When Los Angeles County disbanded its Office of Public Safety (OPS) four years ago and shifted its duties to the Sheriff’s department, the department hired 280 of the defunct office’s employees.
Department officials interviewed the applicants, combed through their files and gave them polygraph tests, but a review of those files by the Los Angeles Times indicates they missed a few things in hiring the not-ready-for-prime-time officers.
Dozens of them, who had jobs patrolling parks, hospitals and county government facilities, had committed serious offenses that probably should have disqualified them from becoming sheriff’s deputies. Almost 200 had failed to get hired by other law enforcement agencies for various deficiencies, around 100 had been involved in acts of dishonesty, like falsifying police records, and at least 15 had been caught trying to manipulate their lie-detector tests.
David McDonald was made a jail guard although he had been fired by the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department during a scandal over excessive force in which a fellow officer implicated him in harassment of inmates. McDonald told the Times he was surprised: “How can you put me back in the jails when I already had a problem there?”
Around 50 of the new hires admitted during the interview process that they had solicited prostitutes, beat up their spouses or committed petty theft. Nearly 30 had convictions for drunk driving, battery or other crimes.
The Times listened to interview tapes and reported that investigators, on some occasions, knowingly ignored the behavior of applicants. In one case, an interviewer can be heard letting an applicant off the hook after catching him trying to manipulate a polygraph test.
The newspaper did not have any numbers on how the new hires have fared, but gathered anecdotal evidence that there have been problems with them. One officer, Desmond Carter, had been deceptive about past domestic disputes, but they hired him anyways. And then they fired him three months later when he allegedly fired several rounds at a motorist who bumped his car in a parking lot and then started to drive off.
The Office of Public Safety was relatively obscure when it was merged with the sheriff’s department, but it was the fourth-largest law enforcement agency in the county. At its peak it had 580 sworn police officers and 160 civilian workers, but was down to around 460 at the time of its demise.
Department employees were low-paid compared to other agencies, which led to a discrimination lawsuit. In June 2002, Superior Court Judge Victor Chavez ruled that county officials discriminated against the largely black and Hispanic workforce of 500-plus and owed them $60 million in back wages. At the time, 30% of the OPS officers were Caucasian, compared to 70% of the better-paid Sheriff’s deputies. The judge ordered that their salaries be equivalent to Sheriff’s deputies. The plaintiffs were seeking $100 million for back pay and pension benefits.
The verdict was overturned by the California Second District Court of Appeal in April 2007. It found no discrimination and that the wage disparity was because OPS officers didn’t do the same job as deputies. It said statements by the Sheriff’s department about OPS officers being “a different breed” were references to educational and professional backgrounds, not race. The state Supreme Court declined to review the case.
Some observers said the office’s absorption by the Sheriff’s department was payback for the lawsuit.