Officials pitched the Leadership Empowerment Discipline boot camp in San Luis Obispo as a retreat run by police officers and military personnel that is "known to transform destructive behavior in at-risk youth."
Children who attend learn about communications, character, leadership and discipline.
But now, it's four officers who worked at the camp who are facing discipline. Two officers from the Huntington Park Police Department and two from the South Gate Police Department were arrested this week on suspicion of physically and emotionally abusing children at the camp. The children's' attorneys say treatment left them traumatized.
The arrests follow a two-month investigation by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department into allegations of abuse by children who had attended a weeklong boot camp, according to sheriff's officials.
Investigators said that of the 37 participants interviewed, 15 boys and girls ages 12 to 17 said they were assaulted by the camp's drill instructors, according to the Sheriff's Department. Photographic, video and eyewitness accounts have been assembled to substantiate the allegations, officials said.
"It really gives us no pleasure to arrest police officers or anyone in law enforcement," sheriff's spokesman Tony Cipolla said. "It proves that nobody is above the law."
Eleven of the 15 children have retained attorney Gregory Owen, whose firm said in a statement that the officers "slapped, punched, and stepped on their hands and backs while doing push-ups." Some reported being taken to a "dark room" for beatings, the firm said.
In an interview with The Times, Owen said most of the physical injuries to the kids consisted of bruising, and one boy had broken fingers.
But the psychological toll will be deep and lasting, he said.
"This sort of thing undoubtedly will affect these children forever. Every time they go down the street and see a cop, they are literally scared. That's not going to go away," Owen said.
Most of the children denied the abuse when asked how they were bruised or injured.
The first person to come forward was a 13-year-old boy who had "terrible" bruising around his windpipe, Owen said.
His mother took him to the emergency room, where staff suspected the mother was abusing the child. Los Angeles County DCFS was called to the ER.
Child services staff took the boy to another room, and he opened up about the abuse, prompting DCFS to alert San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department about the abuse, he said.
"They went one child after another and obtained the truth," Owen said. "This isn't a greedy plaintiff's attorney. This is young people who told their stories truthfully to police officers."
Owen declined to provide details of what photographic and video evidence shows about the abuse. He said he has reviewed medical reports and X-rays of two people who were taken to the emergency room for medical care.
Although it is held at the California Army National Guard Military Base in San Luis Obispo, the boot camp is run by the Huntington Park and South Gate police departments. Parents pay $400 for the camp, which is designed to improve behavior and discipline.
Edgar Gomez and Carlos Gomez-Marquez, both of South Gate's police force, were arrested on suspicion of cruelty to a child, criminal threats, misdemeanor battery and abuse under the color of authority.
Marissa Larios, a member of the Huntington Park Police Department, was arrested on suspicion of cruelty to a child, criminal conspiracy, misdemeanor battery and abuse under the color of authority. Patrick Nijland, also of the Huntington Park agency, was arrested on suspicion of cruelty to a child, criminal battery and abuse under the color of authority.
All four have been released on $20,000 bond, sheriff's officials said. None of the officers was formally booked; their attorneys posted bail on the arrest warrants, Cipolla said.
In a statement, the South Gate police department said it "supports the members of its police department in the hard work and danger they are exposed to on a daily basis" but that "allegations of wrongdoing" are taken "very seriously."
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