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Probe of Maywood police is requested

Times Staff Writer

Allegations of sexual misconduct, racism and brutality are roiling the Police Department in the small suburb of Maywood, prompting the City Council this week to request an immediate investigation by the state attorney general’s office.

The probe comes after years of accusations from residents that the Police Department has mistreated Latino immigrants, who make up a majority of the town’s population of 40,000.

The council called for the probe late Tuesday at the urging of Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, who in a letter to the council called the growing list of alleged misdeeds deeply troubling.

The department has long been a lightning rod in the city, criticized for large-scale afternoon sobriety checks that critics said were designed to nab unlicensed illegal immigrants and generate money.

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At the program’s peak, nearly 2,000 cars a year were impounded from immigrants -- before the city banned the operations a few years ago and disbanded the traffic unit last year. Some of the new allegations suggest that the practice might have resumed.

But residents have also come forward with claims that officers beat up people, and several women say officers stalked and sexually abused them, according to a document obtained by The Times. One mother claimed that her 14-year-old daughter was groped by an officer.

Even top city and police officials acknowledge there is a problem.

“Do I feel some of the residents have valid points? Yes I do,” said Police Chief Richard Lyons. So far, two officers have been suspended pending internal investigations, Lyons said, and others are under investigation.

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“There are a handful of renegade cops out there we need to build cases on,” said Councilman Sam Pena, who has been criticized for his support of the police.

Maywood got national headlines last year when a new pro-immigrant council majority was elected and declared the city a “sanctuary” for illegal immigrants.

The issue polarized a city that was virtually homogeneous ethnically.

Felipe Aguirre, the councilman who pushed the sanctuary movement, was subsequently the target of death threats by City Clerk Hector Duarte, who opposed the new direction of the city.

Duarte ultimately pleaded guilty to death threat allegations.

But the department does have its defenders. Some argued that there was a trend in the city to pardon illegal behavior by undocumented immigrants, including by ceasing the practice of towing their cars if they drove without a license.

“They call us Uncle Tom, they call us prejudiced,” Enrique Curiel said. “If you don’t like this government, and you don’t like the justice, I don’t think you should be hanging around here.”

Last year, the City Council approved the creation of a police commission to monitor the force. Some commission members worked for an immigrant rights organization that had been critical of the police.

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City officials, including members of the commission, hired Alfred Hutchings, 44, a Chapman University associate professor and former Los Angeles Police Department officer, as a policeman.

They asked him about his attitude toward immigrants, including about unlicensed immigrants driving, according to a source close to the investigation.

Once on the job, Hutchings began to get anonymous faxes at Chapman University alleging wrongdoing by Maywood police officers, said his attorney, Thomas Barham.

The allegations appeared to come from within the Police Department, and in early November -- in a departmentwide memo -- then-Chief Bruce Leflar appointed Hutchings to head a newly created Professional Standards Unit.

One of his responsibilities, Barham said, was to investigate some of the allegations.

One claim was that a high-ranking officer forced a transsexual man to have sex with him multiple times over seven years.

That letter said this officer had “a reputation for sexually harassing victims of crimes, especially domestic violence.”

In another anonymous letter, the writer described an angry exchange in which a sergeant allegedly ordered two officers to impound more cars or face discipline.

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When the officers complained that they could not be disciplined based on quotas, according to the letter, the sergeant stormed off, screaming and using a racial slur for blacks.

According to Barham, Hutchings started to get threats at home, at the university and in Maywood -- some through phone calls, others through faxes.

Among the written tips he received was one that singled out a high-ranking officer as being responsible for fomenting anger toward Hutchings.

Not long after Hutchings was named the department’s professional standards manager, Leflar went on medical leave, and soon after, Hutchings’ internal affairs investigation was put to an end.

“Ofc. Hutchings will not be conducting I.A. investigations as previously mentioned in a Department e-mail,” Maywood police Lt. Paul D. Pine told police officers in a Nov. 19 memo.

On Wednesday, top deputies for state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown were examining Nunez’s request for an investigation of the Police Department.

In an interview, Chief Lyons said he could not say how many officers were already being investigated internally.

He said some investigations in the past were hampered because residents turned in incomplete forms.

Lyons said one reason he supported an outside probe of his department was to “dispel what are actual factual complaints, and which are from disgruntled people who dislike authority.”

He declined to discuss Hutchings.

A civil rights attorney, Cynthia Anderson-Barker, said she has clients who filed complaints that went nowhere. She said many of the allegations involve the same officers and span several years.

She talked about the case of a 22-year-old Maywood resident named Jose Quinones who was arrested in September by one of the officers named in internal documents. Despite Quinones’ having a back injury, the officer manhandled the handcuffed man as he sat in a squad car on the way to the Maywood jail and in his holding cell, Anderson-Barker said.

The attorney said that Quinones was choked and that the officer stepped on his knee and kicked him in the groin repeatedly. Eventually, Quinones asked to be taken to a hospital when he had trouble breathing and standing, Anderson-Barker said. Annoyed that he had to take Quinones to the hospital, the officer allegedly took a circuitous route, she said.

Later, as Quinones was taken to the hospital’s 13th floor jail ward, the officer allegedly asked him in a loud voice why he had threatened to kill him, she said. Quinones asked the officer why he was lying, but moments later, the officer repeated the same claims before sheriff’s deputies, she said.

“He said, ‘Can you believe this guy? He says he’s going to kill me,’ ” according to Anderson-Barker.

Some residents said they worried that many of the good officers in the 37-officer force would leave because of the taint at a time when gang violence appears to be on the rise.

Soon after voting to support an outside investigation, Mayor Sergio Calderon reminded residents that there were good officers in Maywood.

“They put their life on the line every day and every night,” he said.

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hector.becerra@latimes.com


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