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Sheriff should pay more attention to his recruits

It must have seemed like a good deal at the time.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was looking to hire 1,300 new deputies. Hollywood producers were offering the department $250,000 for permission to film a Fox television reality show on the training of recruits.

A “good marketing” tool, Sheriff Lee Baca said of “The Academy” when it made its debut in 2007. For two seasons, the show followed classes of deputies-in-training. Then the Sheriff’s Department pulled out amid complaints that episodes humiliated some recruits.

Now a wayward story line has circled back and embarrassed the department, with an episode that seems too outlandish even for reality TV, involving a deputy accused of sneaking heroin behind bars, stuffed in a bean and cheese burrito.

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If Sheriff’s Department officials had watched the show back then, they might have seen this coming:

A bumbling recruit flunks out of his academy class. Friendless, feckless, forgetful, he falls asleep in orientation, botches training exercises, can’t remember emergency codes or figure out what to do in a role-playing drill with a suicidal gun-wielding woman. Drill sergeants hound him for a lack of discipline and ignorance of “the laws that guide you and allow you to do certain things.” That’s all on camera.

Later, off camera, in real life, failed recruit Henry Marin tried again, made it through the four-month academy program and was hired as a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy.

Marin was relieved of duty last week and charged with taking drugs into a jail and conspiracy to commit the crime of smuggling that heroin burrito into the jail at the Airport Courthouse, where he worked.

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When I read The Times’ story about the case last week, I had to stop and ask myself: Was the Sheriff’s Department really that hard up back then for deputies?

It seems there were plenty of warning signs that Marin might not be a fit recruit. Now this winds up as one more black eye for a department already reeling from allegations of deputy brutality, smuggling and other misconduct.

I thought back to a conversation I had months ago with Michael Gennaco, who monitors the Sheriff’s Department as head of the Office of Independent Review.

Then, I was trying to make sense of a trash-talking, gang-sign-throwing brawl at a holiday party between two cliques of county jail deputies. What accounts, I asked him, for the rash of hooliganism and brutality complaints against young deputies?

Some of the problems, he said then, could be traced to the department’s “boom and bust in hiring.” In the boom years, 2007 and 2008, the department hired thousands of new deputies. The bust years followed; training funds were cut and movement within the force stalled.

“When you have a goal of hiring 1,000 officers in one year, you may end up relaxing hiring standards,” Gennaco said. “In ’07 and ’08, 1,000 deputies were hired each year. You ended up hiring some deputies you wouldn’t ordinarily hire.”

That you he’s referring to is us; we pay their salaries — and any claims that arise from their misconduct.

“Folks that had been disqualified or not hired by LAPD or other agencies got jobs in the [Sheriff’s Department] because they just needed bodies,” Gennaco said.

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The crush of applicants affected training as well. In 2008, state inspectors almost decertified the academy because of deficiencies in training, sloppiness in record-keeping and instructors who gave recruits answers to tests they were taking.

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Department spokesman Steve Whitmore disputed the notion that current problems can be traced to lower hiring standards years ago.

“We did not relax standards,” he said on Monday. “It’s a very exacting process. We make sure we aren’t bending a little just so we can increase the numbers.”

I asked him why Marin was hired after flaming out so dramatically during televised training.

“If a person doesn’t make it through the first time but is still a valuable candidate,” Whitmore said, “they certainly can go through again.”

Marin “made it through the second time and regrettably decided to taint the star that so many people bring luster to.”

Marin wasn’t the only one who flunked out on “The Academy” that season yet was considered “valuable” enough to get another shot.

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Another recruit was dismissed from the academy on the show because — according to the series’ own promo blurb — he defied direct orders and went to Mexico for a weekend, “which resulted in a physical altercation with a local gang.”

I’m not sure which of those would be harder to overlook — defying an officer’s direct order or engaging in a fight with a local gang. But by the next season, that recruit also had made it onto the force.

Whitmore says the accusations against Marin shouldn’t taint the good work that thousands of deputies do. He’s right about that.

Nor should the actions of the deputy charged by federal prosecutors Friday with smuggling a cellphone to an inmate/informant who promised to pay him $20,000.

Or the deputies fired after the drunken holiday party brawl. Or the deputy who was captured on video strong-arming a woman on the bus. Or the deputies accused of beating county jail inmates and trying to intimidate witnesses.

But all of this colors how we see a department under siege. The lapses, and bureaucratic indifference they suggest, paint a picture of a department out of control.

sandy.banks@latimes.com


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