Amid an aggressive push to bolster its ranks with thousands of new deputies, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department loosened its hiring practices and gave jobs to recruits who in the past would have been rejected, according to a department watchdog report released Thursday.
Among those hired were applicants with criminal records, drug and alcohol problems and financial woes. One recruit, for example, had been released from another police agency after using excessive force. Another candidate had abused marijuana and steroids and been convicted of underage drinking shortly before he applied to become a deputy.
The report, written by the county's Office of Independent Review, criticized the department for its 2006 decision to abandon a strict hiring policy, in which aspiring sheriff's deputies were automatically disqualified if they failed to pass an exacting background check or any other part of the application process. In its place, the report found, the department adopted a more liberal approach that allowed applicants to be hired if officials determined they had reformed themselves or that past mistakes were insignificant.
The change came as the department was working to increase its ranks. Coming off several years of budget constraints during which the size of the department shrank significantly, sheriff's officials set out to make up for lost ground. In 2006, the department more than doubled the number of applicants it conducted background checks on and hired twice as many candidates over the year before. In the last three years, the agency has hired more than 2,700 deputies.
"They had a mission and that mission was to hire deputies," said Michael Gennaco, head of the Office of Independent Review, which oversees the department. "Unfortunately, it may have come at a price in the quality of people they hired."
Sheriff's officials, Gennaco said, failed to lay out clear guidelines on who made for an acceptable candidate under the more accommodating hiring strategy.
"They changed their philosophy, but then said nothing else about what that means . . . What does it mean to take a 'holistic' approach to hiring?" Gennaco said, using the department's description of its recruitment practices. "It means whatever you want it to mean. That is not a very principled way to do business."
The problems were compounded when overworked and insufficiently trained staffers struggling to handle the dramatic increase in applicants failed in some cases to sufficiently investigate potential problems uncovered during background checks, the report found.
Sheriff Lee Baca acknowledged the report's basic findings, saying there was "human error in people judging other people for their suitability." Many of the problems, he said, arose after a panel of commanders that used to review questionable candidates was dismantled without his knowledge. "There is no excuse for hiring a problematic person," Baca said.
The report highlights the troubling profiles of nine deputies hired under the new guidelines. Six have since been fired or resigned and three have been relieved of duty pending investigations into misconduct.
One man was hired even after he lied in an interview, telling investigators that he had never been arrested or had any encounters with law enforcement agencies. In fact, investigators discovered that he had repeatedly been stopped by police for driving with a suspended license and that a judge issued a warrant for his arrest after he failed to appear in court. The background check also found that the recruit had disappeared from his base for three months while serving in the military and had been a suspect in a police investigation after he borrowed a friend's car and then refused to return it.
The man's time in the department was short-lived. He resigned during his first year on the job after being arrested on assault charges, the report found.
Another applicant came looking for a job several years after he was fired from another California police agency, where he had been investigated several times for excessive force and other misconduct. In one instance, he drove his knee into the back of a 60-year-old woman and twisted her arm. He also was found to have been arrested for driving while under the influence. Several other police departments had refused to hire the man, but the Sheriff's Department offered him a job. During his first year working in the county jail, several inmates and others complained that he was prone to "blow up at others" and "fly off the handle." He was eventually dismissed after throwing a shoe at an inmate.
A female candidate was admitted to the sheriff's academy despite nearly failing high school and dropping out of a community college before earning a degree. A subsequent investigation unearthed a web of gang affiliations and led to accusations that she was using her position in the department to access databases and provide information to gang members. She was allowed to withdraw from the academy.
County supervisors responded with concern. "The consequences of erring, the consequences of not being thorough and vigorous are horrific. One case can do a lot of damage," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. "No matter how many officers we want to hire . . . coupled with that goal is the presumption that the integrity of the ferreting process will not be compromised."
The department, Baca said, was in the process of adopting one of the many recommendations made in the report. Going forward, he said, prospective deputies would once again be automatically rejected if they are found to have been fired from a previous law enforcement agency, or have serious drug offenses or other major transgressions.
Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.