A TIMES INVESTIGATION
Maywood hires police with past troubles
By Matt Lait and Scott Glover, Times Staff Writers
April 1, 2007
THE Maywood Police Department a 37-man force
that patrols a gritty square-mile city south of
downtown Los Angeles has become a haven for
misfit cops who have been pushed out of other law
enforcement agencies for crimes or serious misconduct.
Among those on the job: A former Los Angeles
County sheriff's deputy terminated for abusing
jail inmates; a onetime Los Angeles Police
Department officer fired for intimidating a
witness; and an ex-Huntington Park officer
charged with negligently shooting a handgun and driving drunk.
Other officers were hired by Maywood after
flunking out of training programs elsewhere, a Times investigation has found.
In all, at least a third of the officers on the
force have either left other police jobs under a
cloud or have had brushes with the law while
working for Maywood. Several officers in recent
years have left Maywood after being convicted of crimes.
Even the newly appointed police chief has a
checkered past: He was convicted of beating his
girlfriend and resigned from the El Monte Police
Department before he could be fired. His
conviction was later overturned on appeal because
the defense was not allowed to exclude a juror
who had previously worked with domestic violence
victims. He was ultimately convicted of a lesser
charge of making a verbal threat.
Known among law enforcement circles as a
department of "second chances," Maywood's police
department is one of nearly 50 independent police
agencies in Los Angeles County. The department,
whose officers are mainly white and Latino,
serves a densely populated city of roughly 30,000
that is 96% Latino. There are no women or African
Americans on the force, which also patrols the nearby town of Cudahy.
"Are there things that are bad in our department?
I would venture to say that there are," said
Maywood City Councilman Samuel Peña. "But I think
you would find bad things in other departments if
you looked closely at them
. There are bad apples in every department."
Although Maywood's police department has rarely
been in the news, in part because it is dwarfed
by the nearby LAPD and county sheriff's
department, allegations of corruption and
brutality have thrust it and city officials into
the spotlight in recent months.
The brewing scandal has included accusations that
police and city leaders were on the take from the
owner of a local tow company; that a longtime
officer was extorting sex from relatives of a
criminal fugitive; that a police officer tried to
run over the president of the Maywood Police
Commission in the parking lot of City Hall; that
an officer impregnated a teenage police explorer;
and that officers had covered up the truth
surrounding a fatal police shooting that resulted
in a $2.3-million legal settlement.
The Los Angeles County district attorney, the
California attorney general and the Federal
Bureau of Investigation have active probes into the Maywood department.
Amid the chaos, Bruce Leflar, still listed on the
department's website as chief, abruptly stopped showing up for work last fall.
And the officer whom he'd appointed to clean up
the department, Al Hutchings, agreed to resign
his post after being told a videotape had been
made of him allegedly having an on-duty liaison
with the female owner of a local doughnut store.
Hutchings, who has been a vocal critic of the
Maywood police and casts himself as a whistle
blower, said the allegation that he was involved
in an improper relationship was fabricated "to
blackmail me into stopping the work that I was doing."
As is the case with many of his fellow officers,
it was not the first time Hutchings had been
accused of misconduct. As an LAPD officer he was
convicted of bilking the department for bogus overtime pay.
In an interview, Hutchings said he disclosed the
conviction on his application to the Maywood
department. Though he contends that a supervisor
had approved all of the overtime he worked, he
said he entered the plea so as to quickly dispose
of the case, which he alleges was filed in
retaliation for his having reported misconduct by a high-ranking LAPD official.
In addition to hiring officers shunned by other
agencies, Maywood has been slow to adopt policing
practices in place at bigger departments, which
are aimed at ensuring professional conduct and
increasing public trust. For example, Maywood
officers accept free meals from local
restaurants, a perk that even the past chief acknowledged partaking in.
And supervisors at the department don't always
see the need for documenting citizens'
complaints, a practice mandated at other
agencies. In a recent deposition, the lieutenant
in charge of internal affairs said complaints
were often "resolved casually" in the lobby of the police station.
Officers are also permitted to carry a
leather-encased, lead-filled hand weapon, known
as a sap, which many agencies have outlawed
because of the brutal injuries they can inflict.
"Everything that could go wrong seems to have
gone wrong at Maywood," said lawyer Merrick Bobb,
a law enforcement expert who has consulted with
the U.S. Department of Justice on policing
practices. "This department needs to be put into receivership."
Bobb, who also is special counsel to the Board of
Supervisors on matters about the Los Angeles
County Sheriff's Department, said he was
particularly concerned that officers expelled
from other agencies could find employment at
Maywood without any public accountability.
"The phenomenon of misfit cops going from agency
to agency is a terribly serious one," Bobb said.
"It makes for one of the strongest arguments for
public access to discipline records of police misconduct."
A state Supreme Court ruling last summer has had
the effect of greatly restricting public access
to police discipline records. The state's
Commission on Peace Officer Standards and
Training compiles information about terminated
officers from departments throughout California
but refuses to publicly disclose the data.
But a Times review of court and police records
suggests that, compared with other agencies,
Maywood officials are far less discriminating in whom they employ.
Maywood Officer Brent Talmo was hired in 1998
after being terminated from the county sheriff's
department in 1986 for displaying a pattern of
"bizarre behavior and unprofessional conduct," records show:
Talmo poured dirt into the gas tank of a county
vehicle; placed a dead gopher in a prisoner's
pocket as an apparent prank, then lied about it
and tried to get another deputy to lie on his
behalf; tipped over the bed of a sleeping
prisoner, causing him to fall face first onto the
floor and bloodying his nose; and telephoned a
fellow jail guard and referred to him as a snitch and used a racial slur.
When Talmo was fired, then-Sheriff Sherman Block
publicly singled him out as "the primary culprit"
in a campaign of harassment aimed at prisoners.
Talmo, still an officer on the Maywood force, did
not respond to requests for comment.
Frank Garcia is another officer given a second chance by Maywood police.
In March of 2003, Garcia was charged with drunk
driving and the felony offense of discharging a
firearm in a grossly negligent manner. As a
result, he was required to resign from his job as
an officer with the police department in nearby Huntington Park.
He later entered into a plea bargain in which he
agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of
firing a gun from a public roadway. He was
sentenced to 90 days in jail and three years' probation.
According to court papers, disclosing the
conviction on job applications made it difficult
for Garcia to find work until he applied with
Maywood. He was hired there just one year after committing the offense.
Garcia's lawyer called the crime a "boneheaded
mistake" that his client deeply regrets.
Other recent Maywood hires include: an officer
who was rejected by 25 other police departments
because he admitted on his applications that he
pilfered money from a previous employer; an
ex-LAPD officer who was hired even though he was
under criminal investigation for and later
convicted of beating a gang member as part of
the notorious corruption scandal centered in the
Rampart Division; and an officer who has a
juvenile record for malicious mischief, vehicle
tampering and carrying a concealed weapon.
Richard Lyons, the acting police chief with his
own criminal past, said there is nothing wrong
with giving somebody a fresh start.
"It's OK to give a person a second chance if you
learn from your mistake," said Lyons, who
recently was catapulted from the rank of officer to chief.
Nonetheless, Lyons said he was not pleased with
the background checks that were done on some of
the current officers on the force. As a result,
he said, he wants to bring in outside consultants
to help vet future candidates.
"A couple of people have slipped through the
cracks that shouldn't have slipped through the cracks," he said.
Maywood's starting pay of $52,600 is among the
lowest for police officers in Southern
California, city officials said. That might
explain why better qualified candidates apply
elsewhere. It also might be the reason the
turnover rate is extremely high. Most of the
officers there have been hired since 2000,
records show. Although many officers have left
for other agencies, some have been forced to leave after breaking the law.
Officer Sergio Fernandez, for example, resigned
after a federal grand jury indicted him for
participating in a sophisticated real estate
scheme that bilked $3.5 million from a federal home loan program.
He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to serve a
year in federal prison and pay about $250,000 in restitution.
Two months ago, Officer Timothy O'Keefe was
forced to leave the department after an off-duty
shooting at an Orange County bar. He was
convicted of negligently discharging his weapon.
Maywood City Atty. Francisco Leal said the
department needs to reorganize and embrace
reforms to bring the agency in line with modern policing practices.
"There's definitely a problem with the police
department," he said. "There's no getting away from that."
Times staff writer Hector Becerra contributed to this report.