Two L.A. sheriff’s officials promoted to high ranks despite histories of serious discipline
In his 27 years at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, James Tatreau Jr. has made plenty of headlines — often for the wrong reasons.
As a lieutenant in Lakewood, he helped organize a contest among deputies to arrest the most people in a 24-hour period — a move that then-Sheriff Lee Baca publicly criticized.
In 2008, Tatreau authorized a deputy to fire a Taser at an inmate who then fell from a jail bunk, breaking his back and leaving him paralyzed. As a result, Tatreau was demoted and the county paid the inmate $4.25 million to settle a lawsuit.
A year later, a federal jury decided Tatreau and another deputy had used unreasonable force when they shot two armed men in Compton three years earlier.
Those incidents might normally spell the end of a deputy’s chances at career promotion. But last month, Sheriff Jim McDonnell elevated Tatreau to captain, placing him in charge of the Norwalk station.
Tatreau is one of two sheriff’s officials with histories of serious discipline who have recently been promoted to high-ranking positions by McDonnell.
Roosevelt Johnson was elevated last month from captain to commander, four rungs below sheriff, despite having a month-long suspension in 1999 for making false statements and putting false information into records, according to sheriff’s records reviewed by The Times.
In a statement, the department declined to comment on Tatreau’s and Johnson’s disciplinary records, citing state peace officer confidentiality laws. “Our obligation to comply with the law should not be interpreted as a form of obfuscation or obstruction,” the statement said.
The two promotions were among more than two dozen that took effect last month for employees elevated to captain or higher. McDonnell said in a separate statement that all his “promotions have been completely vetted. A tremendous amount of thought went into each selection. I stand behind every single one of them.”
McDonnell has been trying to reform a department reeling from a jail abuse scandal that has resulted in the conviction of more than 20 former sheriff’s officials, including Baca. In an interview this year, McDonnell said he would not talk about any individual’s personnel file, but that all deputies considered for promotion are thoroughly evaluated.
I stand behind every single one of them.
— Sheriff Jim McDonnell, on his promotions
“Something that happened 20, 25 years ago, or longer, we give that appropriate weight in determining, OK, the person did what they did or made a mistake on this date. What have they done since, from a standpoint of redemption? Have they been a model employee since that time?” McDonnell said.
In several cases, though, McDonnell has gone to court to try to fire lower-level deputies who the department concluded had made false statements but had successfully won their jobs back from a civilian appeals board. Last year, the sheriff warned roughly 300 deputies with records of serious misconduct — such as lying, stealing, bribery, family violence and using unreasonable force — that they could be reassigned from their current jobs.
Leaders from two deputies unions declined to discuss the promotions of specific people, but they said many of their members believe high-ranking officials with misconduct histories are treated more favorably than rank-and-file deputies with similar records.
“You can’t have a double standard. You can’t promote people with [misconduct] problems but then fire lower-level people for those same issues,” said Lt. Brian Moriguchi, president of the Professional Peace Officers Assn., which represents higher-level department staff as well as custody assistants.
A department spokeswoman said McDonnell has fired seven deputies so far this year.
Sam Walker, a retired criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and an expert in police accountability, said promoting people with histories of serious discipline runs the risk of “putting people in supervisory positions who are compromised.
“People know their records,” he said, and added that it is difficult for supervisors to punish one of their underlings if they themselves have a history of serious discipline.
Tatreau was once a driver and bodyguard for Baca, a position long considered within the department as a career-launcher because of its proximity to the boss.
In 2006, he and another deputy opened fire on two armed brothers in Compton, killing one and injuring the other. Sheriff’s officials said the deputies’ actions were justified and that they opened fire after one of the brothers pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and appeared to aim it at them.
The men were running away from deputies with their weapons concealed, attorneys for the brothers’ family argued. Freddie Davis Jr., who died in the incident, was shot five times in the back and buttocks, the lawyers said. Jurors decided the deputies acted in “malicious, oppressive or ... reckless disregard” of the brothers’ rights and awarded the family $2.65 million.
The verdict outraged county lawyers as well as Baca, who publicly backed Tatreau and the other deputy, saying the “armed suspects” were “wrongly being portrayed as victims.” The county later settled the lawsuit for $1.6 million.
In 2007, Tatreau organized a competition among deputies that awarded what he called “bragging rights” for whoever made the most arrests, impounded the most vehicles or stopped the most gang members.
At the time, Tatreau defended the game as a fun way to encourage deputies to do proactive policing. “No way, no how did anyone encourage officers to falsify a report or an arrest,” he said.
But the competition was criticized by civil libertarians, disavowed by Baca and made fun of by late-night talk show host Jay Leno.
A year later, Tatreau was on duty when Blake Dupree, a man detained on suspicion of carjacking his mother’s vehicle, refused to be taken out of his cell at the Lakewood station for fingerprinting. As deputies tried to remove Dupree, Tatreau authorized one to fire a Taser, which caused the inmate to fall 4 to 7 feet from a bunk.
The incident left Dupree a paraplegic. Tatreau was found by department investigators to have violated the department’s rules on safeguarding people in custody and demoted to sergeant. By 2010, he was a lieutenant again, according to the county auditor-controller’s office.
But a Times review of his Personnel Performance Index, a short summary of his personnel file, shows he was suspended for 30 days for three policy violations, including “false statements,” “performance to standards,” and “false information in records.”
Since then, Johnson has accumulated at least seven commendations, some of which were described in the one-page summary as being the result of “exemplary conduct.”
By 2015, Johnson had risen to the rank of captain in charge of the Santa Clarita Valley station when deputies began grumbling about his handling of an arrest.
On June 16, 2015, the day after he and another deputy followed an erratic driver to the man’s home and arrested him, Johnson wrote an email to station staff and his bosses admitting he engaged in a “foot pursuit” without broadcasting it over his radio, as department policy required. He said he wanted to address the issue “so that there was no misunderstanding nor perception of there being a double standard” when it came to how the event was being handled. “I will take full responsibility for my actions,” he wrote in the email, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.
But a watch commander at the time of the arrest complained to his boss that he believed Johnson had been “untruthful and deceitful” and had violated department policy by not properly reporting that he had pursued the driver at 80 mph on the freeway before chasing the man on foot to his front door.
You’re putting people in supervisory positions who are compromised.
— Sam Walker, expert in police accountability
Lt. Tom Bryski called for a formal investigation. He alleged in a memorandum that Johnson had sent his email “as damage control because … station deputy personnel were angry at the perceived double standard because they were aware of the out-of-policy vehicle and foot pursuits.”
Undersheriff Jacques “Anthony” La Berge said he and one of his commanders reviewed the allegations but concluded that Johnson did not violate department policy. He did not elaborate. He said no administrative investigation was opened.
At the time that he wrote the memo, Bryski was suing the department over reverse racial discrimination. Bryski’s lawsuit said he was denied a promotion because he’s white and accused Johnson, who is black, of giving preferential treatment to non-white deputies. The lawsuit was dismissed.
Bryski, who is now retired, said the department’s policies apply equally to everyone in the agency. “If it’s a violation, then it’s a violation no matter who’s involved,” he said.
Johnson’s promotion took effect April 2 and he is assigned to the department’s Custody Services Division.
Derek Hsieh, executive director of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, which represents rank-and-file deputies, declined to comment on the recent promotions but said it’s “exceptionally rare” for a demoted deputy to later be promoted. He said even if McDonnell made thoughtful decisions about who should be on his command staff, the appearance of unfairness is a problem.
“People are going to start to doubt your judgment,” he said.
For more news on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, follow me on Twitter: @mayalau
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