Lynwood Deputies Cited for Brutality in Kolts Report : Law enforcement: Norwalk and Lakewood stations also criticized. But leaders of all three are praised for trying to eradicate problems.
An investigation of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department pointed to the Lynwood station as an example “of what can happen when deputies are inadequately supervised” and criticized at least two other Southeast-area stations.
The chilling 359-page report, released earlier this week, found “deeply disturbing evidence of excessive force and lax discipline” within the department. It devotes an entire chapter to the well-publicized reports that some Lynwood station deputies once formed a brutal, white supremacist gang called the Vikings.
A seven-month examination of 124 lawsuits and internal affairs investigations by Special Counsel James G. Kolts found that in the past six years, the Lynwood and Norwalk sheriff’s stations accounted for most of the department’s incidents of excessive force. The Lynwood station was involved in 18 incidents and the Norwalk station in 13.
The report also mentions the Lynwood station as an example of how the department has failed to achieve a racially diverse complement of men and women. Less than 7% of the Lynwood station’s sworn personnel are women, compared to 12.5% department-wide. In addition, the report noted, only 5% of the Lynwood residents are Anglo, yet more than 70% of the force is Anglo.
However, Kolts and his team of 30 attorneys also single out for praise Norwalk Cmdr. Norm Smith and Lakewood Cmdr. John Anderson, whom they say have established systems to address the problems of excessive force before “a disaster occurs.” Neither could be reached for comment.
Anecdotes about use of excessive force pepper the report. For example, the report notes that curiosity got a Lakewood man in trouble. While walking to a friend’s house, the man saw a patrol car pursuing another car and then heard a crash. He look inside the crashed car to see if anyone was hurt and then kept walking.
The Lakewood station deputies, however, caught up with him and wanted to take him back to the car. He objected, saying he was just walking by, and began struggling with the officers. The man ended up with a broken arm, and the county paid him $25,000.
The county also settled two lawsuits for a total of $427,000 in incidents involving two Norwalk deputies in 1983 and 1984.
In one of the incidents, the deputies picked up two teen-age boys who were riding their bikes at 4 a.m. The boys said they were going fishing, and although “there was no evidence that the boys were involved in any criminal activity at the time,” the report says, the deputies took them to a nearby parking lot and interrogated them. One deputy pointed a gun at one of the boys, threatening to “blow a (expletive deleted) hole in him.”
“What if I took your life right now? No one would miss a punk like you,” the deputy reportedly told the boy.
In a later incident, these same deputies were accused of harassing a man who had successfully sued the department in an excessive-force case. While arguing with these deputies, he was struck in the head with a flashlight and his father was beaten for attempting to intervene, the report said.
Both deputies were given five-day suspensions as a result of the first incident, and, investigators note, both are still working at the Norwalk station.
But it is the charges that “racist deputy gangs” exist within the Sheriff’s Department that focused the investigation on the Lynwood station.
The existence of a clique of deputies who called themselves the Vikings was reported in several newspapers last fall, but received widespread attention when a federal court judge hearing a class-action suit filed against the station found that “a group of Lynwood deputies . . . are members of a neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang--the Vikings--which exists with the knowledge of departmental policy-makers.”
The department has consistently declined to comment on the judge’s findings but has said the lawsuit was brought by gang members who want to make the department look bad.
Last month, the Lynwood City Council passed an emergency ordinance creating a special five-member civilian Law Enforcement Review Board to track deputy misconduct.
The move was led by Councilman Paul Richards, who said at the time that residents are concerned that their complaints “just go into a black box, never to be heard of again.” In fact, the Kolts report found numerous problems with the complaints system throughout the department ranging from intimidation of those complaining to slipshod investigations.
After interviews with numerous people, including plaintiffs and attorneys in the class-action suit, the former and current station commander and a former deputy, the Kolts report concluded that “while there may be some support for the allegations that a racist deputy gang existed at Lynwood, there is no persuasive evidence to date.”
“Nevertheless,” the investigators go on to say, “it appears that some deputies at the department’s Lynwood Station associate with the ‘Viking’ symbol, and appear at least in times past to have engaged in behavior that is brutal and intolerable and is typically associated with street gangs.”
The investigators praised former Lynwood Capt. Bert Cueva, who cracked down on the Vikings group after he took command of the station in June, 1989. Sixteen deputies have since been transferred to other stations, the report said. Investigators said the current commander, Carole Freeman, is “very impressive” and they hope will “continue to eradicate the problems at the station.”
Both Cueva and Freeman declined to comment.
The Rev. Charles Floyd, who lobbied to get the Lynwood council to establish a review board, said the report’s findings were nothing new. He said the department has treated Lynwood residents like cattle and demanded that Sheriff Sherman Block personally apologize to the community.
Reaction to the report by former and current Lynwood station deputies was mixed, although all deputies interviewed complained that the investigators had presented a one-sided picture of the department and had blown problems at the station “way, way, way out of proportion.”
Lynwood Councilman Armando Rea, a Lakewood sheriff’s deputy who served in the Lynwood station from 1981 until his election to the council in 1989, said the report was an “accurate picture” of past problems in the department and the Lynwood station.
Rea acknowledged that Vikings existed and had “crossed the line.” “Like in any other large public or private corporation, there are some racists,” he said.
“I witnessed it,” he said. “It was to the point that simply if you are black and out at night in the city of Lynwood after 10 p.m., you were going to get stopped.”
But, he said, the report does not present a complete picture of the station or the department. At best, he said, it is an old snapshot of the bad in the station. More than 90% of the deputies assigned to the station were not involved with the Vikings, he said, and the report fails to show the commitment of those officers to the city.
He also pointed out that about 42 deputies serve a city of 62,000 people. Cheaper, one-man patrols--typically used in the cities that the Sheriff’s Department serves--are simply not enough, he said. “Do they think one brain is going to make the right decision 1,000 times a day? There is a lot of pressure out there, and mistakes happen.”
Other deputies interviewed were more critical of the report.
“I think you could sum it up with one acronym . . . B.S.” said one longtime deputy who asked to remain anonymous. “In all the time I’ve been here, I’ve never seen officers use excessive force, even when sometimes it’s probably been warranted. All the people here have done very good work. . . . You go out and ask the citizens how we are doing, and they’ll tell you. All that crap in the media is B.S.”
Said another deputy: “Our families have to read that stuff, and they come to us and say, ‘Uncle Bob, do you really do those things they say?’ No, I don’t. I love this community and there are those of us who really do try and make it better, and that’s all on the record. But no one ever wants to see those records.”
Lynwood Mayor Louis Heine also leaped to the defense of the officers, saying that he did not believe the situation in Lynwood was any worse than in any other station in the department.
“Lynwood gets the blame for every damn thing that happens, every cotton-pickin’ thing,” he said. “It’s Lynwood this and Lynwood that.”
Times Staff Writer Roxana Kopetman contributed to this report.