For deputies, arrests can be a contest
Participating in sports such as football, weightlifting and boxing has long been part of the culture within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. But deputies have recently been playing some new games -- on-duty enforcement competitions that have police watchers across the country crying foul.
One recent competition, described in an internal Sheriff’s Department e-mail obtained by The Times, was called “Operation Any Booking.” The object was to arrest as many people as possible within a specific 24-hour period.
Other one-day competitions have included “Operation Vehicle Impound,” a contest aimed at seizing as many cars as possible. And another challenged deputies to see how many gang members and other suspected criminals could be stopped and questioned.
The prize for winning was nothing more than “bragging rights,” said Lt. James Tatreau, who helped organize the events that involved teams of deputies patrolling the southeast Los Angeles cities of Lakewood, Bellflower, Paramount, Artesia and Hawaiian Gardens. The station is one of 23 that make up the nation’s largest sheriff’s department.
“It’s just a friendly competition to have a little fun out here,” Tatreau said. It was Tatreau who sent the e-mail about the booking contest Aug. 15. Tatreau said he viewed the games, which began in July, as a morale booster for overworked deputies who, because of staffing shortages, are required to work four overtime shifts a month.
But police accountability experts, civil libertarians and defense attorneys condemned the practice, saying that it trivialized traumatic encounters such as arrests and having a car impounded, and raised questions about deputies’ motives in taking such actions.
Hubert Williams, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Police Foundation, which promotes innovative policing strategies, called the competitions “highly problematic and inappropriate.”
“The arrest is one of the most potent tools in the possession of law enforcement and should be used with great thought,” Williams said. “It’s not a competition or a game.”
Others, including Los Angeles County Public Defender Michael P. Judge, worried that the games might also prompt deputies to make illegitimate arrests to boost their statistics.
“Certainly, it calls into question whether there was a legitimate reason to book any of the people who were booked during the time of the competition,” Judge said.
“It’s crazy,” said Jane White, the associate director of the National Center for Community Policing. “I’m at a loss for words. I’ve never heard of anything like this before.”
After being called for comment by The Times on Wednesday, Sheriff Lee Baca said he spoke with the Lakewood station lieutenant. Baca called the competitions a well-meaning but ill-conceived idea that promoted “the wrong values.”
“We train deputies to be independent thinkers and leaders,” Baca said. “The lesson learned here is that -- whether it’s for morale purposes or to increase productivity -- law enforcement is not the kind of service where you can dictate the activity.
“We’re not into numbers, we’re into quality,” he said. “I don’t think it will occur again.”
Operation Any Booking did not result in an increase in arrests on the day of the contest, according to records provided to The Times in response to a public records request. The cities reported a combined total of 28 arrests, which was equal to the daily average that month.
The impound competition, however, appears to have dramatically increased the number of vehicles seized, records show. On average, deputies in the five-city area hauled away 4.7 cars a day in July. On the day of the contest, July 11, they impounded 37 vehicles -- which owners could not recover until they paid a towing fee.
Deputies in Lakewood seized 18 vehicles that day, half the total they would impound over the course of the month.
The number of field interviews with gang members and other suspected criminals also soared during the contest to increase that particular enforcement activity. Tatreau said the spike occurred because some deputies had fallen out of the habit of doing that intelligence gathering.
Before he was contacted by Baca, Tatreau said he stood by the idea to encourage deputies’ productivity and had been encouraged by deputies who liked the competition.
“They were pumped and excited,” Tatreau said. “I’ve never got any negative feedback. It’s not a quota or review system. It’s a morale booster.”
Like every station, Tatreau said, there are “good, hardworking deputies and there are the lazy guys.” He said he was trying to encourage the less motivated deputies to get more involved in proactive police work.
Tatreau said he joined the Lakewood station about 18 months ago and noticed that some deputies weren’t pulling their weight. Some patrol deputies made 15 to 20 arrests a month, while others made seven arrests in an entire year, he said.
“It frustrates me that people are so against doing work and cry foul,” he said.
Tatreau said he was “almost certain” that he was the one who came up with the original idea to have deputies compete, but that he did so with the approval of his captain.
On the day of the contests, a sheet of paper was posted in the watch commander’s office where deputies reported their activity. At the end of the 24-hour period, the team results were tallied.
“We’re not doing anything wrong,” Tatreau said. “No way, no how did anyone encourage officers to falsify a report or an arrest.”