The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which has faced criticism for handing out official-looking credentials to civilians with no law enforcement duties, is recalling an estimated 200 badges the department gave to local politicians, according to documents and interviews.
Sheriff Lee Baca’s decision to recall the badges comes two weeks after the FBI arrested three city officials in Cudahy on bribery charges. In support of the charges, the U.S. attorney’s office released a photo of a smiling young woman in a Cudahy nightclub, brandishing two handguns and wearing a councilman’s badge on her chest.
One command-level sheriff’s official briefed on the badge recall said the move was prompted by the revelation in Cudahy. Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore, however, said that the timing was a coincidence and that a 2007 state attorney general’s warning prompted the call to return the badges.
Asked why it took more than four years for the Sheriff’s Department to take action on the attorney general’s legal opinion, Whitmore replied, “That’s a good question.”
The emergence of the Cudahy photo is the latest in a series of incidents in which official-looking credentials given to civilians by law enforcement agencies have come under scrutiny. Critics have long said badges and identification cards appeared to be rewards for political contributions and had the potential for abuse.
After a series of Times stories, California police chiefs and sheriffs were told by then-Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown in 2007 that handing out badges created the potential for civilians to falsely pose as law enforcement officers. The attorney general’s opinion covers any badge “that would deceive an ordinary reasonable person into believing that it is authorized for use by a peace officer.”
In the wake of the opinion, some agencies pledged to stop issuing the IDs and badges.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department recalled official-looking identification cards but continued giving badges to council members and city managers in cities that contracted for the department’s police services.
At first glance, the badges closely resemble those deputies wear, with the same six-pointed star design. Instead of identifying the person as a “deputy sheriff,” the badges read “City Official Los Angeles County.”
Whitmore said the badges were given to city officials for use during emergencies so they could pass through sheriff’s command posts. He estimated that about 200 badges will be recalled from about 40 cities.
Aside from the Cudahy case, Whitmore said he was not aware of any other incident in which a city official misused a badge. But civilian abuse of such credentials has been a problem in the past.
In the 1980s, the issue caught the attention of members of the county Board of Supervisors after they learned that “Hillside Strangler” Kenneth Bianchi had used a county emblem to pose as a police officer while luring his victims.
Prior to the attorney general’s 2007 opinion, two political contributors to the Riverside County sheriff told The Times they displayed their honorary badges during encounters with law enforcement. One used it to gain access to a secure area of Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. The other showed it to police officers serving a search warrant at his business.
About the same time, a Compton man was arrested after allegedly flashing Redondo Beach police officers a badge issued to him by a state assemblyman.
The Times also reported that Baca gave official-looking identification cards to members of his Homeland Security Support Unit, a civilian group that was staffed by many of his political donors.
According to an internal policy memo, the practice of giving badges to city officials has been going on since 1986. In fact, the policy was reexamined in 2010 but allowed to continue despite the attorney general’s warning on the matter three years earlier.
Whitmore said the photograph of the woman wearing Councilman Osvaldo Conde’s badge at the El Potrero nightclub in Cudahy was “a vulgar display.”
Three Cudahy officials were arrested June 22 as part of a federal investigation into allegations of corruption in the city’s government. Conde, then-Mayor David Silva and Angel Perales, the former head of code enforcement, are accused of taking a total of $17,000 in bribes from the owner of a medical marijuana dispensary who wanted to open a store in the city.
In a transcript of a secretly recorded conversation, Perales is quoted talking about “a crooked deputy.”
“Well, he just got transferred to Cudahy, but I knew all about him before … he came in,” Perales tells an FBI informant.
The two men talk about paying off the deputy. “Money makes the monkey dance,” Perales says.
Whitmore said department investigators looked into the allegation about a corrupt deputy and concluded that it was a “fabrication, it’s not real.”