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Poorly performing L.A. sheriff’s deputies are not weeded out in their first year, report says

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department recruits grimace in pain on the first day of training, known as "Black Monday."
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

New sheriff’s deputies who perform poorly on the job during their first year are not being weeded out, leaving them to potentially cause problems years down the road in life-or-death situations, according to a report by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s inspector general.

Of 334 trainees who graduated from the sheriff’s academy in 2014, none were dismissed for performance-related reasons during their yearlong probationary period working in the county jails. Among them was a deputy who supervisors concluded was “not taking his position … seriously” and whose “integrity is a major concern,” the report said.

In a sampling of trainees, most did not receive their evaluations on time and were promoted to regular status without any meaningful assessment of their performance, according to the report.

Many performance evaluations were filled with the same boilerplate language, cut-and-pasted word for word, sometimes with the wrong gender pronouns or references to a generic “Deputy Doe.” One review appeared to have been filled out before the time period the deputy was evaluated.

“She has at times appeared to be tentative in her communication with inmates, and her training officer and supervisors continue to work with her to build confidence in this regard,” review after review stated.

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Letting go of problem recruits is important because deputies are protected by civil service rules once their one-year probationary term ends, and it is significantly harder to fire them.

The Sheriff’s Department has a history of hiring some deputies with checkered pasts, and misconduct has been a recurring issue, especially in the jails, where deputies begin their careers before moving on to street patrol assignments.

In recent years, criminal prosecutions have extended to the department’s highest echelons, with former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka sentenced Monday to five years in federal prison and former Sheriff Lee Baca soon to be sentenced in a federal obstruction-of-justice case.

“In order to have a fully effective hiring process, the department must conduct meaningful evaluations of its probationary employees or run the risk of repeating the mistakes of previous large-scale recruiting drives,” the report said.

In 2010, the Sheriff’s Department hired nearly 300 officers from a little-known county police force, including some who had accidentally fired their weapons, had sex at work and solicited prostitutes. Nearly 100 had issues with dishonesty, including lying or falsifying police records, according to records review by The Times.

Baca also maintained a special hiring program that granted preferential treatment to the friends and relatives of department officials, including some candidates who were given jobs despite having troubled histories.

More recently, sheriff’s officials have said they will not relax hiring standards in the face of a severe staffing shortage that has many deputies working mandatory overtime.

But the scrutiny should not stop after new deputies graduate from the academy, Inspector General Max Huntsman said.

“It’s about making sure we get it right – it’s not just about putting as many bodies out there as possible,” Huntsman said in an interview.

Huntsman’s report, released Tuesday, is the first to make use of his access to personnel records, which was approved in December after lengthy negotiations with the county, the department and the union that represents deputies. In late 2013, the Office of the Inspector General replaced a previous watchdog system that involved three different offices.

The Sheriff’s Department had previously been warned about problems with probationary evaluations, the inspector general’s report noted.

It’s about making sure we get it right – it’s not just about putting as many bodies out there as possible.

— Inspector General Max Huntsman

In 2009, the Office of Independent Review told the department to get rid of rookies who exhibited troublesome behavior or risk further incidents in the future.

In its landmark 2012 report, the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence stated that new deputies needed to be rigorously assessed.

In a written response to the inspector general’s report, Sheriff Jim McDonnell acknowledged that the performance evaluations were not detailed enough and promised to tighten standards.

But he said that staffing constraints will prevent him from implementing some of the report’s recommendations, such as keeping the same training officer with the same deputy for an entire year.

He noted that only 4% of deputy applicants make it to the sheriff’s academy and 20% of them drop out before graduation. By the time successful recruits start work as deputies, McDonnell said, the department has invested a lot of time and money in them, and they have been “thoroughly vetted.”

“Because of this investment,” McDonnell wrote, “the department takes great efforts to ensure that those who can competently complete the training process are afforded every opportunity to succeed.”

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