Something Really Rotten in LA County: Secret List of Problem Deputies Thwarts Constitutional Justice

Problem DeputiesFifty-four years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors must make defendants aware of all evidence that might be favorable to their cases, including information that could undermine the credibility of the government witnesses who, for the most part, are police officers.

That constitutional principle is massively violated in LA County, thanks to the way prosecutors here are barred from accessing the personnel records of the Sheriff Department’s 9,400 sworn officers—mostly sheriff’s deputies but also higher-ranking personnel.

As the Los Angeles Times reported last week, for the past few years both interim Sheriff John Scott and now elected Sheriff Jim McDonnell have maintained a closely-guarded list of about 300 problem officers whose various misconduct issues should clearly be shared with prosecutors. The Times got hold of the 2014 list and found abuses ranging from crudely falsifying evidence, to sexual assault, to revealing to suspect’s girlfriend that the suspect (a drug dealer) was under surveillance, to a horrific case in Lancaster in which an officer brutally pepper-sprayed an elderly Black man in the face and then falsified his report so as to justify arresting the man, who rapidly declined and died following this trauma.

Two-thirds of the officers named on 2014’s secret list are still with the Department, including a significant number who have been convicted of crimes.

Two-thirds of the officers named on 2014’s secret list are still with the Department, including a significant number who have been convicted of crimes. Several have been promoted. The sexual assailant and the deputy who falsified evidence (using taco sauce to fake blood, lol) are still with the Department and currently earn $210,000 per year and $235,000 per year respectively.

The most common finding against the officers on the secret list (accounting for 69%) is dishonesty. Considering the context in which officers may be called to give evidence, demonstrated police dishonesty is hardly a small matter. And lest anyone think blocking prosecutor access to the files of these miscreants is a small problem overall, the Times report notes the secret list includes deputies who were and are potential witnesses in some 62,000 felony cases from 2000 forward.

Because Sheriff McDonnell wants to clean up this mess by granting prosecutors full access to the officers’ files, and because the powerful deputies’ union (ALADS) is fighting him every step of the way, the issue will be decided by the California Supreme Court next year. Meanwhile, District Attorney Jackie Lacey is taking no position. She told the Times that she’s in a “tough spot” because her own office employs more than 200 investigators who are represented by the same union (ALADS). ​Our district attorney is no profile in courage​; she needs to step up or step down.

Many California counties already give prosecutors at least some information on problem officers, as do a majority of the 50 states. But “Blue” California remains the only state that blocks prosecutors from seeing entire police personnel files. And that’s a disgrace.

The reason for the disgrace, obviously, is the undoubted power of the law enforcement unions in our state.

I​ should make it clear that I​ am a strong union supporter who worked for almost two decades at senior levels in two major national unions prior to ​starting a second career in ordained ministry at age 44. But when it comes to this issue, I call on everyone, including my ​labor movement friends, to demand major change in state laws that effectively shield police misconduct and that thereby deeply corrupt the administration of justice.

Why should anyone rot in prison or jail whose trial was corrupted by the testimony of a bad cop​ or whose defense was hampered by suppressed information​?

peter laarmanNow that we know just how bad it is, everyone in this county who cares about fairness–including our Supervisors and our DA—needs to step up and speak out, even if it means putting their union campaign contributions at risk.

Strong unions, yes. But not at the price of making justice weak.

Peter Laarman

About Peter Laarman

Rev. Peter Laarman serves on the Justice Not Jails steering committee. He formerly directed Progressive Christians Uniting, the LA-based network of activist individuals and congregations that first launched Justice Not Jails in 2012 as a multifaith initiative. He served as the senior minister of New York’s Judson Memorial Church from 1994 to 2004. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Peter spent 15 years as a labor movement strategist and communications specialist prior to training for ministry.

Comments

  1. Rev. Dan Smith says:

    Peter, you are always brilliant!

  2. Without disclosure to help them do better, law enforcers and law makers will almost naturally tend to place themselves above the law.
    This is to the detriment of public safety, including that of officers themselves — not that the union which is supposed to be helping them recognizes it.

    For all the efforts of the unions and the state laws promoting secrecy, the offenses are not secret: those who have been railroaded and have been and now are held in what ought to be recognized as “false imprisonment” know it, their families know it, and their communities know it. (By the way, the penal code calls false imprisonment for gain “human trafficking,” something government leadership says it opposes).
    The attempted secrecy and the self-placement above the law, life is more dangerous for all. (That is not the only contributing factor — the laws themselves, the extreme sentencing, the plea-bargaining, and the culture of punishment rather than of prevention, and the context of overwhelming social/economic inequality all do their part). The mistrust and fear on all sides are sure to lead to escalation of many of the encounters between law officers and community members.

    In the absence or weakness of moral force, there is a tendency to fill in the gap (or chasm) by extra reliance on physical force.

    Yes, D.A. Lacey correctly says is in a “tight spot.” Law enforcement officers too are in that spot, and with them all residents, especially those in the “disinvested communities.”