Sheriff’s Department admits wrongly hiring problem officers
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department acknowledged Tuesday that it hired about 80 officers who should have been disqualified because of problems in their backgrounds including criminal convictions and poor job performance.
Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers said he was troubled by the hires and plans on “making some swift changes.”
“People have to trust that we’re hiring the best and brightest … because of the awesome authority and responsibility our deputies have,” he said in an interview. “Almost everything we do is predicated on public trust.”
The admission came two weeks after a Times investigation found the agency hired dozens of officers from a disbanded county police force even though sheriff’s investigators had found significant misconduct in their backgrounds. Internal agency files showed that jobs were given to officers who accidentally fired their weapons, had sex at work, committed theft, solicited prostitutes or falsified records.
The department’s internal review has reached some of the same conclusions about the 2010 mass hire.
Rogers, whose duties include overseeing the personnel department, said officials were considering terminating some of the officers but probably would not be able to legally fire employees for misconduct that sheriff’s officials knew about when they hired them. What’s more realistic, he said, is moving the problem hires to less sensitive positions, giving them more training and putting them on administrative monitoring to limit future misconduct.
Some, he said, have already been disciplined for bad behavior since being hired, as The Times had reported.
Richard A. Shinee, an attorney for the union representing deputy sheriffs, said it would be “the height of hypocrisy and expediency” to take action against the deputies now.
“The department has known for years their background and that background was vetted, and the good and the bad was revealed. It went to the highest levels of the department for review,” he said.
Rogers said the department identified the roughly 80 officers by comparing their background files with the department’s hiring standards. Some, he said, should have been disqualified automatically and others had problems that were less “black and white.” He said he was legally restricted from providing the names and detailed histories of the officers. He said the group of problem hires included 51 sworn deputies and supervisors and another 33 custody assistants who work in the jails. He also stressed that the number was preliminary and might change as the investigation continues.
The records reviewed by The Times showed that for nearly 100 of the roughly 280 hires, investigators discovered evidence of dishonesty, such as making untrue statements or falsifying police records. At least 15 were caught cheating on the department’s polygraph exams.
The officers all once worked at the county’s smaller police force, the Office of Public Safety. To save money, the county disbanded that agency about four years ago, and its responsibilities — patrolling county buildings, parks and hospitals — were handed over to the Sheriff’s Department.
The department was not required to hire any of the former county officers, officials said, but gave them the first shot at applying for the new sheriff’s jobs. The majority were taken on as sworn deputies, and others were hired as custody assistants in the department’s troubled jail system, as security guards or for other lower-level positions.
One applicant had been fired from another agency amid allegations he abused inmates, but was hired by the Sheriff’s Department to work the jails, according to hiring records reviewed by The Times. Another hire was forced out of the Los Angeles Police Department after lying to a supervisor. A third admitted to using her service weapon to shoot at her husband while he ran away from her during a dispute.
After The Times’ article, the county Board of Supervisors demanded that Sheriff Lee Baca report back about the mass hiring. In a two-page letter he sent to the board this week, Baca acknowledged that the hiring standards were violated. He said he had delegated the authority for making the hiring decisions to his undersheriff at the time, Larry Waldie.
“My direction was unequivocal that we were to only hire qualified candidates,” Baca says in the letter.
Baca told the board that an audit found that the former undersheriff was responsible for hiring “several” officers who did not meet sheriff’s standards. He did not reveal to the board that the internal review identified about 80 problem hires. Baca said no administrative action could be taken against Waldie now because he has retired. Waldie did not return calls seeking comment but said in an earlier interview that the department was pressured to hire some of the officers by county officials.
Board members, however, weren’t satisfied with the report, and called on Baca to provide more details about the hires.
The department “is just one hell of a mess and we have an obligation to straighten it out,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said the report failed to identify why problem officers were hired.
“The issue is to find out why people who did not meet the basic standard for hiring in the Sheriff’s Department got hired anyway, and how do we prevent that from happening in the future, and how do we know it’s not happening today,” Yaroslavsky said. “We need to know what happened.”
Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich called on the sheriff to provide more information, including how many of the questionable hires have had conduct or performance problems since joining the department, personnel file information about those who should not have been hired, and whether there are any legal measures the county could take against Waldie.
Baca’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said the sheriff “understood there are significant issues here.”
“This is how he’s responding,” Whitmore said. “He’s fixing it.”
The department is still reviewing the hiring but is already planning to implement reforms.
Rogers said the problem appeared to have been Waldie’s decision-making. He said the department’s investigators did their job by completing thorough background checks.
Still, Rogers said, he’s met with every background investigator, as well as the investigators’ supervisors, to clarify the department’s position on hiring.
“I expect them to only hire people who meet our hiring standards, period,” he said. “We’re only going to hire the best. There’s no equivocation.”
The department is also changing the way it hires, Rogers said. Currently, the decision is made by a supervisor within the personnel division and cleared with an assistant sheriff. The department now plans to create a panel of lieutenants and one civilian employee to make hiring decisions, with the more difficult cases decided by a panel of commanders.
“I believe we need to confront this head-on,” Rogers said. “That’s what we’re doing.”
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