In Maywood, a quiet changing of the guard

Instead of bringing six white shirts and six pairs of socks to get him through his work week, Eric Saavedra needed only one of each when he showed up Wednesday for his final shift as a Maywood police officer.

By the time he parked his squad car at the end of the night, he would be one of the last city employees.

“It’s really sad knowing that I’ll never come back to this place,” Saavedra said as he drove through the city’s streets. “Last Saturday a man called me over and asked me if his brother’s murder case was still going to be investigated. That was really a sad moment. We’re worrying about losing our jobs, and [he’s] worrying about his brother’s murderer.”

When the sun came up Thursday, Maywood may have looked remarkably like it had the day before, but in other ways it had changed profoundly. At 12:01 a.m. Thursday, the 86-year-old Police Department was disbanded, most city employees were let go and the day-to-day detail work of running the working-class city southeast of L.A. was handed over to neighboring Bell. In all, nearly 100 city workers had been let go.

Maywood officials said they had no choice because the city could not obtain insurance, the consequence of too many lawsuits in the past, many involving the Police Department, which also patrolled the nearby city of Cudahy. Only the city manager, city attorney and elected officials remain on the payroll.

Despite the changeover, things did not seem much different in the city of about 40,000 people, nearly all of them Latino. The Police Department was immediately replaced by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies, four cars at a time on most shifts.

Business at the city’s white Art Deco-style City Hall appeared to go on as usual. But no longer were there Maywood employees helping people who gathered at the front desk. Some worked for Bell, which had contracted to take over most municipal tasks.

Others were contractors hired through an agency, some of them former Maywood employees, said Magdalena Prado, Maywood’s community relations director, who was also working on a contract. A man with close-cropped hair and wearing a beige “City of Maywood” shirt was helping a woman at the Planning Department counter. Another man was wearing a black Maywood shirt. One employee pointed out Maywood’s former planning director, who was standing at the back of the room, still at work.

A big difference for those working on contracts, however, is that they are no longer receiving benefits, including health insurance. Police officers said they were let go without receiving back vacation pay.

Prado said she was trying to get figures on how many people working on city business were contractors, Bell employees or former Maywood employees. She would not allow employees to speak to the media.

A sign at the entrance to City Hall read, "…the City Council has requested that from this date forward, no media will be permitted inside city hall…"

Two women who had been working at the front desk said they were working for a consultant monitoring the changeover. They would not provide the name of the consulting firm.

In the locked parking lot next to City Hall, Maywood police cars stood idle, no longer needed. The police station, part of City Hall, was empty. L.A. County Sheriff’s Capt. Henry Romero, who stood outside the building, said his department hoped to set up a substation in the old space.

Former Police Chief Frank Hauptmann stood talking to one of his officers, who was wearing a bulletproof vest over his civilian clothes. He hugged the chief before leaving. “Just say this is the best chief we ever had,” the former cop said, his voice rich with emotion.

Nearby a white Maywood park maintenance truck was parked. On its side was written, “Committed to our community since 1924.”

Those who came to City Hall on business said they noticed little difference. Jose Lopez rode his green bike to City Hall with a pistol tucked in his belt to get a senior bus pass, just as he’s always done the first day of every month.

Luis Vargas brought in a bill from the Shell station where police brought their squad cars. He said he was paid as usual.

Several blocks away, Maywood Park’s three-year-old gym was crowded with basketball players, people working out and seniors eating lunch. Children in bathing suits waited in line to get into the city pool.

Aldo Perez, a contract employee who serves as director of Parks and Recreation, said he expects no changes. “We’re busy as heck,” he said.

As Wednesday turned into Thursday, Hauptmann made a final inspection of his officers. As his men stood in line, he walked past them, taking their badges, one by one. Some broke down in tears.

The chief gave Romero portraits of the department’s three officers who have been killed in the line of duty since 1924. Hauptmann requested that the Sheriff’s Department never remove the portraits.

Shortly after dismissing his officers, Hauptmann picked up the police radio for the last time.

“On behalf of Maywood police employees, this will be our last transmission,” he said. “Maywood police will now be 10-7, End of Watch. June 30th the year 2010. God bless all of you.”