By his own admission, Rudy De Leon has an awesome job ahead of him. On Monday, the retired police officer became the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's first ombudsman.
The position was created in part to help reduce the millions of dollars that Los Angeles County pays each year in liability judgments to victims of excessive force, De Leon said. "By the very nature of law enforcement, there will be violent confrontation, and there will be lawsuits," he said. "But what you want to do is reduce those to the minimum possible and create better conditions in the community."
Working with a $360,000 budget, De Leon hopes to create an office where citizens with complaints can get results. He said he wants to establish a uniform system for reporting brutality cases, and see those guidelines distributed to all police stations. De Leon will focus primarily on cases that result in hospitalization, he said.
Complaints with merit go from the captain of the station to internal affairs to the criminal division and then to the district attorney's office.
De Leon will follow the cases in his new $60,200-a-year job, and report to Sheriff Sherman Block and the Board of Supervisors. He will be responsible for making sure complaints are investigated quickly and sent to a retired judge, from an approved panel, to be reviewed. He also will provide progress reports to the complainant.
Until De Leon has a chance to sort through the files, though, he will not know how many cases await him. "There may be 1,000 complaints floating around," he said.
The Board of Supervisors selected De Leon because of his "tremendous law enforcement experience and his background and knowledge of the county," said Dennis Morefield, spokesman for Supervisor Deane Dana. "The hope is that he'll bring stability and confidence to law enforcement," he said. "No one man can do it all. But (De Leon) can help."
De Leon has a long history of service to the community and to law enforcement. He served with the Los Angeles Police Department for 31 years. In the mid-1970s, as captain of the Hollenbeck Division in Central Los Angeles, he helped transform an abandoned police station into a youth center. After he retired, he served on the state Board of Prison Terms and was later special assistant to former Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp for eight years.
"Law enforcement has been extremely good to me," he said. As ombudsman, he said, "I have the opportunity to do some good for the community where I live, where I was raised, the community that gave me all the opportunities that I've had."
A Los Angeles native, De Leon, a 69-year-old Torrance resident, is the son of Mexican immigrants. When he was a student, De Leon read a column by a newspaper sports writer who featured athletes who became police officers. "There were famous football players from USC and UCLA, there were boxers, they were all LAPD," he said. "All the athletes I knew were good guys, so I went for it."
De Leon was the only Latino in his academy class. By the late 1950s, though, more than 200 Latinos served in the Los Angeles Police Department, he said. "I saw a lot of discrimination. But I was very fortunate," he said. "I encountered very few instances of discrimination. When I did, I addressed it. I tell other minorities to do the same. Do something about it."
Conditions have improved for minorities, he said, "but the separatism today is in some cases worse than a long time ago."
That segregation, coupled with youthful frustration and "the anonymity that law enforcement officers have in the community," he said, have led to far more serious allegations of excessive force today than in the past.
"Most officers do a professional job. Officers that work in volatile areas are loved by the people who live there. Officers that walk the beat in the projects, they get respect, they have rapport, even with the gang members. They're not tough. They're not aggressive. They do their job."
And when they don't? "Then I do my job," he said.