Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is revoking photo identification cards issued to campaign donors and other members of his volunteer “Homeland Security Support Unit” amid questions about whether the cards were issued illegally, a sheriff’s spokesman said Thursday.
Baca made the decision after the Board of Supervisors voted to investigate whether the cards violated a county policy that makes it a misdemeanor to issue badges or identification cards to anyone other than sworn peace officers or certain county officials. The cards are similar to the ones deputies carry in their wallets.
The “Homeland Security Support Unit” is staffed primarily by businessmen, including many who donated to Baca’s political campaigns. The group’s director is Gary Nalbandian, a Glendora tire store owner and a key fundraiser for Baca and other law enforcement figures.
“The sheriff has asked Gary to gather up all the ID cards, not because he thinks they’re illegal, because we don’t. But not only do we follow the letter of the law, we follow the spirit of the law,” Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore said.
“The sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer in the county so he doesn’t do anything that violates the law and he’s not doing that now.”
Baca intends to redesign the identification cards and reissue them to the group’s approximately 50 members, but only after consulting with county lawyers, Whitmore said.
“We are pleased that the sheriff has taken this prudent action and we believe it is a proactive effort that will remove any possibility that these ID’s will be misused. We support the sheriff’s actions,” said Tony Bell, a spokesman for Supervisor Mike Antonovich.
Nalbandian also helped raise campaign money for Riverside Sheriff Bob Doyle and San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Michael A. Ramos. After they were elected in 2002, Doyle launched the “Sheriff’s Executive Council” and Ramos, the “Bureau of Justice.” Members of both groups, many of them political donors, were issued badges and identification cards.
The Times reported this week that two men acknowledged showing their Doyle-issued badges, one to gain access to a secure area of the Burbank Airport, the other to state investigators serving a search warrant at his Glendale office.
Los Angeles County supervisors adopted their badge restriction in 1980 after learning that “Hillside Strangler” Kenneth Bianchi had used a county emblem to pose as a police officer to lure his victims.
The county law allows badges to be issued to sheriff’s deputies as well as to several other county officials including building inspectors, deputy district attorneys, court clerks and ambulance drivers.
Whitmore said there is no link between campaign donations and the identification cards given to members of the “homeland security” group. He said the group is part of the sheriff’s plan to “bring together the community under the tent of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.”
Los Angeles County officials have contacted several badge companies while trying to determine the legality of Baca’s “Homeland Security Support Unit” cards. Rick Hamilton, whose Ontario-based Sun Badge Co. made badges and identification cards for groups launched by Baca, Doyle and Ramos, said he has spoken to Los Angeles County officials as part of the investigation. He said he made the badges and identification cards only after receiving authorization from the three officials.
Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone has called on the state attorney general to investigate whether Doyle violated state law by issuing the badges to untrained civilians. Doyle has said he believed the badges did not resemble deputy badges and therefore did not violate a state law that prohibits giving badges or credentials that could be confused with peace officers’ badges to members of the public.
The Riverside County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote Tuesday on Stone’s proposal to create a county ordinance that would prohibit issuing badges to anyone other than sworn peace officers and elected officials.
Former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates said he advocates federal regulation of law enforcement badges and identification, especially when the term homeland security is used.
“We’ve made a big deal about the terrorists not having driver’s licenses. Driver’s licenses? Imagine what they could do with a badge,” Gates said.