Los Angeles, CA — Domestic violence, bribery, theft, excessive force, brutality — these are just a few of the crimes committed by active duty sheriff’s deputies with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. In total, there are 300 deputies with a history of misconduct whom Sheriff Jim McDonnell thinks the public should know about. However, thanks to a protectionist court system and a powerful police union, the crimes of these cops may remain secret.
Having taken over one of the most corrupt sheriff’s departments in the country, McDonnell appears to be taking steps to increase transparency and foster public trust. But these steps are being met with heavy resistance along the way.
In 2014, McDonnell inherited a department in chaos.
In April of last year, former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Undersheriff Paul Tanaka was convicted in connection with a sweeping, federal civil rights investigation of corruption and deputy-on-inmate abuse inside the jail system.
Tanaka, along with former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and dozens of other deputies, were exposed in a horrific abuse scandal that shocked LA County. In fact, Baca’s crimes were proven so grave in a civil suit, that he was found personally liable for $100,000, which he is to pay the victim directly out of his own pocket.
After seeing the breeding ground for corruption that McDonnell took over, it is no surprise his move to increase transparency is being met with such resistance. The years of corruption that festered under Baca did not happen in a vacuum. It was allowed to grow out of control by a union and a system that helped cover it up.
To promote a more transparent and fair system of justice, McDonnell wanted to turn over the names and crimes of hundreds of problem cops to prosecutors, who can then add them to a database that tracks problem cops. This information can then be disclosed to defendants who may have been unjustly targeted by these cops.
After all, if a cop has been caught stealing from the department, beating an innocent person, or accepting bribes, then their honesty on the stand should certainly come under question — especially considering the fact that their tainted testimony could decide whether or not an innocent person gets thrown in a cage.
However, according to the LA Times, the union that represents rank-and-file deputies strongly opposes providing the names to prosecutors and has taken the department to court. The Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS) argues that the disclosure would violate state laws protecting officer personnel files and draw unfair scrutiny on deputies whose mistakes might have happened long ago.
Shortly after the Union noted their opposition, an appeals court sided with them by blocking the sheriff from sending the list of problem cops to the DA.
To be clear here, this list would not be a matter of public record, although it undoubtedly should be. It would only come up when the officer is set to testify against someone they accused of a crime.
As the Times points out, departments in at least a dozen counties, such as San Francisco and Sacramento, regularly send prosecutors the names of problem officers. Some, including agencies in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura have done so for well over a decade.
This process only helps to further the cause of transparency — but not in LA.
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme court ruled, in Brady vs. Maryland, prosecutors must turn over exculpatory, or favorable evidence to the defense to lessen the instance of faulty convictions. However, if this precedent in LA takes hold, the rights of the accused will suffer a dangerous blow.
Jerry Coleman, a special assistant district attorney in San Francisco County who teaches prosecutorial ethics at the University of San Francisco School of Law, told the Times that the ripple effects of such a failure can spread well beyond the courtroom.
“They affect not just our relations with police but our relations with victims, and the integrity of the criminal justice system entirely, and the public’s sense of honesty in the proceedings,” he said.
As for the court’s reasoning for keeping the criminal records of police officers secret — it could “create a negative stigma for the deputy.”
“The disclosure of a deputy’s name in conjunction with this list will create a negative stigma for the deputy,” Superior Court Judge James Chalfant wrote in his decision last month.
If the cop is accused of beating a handcuffed suspect, shouldn’t his ‘stigma’ be ‘negative’, especially given the fact that he was obviously allowed to keep his badge and gun?
“We’re not trying to hide anything that’s gone on in the past. The fact of the matter is, nobody wants to be wrongly accused of anything. That applies to everyone else in the world, so it should apply to deputies too,” ALADS’ president, Det. Ron Hernandez said.
However, if these officers were wrongly accused, then their records should not have any marks on them.
To highlight the glaring double standard of cops and the people they police, consider what happens after a police-involved shooting. Immediately after a cop shoots someone, their previous criminal record is not only released but it is published by news outlets in an attempt to assassinate the victim’s character publicly, and without due process exonerate the officer.
At least in the case of prosecutors maintaining the list, these matters would be resolved in a courtroom instead of the comment sections of local news affiliates.
Just as police accountability attempts to take a half step forward, the blue wall of protection comes crashing down and sets it two steps back.