Cover Story : One Case That Hasn't Closed : Kenneth Shearen, Accused of Using Excessive Force, Is Battling to Rejoin the Baldwin Park Police

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When former Baldwin Park Police Officer Kenneth Shearen talks about the job from which he was fired, he leaves out arrests, high-speed chases and bullets flying.

Instead, he recalls the elderly woman he took home after finding her exhausted on the curb beside her groceries, the convulsing baby he revived with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and the burglarized homeowners he calmed with home security advice.

"It wasn't like a warrior thing," he said of his two years with the then 55-officer department. "I got out there and helped people. . . . That was my goal, every day to make a difference in somebody's life."

Yet accusations of warriorlike behavior--including the police-baton beating of a burglary suspect--led to Shearen's dismissal three years ago. A criminal trial on the beating charges ended in a hung jury in February; a federal investigation is pending.

"We all know that any person can get frustrated and lose control," said Deputy Dist. Atty. David Sotelo, who prosecuted Shearen. "What causes problems is police officers unwilling to recognize that they've made an error and exceeded the line."

Baldwin Park Police Chief Carmine Lanza said although the jury did not convict Shearen, the city's internal investigation had concluded he was culpable.

"At this point in time, there are no plans to bring him back on the police force," Lanza said. "We would like to put (the incident) behind us."

Despite that, the 39-year-old father of three is trying to get back on the department. He insists the beating never occurred and blames his troubles on troubled times.

His firing came at the height of inflamed passions over the videotaped Los Angeles police beating of Altadena motorist Rodney G. King. That controversy led authorities to believe false allegations against him, he said.

His prosecution came six months after the looting and burning that struck Los Angeles when the four officers in the King beating were acquitted of most of the charges against them in a state trial. That violence, he believes, caused a panicked district attorney's office to file a case against him that he contends was weak from the start.

Like those who lost lives and businesses during the riots, Shearen counts himself among the victims. Three years later as an electronics repairman working out of a windowless Hawthorne warehouse, Shearen is struggling to recover the life he once loved.

"I think maybe a lot of people think I'm a troublemaker, but all I want to do is the best job I can . . . as a police officer," he said.

Shearen lost his prized job over a minor burglary.

On Feb. 11, 1991, he and fellow officer Louis Price were among those called at 11:49 p.m. to the 3600 block of Baldwin Park Boulevard after two thieves stole a few cases of beer, cartons of cigarettes and a roll of nickels from a gas station mini-mart.

One suspect was nabbed quickly. But a second man, Gilbert Gutierrez, hid in nearby bushes for more than 20 minutes until he was found by Price and Shearen.

When the officers delivered Gutierrez to the police station later that night, he had a fractured rib, a gash in the side of his head and a black eye. The injuries, the officers said, came after Gutierrez fled and was tackled and fell onto a pile of metal rubbish.

The incident would have ended there, Shearen and his attorneys said, but for the videotaped beating of King three weeks later on March 3. That snippet of blurry tape, replayed again and again on television, became a symbol of the everyday violence many claimed has been endured by racial and ethnic minorities at the hands of abusive police.

About three weeks after the tape hit the news, Baldwin Park Police Officer Steven Julian came forward with allegations that Price and Shearen had used excessive force during the burglary arrest.

Julian, who also was at the burglary arrest, reported to superiors that he had heard a thud and turned to see Price swinging a flashlight and Shearen a baton to strike something on the ground. Although Julian said his vision was obscured by a tabletop and a 3-foot hedge, he could make out the figure of a man.

The officers stopped, Julian said, only when Sgt. Robert Curtis yelled out, "All right, that's enough. Cuff him up."

An internal police investigation followed. Curtis admitted telling the officers to stop. He said he could see Price and Shearen struggling with Gutierrez but couldn't tell whether they had struck the man. Curtis later refused to testify in the criminal case, citing his right against self-incrimination.

At the end of the investigation, Lanza dismissed Shearen in June, 1991, while the King controversy still raged. Price, a new officer on probation who had no right to appeal, resigned rather than risk being fired.

"I can imagine the chief was listening and watching the TV every night," Shearen said. The former officer believes Lanza acted swiftly to avoid being accused of having a Rodney King-like problem in his city.

Shearen unsuccessfully appealed to the city's personnel commission and to an arbitrator. Gutierrez, who was convicted of burglary in the case, filed a claim against the city that was settled two years later for $75,000.

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Meanwhile, the district attorney's office began investigating. Based upon reports by doctors and two eyewitnesses, criminal charges of assault, excessive force and filing a false police report were filed against Shearen and Price in October, 1992--six months after the Southland had erupted in violence over the acquittals in the first King beating case.

"All those things pressured the DA to file what was essentially a stupid case," said attorney Howard Price, who defended Shearen's partner, Louis Price. (The Prices are not related).

"There's no doubt that the charges would not have been filed but for the impetus of the Rodney King incident," attorney Price added.

Before the King videotape, police officers rarely faced criminal charges, he said. But after King, the pendulum seemed to swing dramatically in the opposite direction.

The Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, a 38,000-member police officers group that paid Shearen's legal expenses, affirms that trend. In 1992--the year of the first King trial--the PORAC Legal Defense Fund saw a 46% increase in the number of criminal cases filed against its officer members, from 75 cases to 117.

"It was an aberration of what we have seen in the past," said George Yamamoto, chairman of the fund.

But prosecutor Sotelo insists the district attorney's office was not influenced in the Baldwin Park case by the Rodney King beating.

"This case was filed on its own merits," Sotelo said.

Shearen's career began in 1986 after he volunteered as a reserve officer in Montebello. He was surprised to find himself gabbing about his volunteer weekend job much more enthusiastically than about his weekday job as a product manager for a Carson company that made two-way radios.

As a reserve officer, he earned commendations for racking up 686 volunteer hours in a year, for working with neighborhood watch programs and for helping evacuate residents fleeing a chlorine gas spill.

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A 14-year electronics industry veteran earning up to $52,000 annually, Shearen threw it all aside for a pay cut: the patrolman's salary of $32,000.

Because many police departments hire only job candidates with good vision, Shearen underwent eye surgery to correct his nearsightedness and told his electronics co-workers about the planned switch.

"They looked at me and said, 'You're nuts,' " Shearen recalled.

The Baldwin Park Police Department hired him in December, 1988, when he was 34. When he enrolled in the Rio Hondo Police Academy, colleagues placed bets that the balding, pudgy, cigarette-smoking family man wouldn't make it through the grueling 17-week training alongside candidates in their early 20s.

It was literally a bruising time for him, he said. He injured his ribs the first week. The third week he got pneumonia and the seventh week he sprained his ankle.

But when he donned a uniform in May, 1989, he felt his years were an asset. Because police work involves personal skills, his marriage and child-rearing abilities stood him in good stead when he was called to handle domestic disputes, he said. He welcomed overtime hours and told his fellow officers, "You guys don't know how lucky you are to be doing this job."

Said Shearen's wife, Esther, 33: "He didn't care what time he had to get up, 5:30 a.m. or 6 a.m. . . . He would get up, no problem, come home happy and he was never upset. Sometimes he would wake me at night to tell me all the things that happened at work."

For Shearen, losing his job was a shock that caused sleepless nights, especially since he was fired when his wife was pregnant with their third child.

"He was devastated, absolutely devastated," said longtime friend Bill Cody, a Montebello police reserve lieutenant. "Everybody had told him, 'You don't want to go to Baldwin Park.' He ended up at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong department."

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Shearen said he agonized when his eldest son, Jonathan, then 7, asked if television reports about his father beating Gutierrez were true. After the televised report, a half-dozen people phoned his home saying they were glad that white officers were now in trouble, Shearen said.

The hours he would have spent playing with his children, he then spent working on his defense, often until 4 a.m., his wife said.

When the case came to trial two months ago, attorneys for Price and Shearen contended that Julian, who has since left police work on a stress disability, was inspired by the furor over the King beating to concoct false allegations and get a lifetime disability pension.

Julian had been demoted in January, 1991, a few weeks before the Baldwin Park burglary, and had been trying to leave the department, said Darryl Mounger, Shearen's defense attorney. Knowing he would be ostracized for bringing accusations against fellow officers, Julian deliberately lied to get out of police work with a guaranteed income, Mounger told the jury.

But Julian told jurors his only motive for coming forward was his conscience.

Prosecutor Sotelo also dismissed the disability scenario as unlikely. Instead, he said Julian became a victim himself when he exposed a police cover-up, was ostracized and lost his own career.

"The problem comes in the cover-up," Sotelo said. "The public ends up paying in these lawsuits and the integrity of the police department becomes challenged."

Gutierrez testified that he had been hit, but said he blacked out after the first alleged strike and that he did not remember having any bruises or other signs of injury afterward.

The jury failed to reach a decision and a mistrial was declared Feb. 7.

Sotelo's request for a retrial was denied by Superior Court Judge Jan Pluim, who said, "Even as described by Mr. Gutierrez, there are no bumps, welts or bruises to his head or otherwise to his body. The physical evidence to Mr. Gutierrez does not support the testimony of Mr. Julian. The court, therefore, puts little credibility in the testimony of Mr. Julian."

Shearen called the judge's action a vindication and hopes it will help him get his job back. PORAC's legal defense fund, which Shearen estimated spent as much as $150,000 on his defense, is deciding whether to pay for civil legal appeals to get Shearen reinstated.

Chief Lanza remains opposed to Shearen's return. An internal investigation, personnel hearings and appeals all concluded there were sufficient grounds to fire Shearen, Lanza said.

At the moment, the federal file on Shearen and Price sits in a Department of Justice office in Washington, where it was forwarded for a decision on prosecution after FBI agents completed their work. Justice officials there declined to comment on the case, except to say that the request for an investigation came from Justice Department officials in Washington after a complaint was received.

Gutierrez, who was released from prison in 1992 on the Baldwin Park burglary charges and received his $75,000 settlement a year later, was sent back to Chino state prison in March on a new, unrelated burglary conviction.

Former officer Price works as a private investigator. He said the accusations and criminal trial were only an annoyance to him, a single man, for whom working as a police officer was simply a job.

But Shearen vows to get his dream job back again.

"I fought too hard to let it go," he said. "It's going to be pretty hard to get it back, but I'll get it back one of these days."

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