For one week, it seemed like the Orange County Sheriff’s Department was aflame in bad news. Four different revelations about larcenous or fraudulent misconduct by sheriff’s personnel erupted the week of Sept. 7.
Deputies and civilian jailers allegedly falsified their reserve military orders to get paid for more time than they actually served. A deputy also was arrested that week on suspicion of repeatedly burglarizing a Yorba Linda home where he had been sent earlier on a death call. A female deputy was charged with taking a suspect’s debit card and giving it to her son, who used it. And yet another deputy was indicted by the grand jury for falsifying a police report to make it appear he had booked evidence, including drugs and a knife, when he had not.
This was against a backdrop of two recent department scandals — deputies improperly using jailhouse informants to secure evidence against targeted inmates, and systematically mishandling property evidence by booking it late, or sometimes not at all.
Since Feb. 1, at least seven Orange County deputies and one recruit have been criminally charged for various misdeeds.
What’s going on?
It all begs the question, what’s going on with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department? Does Sheriff Don Barnes deserve credit for rooting out some of the problems or criticism for allowing them to occur in the first place? He has been sheriff less than two years, but was the undersheriff before that, virtually running day-to-day operations for years.
Barnes notes that the vast majority of deputy misconduct was discovered internally, by his own people.
“The thousands of employees that do great work every day, they’re aghast. They don’t like that some are tarnishing their credibility,” he said.
If Barnes is on trial for seeking out problems, correcting them and disciplining the misbehaving parties, then, he says, he is guilty as charged.
‘Broken beyond repair’
Some see it differently.
“The Orange County Sheriff’s Department is broken beyond repair, and these are only the latest examples,” said Somil Trivedi, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. The American Civil Liberties Union is locked in litigation against the department over jail conditions.
“Instead of giving (him) credit for investigating some of these scandals, we should be asking why he has so many scandals to begin with,” Trivedi said.
With 4,000 employees, Orange County has one of the largest sheriff’s departments in the state. Some experts say the larger the department, the more problems it will have.
“Every large organization has misconduct happening and it’s a question of how the command staff is rooting it out,” said Katherine Mader, a retired Los Angeles County Superior Court judge and the first inspector general for the Los Angeles Police Department. “I was horrified as I went over the complaints in the LAPD as to how much was papered over.
“It’s totally troubling, but the sorts of issues here have gone on for years in large police agencies and it’s just not found out about.”
Deserves credit for audits
Mader said Barnes deserves credit for proactively launching audits on the mishandling of evidence and cheating among military reservists in the department.
In the evidence scandal, the explosive audit found that nearly one-third of the evidence collected from February 2016 to February 2018 was not booked by the end of the deputies’ shifts, as required by policy. Nearly 300 bookings were tardy by more than a month, creating questions about chain of custody. One official from the Public Defender’s Office said thousands of criminal cases could be affected.
A second audit found that dozens of deputies had lied in their official reports, saying they had booked evidence when they had not. That evidence included knives, guns, drugs, money and photos. Indeed, in the case involving the deputy who was indicted by the grand jury, a conviction was vacated when it became clear the evidence was missing.
In the military scandal, an Army reservist was caught in January cheating on his orders, submitting paperwork to get paid for more time than he actually served. Barnes launched a review that determined four more deputies and two correctional workers had allegedly falsified their military orders to serve as reservists.
“It’s looking like he is doing something good to clean up the department,” Mader said. “Whether he really is or not is up for discussion.”
In both the evidence and military scandals, Barnes did not release the audits publicly until forced by pending stories in the Orange County Register. Barnes referred the military problems to “the appropriate federal officials,” eschewing District Attorney Todd Spitzer. Sheriff’s officials would not say which federal officials were given the case.
Why no local prosecution?
Lawrence Rosenthal, a professor at the Fowler School of Law at Chapman University in Orange, contends Barnes should have sent the military cases to Spitzer because they can be prosecuted in state court, which moves more quickly.
“If you are referring something to federal authorities, you’re putting it on the slow boat to China,” said Rosenthal, a retired federal prosecutor.
Barnes responded that since the military is a branch of the federal government, those authorities have the first right of refusal.
Rosenthal also criticized Barnes for not better publicizing the cases, which he said would increase the deterrent effect on deputies.
“The sheriff’s failure to act with maximum aggression gets to me, and the fact he isn’t shows he’s not good at solving this type of problem,” he said. “(Barnes) gets credit for doing the minimum. … If you placed the bar as low as possible, yes, he jumped over it.”
Barnes: Not a chest thumper
Barnes said it’s not his style to hold “self-aggrandizing” news conferences or fly banners noting his accomplishments in disciplining employees.
“If I’m being criticized because I didn’t hold a big press conference, that is an assertion you can make,” he said. “But it’s not that I didn’t act.”
Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College, doesn’t believe the offenders are disciplined enough.
“It’s all fine and good to discover the problem, but what do you do to make sure that you are making an example?” Balma said. “If it’s just paid leave, and then you get a slap on the wrist, that’s hardly a punishment.”
Barnes and his staff have tightened policies and procedures to keep deputies from repeating their missteps.
But critics point out that no one was penalized for misusing informants in violation of inmates constitutional rights; only two deputies so far have been convicted for mishandling evidence and lying about it — both pleaded guilty to misdemeanors with no jail time or fines.
Some deputies have been terminated.
Barnes said he has no control over criminal penalties and contends firing deputies is hardly a slap on the wrist. “I don’t know what their barometer is for accountability,” the sheriff said of his critics.
Bryan Selzer, a former police officer whose company LEFTA Systems creates training software for law enforcement, was optimistic about Orange County’s department.
“I would not panic yet,” Selzer said. “It’s just too big of an organization to look at everything every single day.”