Ron Kaye: The Burbank P.D. cleanup

So many victims, so many lies, so much still hidden, so much of your money wasted, so much you need to know to finally be free of the sins of the past.

If you think you can escape the consequences of allowing your cops and your city officials to conceal the truth from you about all that has happened for so long inside the Burbank Police Department — as if your ignorance is some kind of shield — you are kidding yourselves.

Rampant racism and sexism and nepotism — this has been going on too long.

What has come out in recent weeks in the trials of two lawsuits filed by Burbank Police Det. Steve Karagiosian and former Deputy Chief Bill Taylor is a sordid tale of incompetent leadership, conspiracies and back-stabbing, tolerance for brutality and discrimination.

It is a story within a story within a story that is so complicated and has so many players, it would take a blue-ribbon commission or an authoritative and comprehensive report to sort out all the details and to determine the levels of responsibility.

What the jurors heard in court convinced them to award $150,000 to Karagiosian and nearly $1.3 million to Taylor. The city's legal bills are almost certain to rise even more when Officer Cindy Guillen's case comes to trial next month, and when Lt. Omar Rodriguez gets his day in federal court.

Attorney Solomon Gresen, who represented Karagiosian, and attorney Gregory Smith, who represented Taylor, provided a tour in lengthy conversations through the labyrinthine saga and how it started to unravel after the Porto's Bakery robbery on Dec. 28, 2007.

Rumors were flying around that gang-member suspects in the case were beaten by officers. Four months after the robbery, an anonymous letter — purportedly from officers afraid of retaliation — was sent to shed light on the allegations.

Testimony in these recent trials cast then-Police Chief Tim Stehr in the middle of all that went wrong, a man way over his head who had promoted his pals over more capable officers and then, as the pressure grew, started looking for someone to blame.

Taylor was accused of obstructing the Porto's investigation. Pressure was put on Rodriguez to turn on Taylor, who had dared to support his efforts to hire more minority officers. That made Rodriguez a marked man, accused of using excessive force on a suspect.

And so it went. Officers chose sides, changed their stories about what had happened. By the spring of 2009, the department was in turmoil.

Taylor told Stehr, and later City Manager Mike Flad, that a lieutenant was sexually harassing women at the city animal shelter. But rather than conducting an investigation, Stehr demoted Taylor to captain. Taylor filed a retaliation complaint. Other officers sued, alleging racial and ethnic discrimination.

The city turned to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for help and hired an outside investigator, James Gardiner, to sort out the facts. By the fall of 2009, a federal civil rights investigation was begun and the records of a dozen officers, including those of Sgt. Neil Gunn Sr. and several of the officers suing the city, were subpoenaed.

Fearing, as his wife Tina put it later, that he “was going to be the fall guy because he was the one who spoke out,” Gunn committed suicide on Oct. 29, 2009.

“I have looked at Neil Gunn's record and he was one of the best of the best, one of the good guys,” said Gresen, the attorney who represented Karagiosian in his discrimination suit.

The Gardiner report, completed in March 2010, formed the basis for current interim Police Chief Scott LaChasse — brought in to reform the department — to fire 10 officers, including Taylor.

Yet, in the two recent trials, Smith presented extensive evidence challenging the Gardiner report. Jurors clearly accepted his narrative in awarding damages.

There is so much more to come out, even as LaChasse and the top commanders he brought in from the LAPD and sheriff's department to try to clean up the mess with outside consultants like Michael Gennaco — who has helped several troubled police agencies get back on track.

“The key for me is always to be ready, willing and able to admit when you made mistakes,” said City Manager Mike Flad. “And then seize that opportunity to improve your organization so you prevent those things from happening again.”

But change doesn't come easy. New training programs, tightened monitoring controls and intensified efforts to hire women and minorities are part of the reform effort — policies that do not sit well with at least some elements in the department.

A culture that took decades to evolve, like the Burbank Police Department's did, doesn't happen without public and political support of some sort. It will take the public and the politicians to complete the cultural change in the department by finally facing the high cost of what has happened.

“As a society, we're too complacent,” LaChasse said. “That's the reason we don't get involved. Complacency kills cops because they're not at their competitive best and they lose their situational awareness. It kills society because when you become complacent, you're not involved, you're not taking charge, whether you're politicians or other government agencies.

“We have to blame ourselves when these things happen.”

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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