The sheriff’s troubling hires

(Reed Saxon / Associated Press)

Los Angeles County residents, taxpayers and voters have every right to expect their sheriff to hire only the best and most trustworthy deputies to carry weapons and badges, to patrol their streets and to serve in their courtrooms and jails. It’s a given — or it should be — that the county would reject prospective deputies who had committed the kind of misconduct that prevented their hiring or resulted in dismissal or discipline from other law enforcement agencies.

So it was shocking to learn that the department, under Sheriff Lee Baca, knowingly hired dozens of officers with records of misconduct, including use of excessive force, misuse of weapons, solicitation of prostitutes while on duty, and dishonesty, as outlined in Sunday’s story by Times staff writers Robert Faturechi and Ben Poston.

Shocking — yet in the end not completely surprising. Baca’s Sheriff’s Department has been marked by lax oversight, most notably over the mistreatment of jail inmates by deputies. The department also has been notorious for the disproportionate number of deputies cited for driving under the influence of alcohol.


INTERACTIVE: A look inside the hiring files »

The Times’ investigation focused on 280 deputies who were hired from the county Office of Public Safety, where they had served until its dissolution in 2009. Of those, 92 had been disciplined by other police agencies for serious misconduct; 29 had been fired or pressured to resign from a law enforcement job. Especially noteworthy among those were the deputies who improperly drew or fired their county-issued weapons. Consider, for example, Linda Bonner, who shot at her husband during an argument. Or John Dall, who as a county public safety officer was reprimanded for pointing his loaded weapon at a subordinate officer. He said the action was unconscious, and that drawing his gun was a habit of his that had been remarked on.

It is indeed a remarkable habit, and not in a good way.

Any large law enforcement agency is going to have a few problem deputies, but the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is in danger of developing a reputation as the place where law enforcement officers go when they can’t make the cut — or get rejected — in other police departments. So what is to be done?

Baca faces at least two challengers to his reelection in June, and candidates are vying to succeed two termed-out members of the Board of Supervisors, which sets the sheriff’s budget and authorizes hiring. This is the perfect opportunity for county government to reexamine its standards and for voters to demand that candidates lay out, in depth, what they would do to improve the county’s accountability in hiring — and in all other aspects of public performance.