car theft suspect was killed by a deputy. B1