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California’s Criminal Cops: Who they are, what they did, why some are still working

This story appeared on the front page of the Mercury News and more than 30 other California newspapers on November 10, 2019.

By Robert Lewis (’08), David Debolt, Jason Paladino (’15), Katey Rusch (’20), Laurence Du Sault (’20), Ali DeFazio (’20)

More than 80 law enforcement officers working today in California are convicted criminals, with rap sheets that include everything from animal cruelty to manslaughter.

They drove drunk, cheated on time cards, brutalized family members, even killed others with their recklessness on the road. But thanks to some of the weakest laws in the country for punishing police misconduct, the Golden State does nothing to stop these officers from enforcing the law.

Those are among the findings of an unprecedented collaboration of newsrooms, including the Bay Area News Group, which spent six months examining how California deals with cops who break the law.

Today, we’re unveiling that review, along with a unique searchable database of hundreds of current and former officers convicted of a crime in the past decade — the largest record of criminal activity among police in California ever compiled.

The review found 630 officers convicted of a crime in the last decade — an average of more than one a week. After DUI and other serious driving offenses, domestic violence was the most common charge. More than a quarter of the cases appear never to have been reported in the media until now. And nearly one out of five officers in the review are still working or kept their jobs for more than a year after sentencing

It’s a small percentage of the 79,000 sworn officers across the state. But given the quality of the state’s record-keeping, it’s also incomplete, and exactly how many police officers with convictions are still on the beat today — or even the number of officers convicted over the last decade — is far from clear. Hindered by some of the strictest secrecy laws in the country, California residents don’t really know who is carrying a gun and patrolling their streets.

Reporters found at least a dozen deputies with prior convictions are still on the roster at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. And the five officers with convictions working for the Riverside police include the acting chief — Larry Gonzalez was a lieutenant in 2013 when he pleaded guilty to DUI after reportedly crashing a city-owned SUV with a blood-alcohol level nearly twice the legal limit.

There’s a Kern County Sheriff’s deputy still working despite a conviction for manslaughter after running over two people while recklessly speeding to a call. And a Santa Clara County Sheriff’s deputy is back on the force after dozing off at the wheel and killing a pair of elite cyclists on a training ride.

“Was justice served? Absolutely not,” said Jon Orban, whose friends Kristy Gough, 30, and Matt Peterson, 29, were killed when Santa Clara County Deputy James “Tommy” Council crossed a double yellow line and plowed into a group of cyclists on a Sunday morning in 2008.

“When someone holds a badge they should be held to a higher standard; in this case he wasn’t held to any standard at all,” said Orban, an Army veteran who considers himself a supporter of law enforcement. “I don’t know of an organization where if you kill two people you get to keep your job after millions of dollars are paid out because of your mistake.”

All of the criminal cops who are still on the job were convicted of misdemeanors. Convicted felons can’t be police officers in California — or in most other states.

However, the review found a third of the convicted officers still working were originally charged with a felony or violent misdemeanor that could have cost them their right to carry a gun. Most managed to plead down to a lesser crime to stay on the job.

The review also found convictions for about half of the officers still working appear never to have been covered in the media.

That includes an L.A.-area school officer convicted of child endangerment, a San Francisco Sheriff’s deputy with two convictions in two years, and a California Highway Patrol officer who investigated a possible domestic homicide despite his own conviction after a domestic dispute years before.

“Given the power that police have — if you have cops with those kinds of records, it’s sort of a betrayal of the public trust,” said Roger Goldman, a law professor at Saint Louis University who studies law enforcement licensing and standards across the country.

The reason so many of these officers are still working — and the public doesn’t know about their pasts — has everything to do with the way California oversees its police.

Piercing the veil

The Golden State is one of only five in the country that doesn’t “decertify” officers for misconduct — or effectively strip them of a license to work in law enforcement. That means virtually all hiring and firing decisions are up to local chiefs and sheriffs.

“It seems to me nonsensical that the organization responsible for setting the standards and training for the selection of police officers … has no ability to act in a case of a breach of that responsibility,” said Mike DiMiceli, who spent more than 30 years at California’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training — called POST — which accredits the state’s law enforcement departments.

Even when an officer is found guilty of something egregious, the public — which can easily go online to learn the misdeeds of doctors, lawyers or real estate agents — would have to hear about an officers’ run-in with the law and then dig through the local courthouse for details.

When it comes to police misconduct that doesn’t result in criminal charges, California shields most records from disclosure. But the wall of secrecy started to crack — a little — this year. That’s when a new law, SB 1421, required police to release internal records about officer shootings, deadly force, sexual misconduct and dishonesty — a mandate many departments are still fighting.

Shortly after that new law took effect, reporters from the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley got a rare glimpse into officers who didn’t just violate department policies but committed crimes.

Through a public records request, they received a list of the criminal convictions of nearly 12,000 people who have been law enforcement officers in California or applied to be one.

The list was a stunning disclosure — and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra wanted it back.

The AG’s office had created the list so POST could update a database to flag when police officers are ineligible to work in the state.

But Becerra’s office refused to answer any questions about the list, or clarify vital information that’s missing, such as which names belong to officers as opposed to merely applicants, and where they work. The attorney general has only said the list was inadvertently released and that the reporters were breaking the law by simply possessing it. He even threatened legal action unless they gave it back.

Instead, the reporting program at Berkeley joined with nearly three dozen news outlets across the state to learn more about California’s criminal cops.

After trying to narrow down the convictions list to officers who have worked in the last decade, the reporters focused on nearly 1,000 cases, hunting down court files from nearly every county in California. They routinely encountered roadblocks, from uncooperative government workers to missing case files to sloppy record keeping. They also pored over 10 years of news clips to identify hundreds of additional law enforcement officers missing from the state’s secret list who had been convicted of a crime in the past decade.

Ultimately, the reporters identified 630 current or former officers with criminal convictions in the past decade in California.

But given the state’s persistent secrecy, the results are only a snapshot of officers with a prior conviction. If California’s top law enforcement official knows the real number, he’s not saying.

Becerra has declined numerous interview requests for this story.

Oversight in other states

One thing that is clear: Many of the officers on the state’s secret convictions list who are still working today likely wouldn’t be cops in other states.

About two-thirds of the states with the power to decertify an officer do not even require a criminal conviction to boot someone from the profession, according to Goldman, the St. Louis professor. Misconduct findings by an administrative body can be enough.

But in California, where local departments decide the fates of problem officers, it’s nearly impossible for the public to get answers when police break the law.

Local law enforcement officials routinely dismissed questions for this story about why they continued to employ officers with criminal convictions, citing the state’s strict confidentiality rules on police personnel matters.

The Los Angeles Sheriff’s office wouldn’t explain why it keeps a dozen convicted cops on the force, including cases involving allegations of domestic abuse, trespassing, perjury and drunken driving.

Oversight in other states

One thing that is clear: Many of the officers on the state’s secret convictions list who are still working today likely wouldn’t be cops in other states.

About two-thirds of the states with the power to decertify an officer do not even require a criminal conviction to boot someone from the profession, according to Goldman, the St. Louis professor. Misconduct findings by an administrative body can be enough.

But in California, where local departments decide the fates of problem officers, it’s nearly impossible for the public to get answers when police break the law.

Local law enforcement officials routinely dismissed questions for this story about why they continued to employ officers with criminal convictions, citing the state’s strict confidentiality rules on police personnel matters.

The Los Angeles Sheriff’s office wouldn’t explain why it keeps a dozen convicted cops on the force, including cases involving allegations of domestic abuse, trespassing, perjury and drunken driving.

Time to get tougher?

With police transparency efforts on the rise in Sacramento, the debate is heating up on whether the state should do more to prevent problem police officers from working in California.

“Should there be statewide standards for police officers and deputy sheriffs? If you ask me, the clear answer is yes,” said Janet Davis, interim police chief in the Central Valley city of McFarland, a 14-member department that has had a dubious record of hiring cast-away cops.

Before Davis took over, McFarland hired more than a dozen officers who had either been convicted of a crime or fired by another department for misconduct.

Brian Marvel, a San Diego police officer who serves as president of the state’s largest police labor group, said he expects legislative efforts to decertify police officers in California in the near future — and insists his organization isn’t automatically opposed to it.

“I just want to make sure there is a fair process if an officer is decertified. I think they should have the right to appeal that, and I think there should be some due process rights,” said Marvel, whose Peace Officers Research Association of California represents more than 75,000 officers.

Former POST director Paul Cappitelli agrees that bad cops shouldn’t be working in California, but he also worries that if the state has the power to decertify police, good officers might lose their jobs.

“You’d have no more police officers,” said Cappitelli, who fears a small group of outspoken critics could sway POST’s decision to decertify. “You’d have the public deciding, and they often want to fire people.”

Others also worry about more state oversight. They say local departments should have discretion to decide whether a conviction should cost an officer his job.

“I’ve seen cops get a second chance, go on to be better officers and human beings because they have been humbled by their mistakes,” Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly said.

Take the case of former Fremont police Officer Nicholas Maurer.

In April 2009, Maurer was convicted of assaulting a man following a drunken dispute at a BART station in a highly publicized case that cost him his job. Records show he was sentenced to three years of probation and 45 days of jail that he could serve through a work program — although a judge later shortened his probation after reviewing letters of support from law enforcement to help Maurer get another job. With the assault on his record, he still couldn’t carry a gun, though.

So he went on to work for eight years at Ohlone College in the Bay Area as an unarmed officer.

“I made a mistake — a huge mistake,” Maurer said in a recent interview, pointing out he didn’t try to cover up his wrongdoing. “I feel terrible.”

Blown second chances

The news organizations’ review found many departments in California generally choose to fire officers convicted of crimes. For example, all but one of the 17 Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department deputies convicted of crimes in the review are gone, the majority within six months of charges being filed.

But the review also found multiple examples of departments giving problem officers second chances that backfired.

Richard Sotelo was an Imperial County Sheriff’s Department correctional officer in February 2013 when he was charged with domestic violence for assaulting his estranged wife. He was allowed to keep working despite the pending charges. But months later he was accused of a crime again, this time sexual battery against a male co-worker. He was charged for that as well. Sotelo ultimately took plea deals and was convicted in both cases and left the force.

The Los Angeles Police Department gave officer David Guerrero a second chance after he pleaded down a 2012 drunken driving charge to reckless driving. He was also the subject of multiple police reports — before and after that DUI arrest — that didn’t result in charges.

In one incident investigated by the Bell Police Department months before his reckless driving, Guerrero allegedly “threatened, assaulted and battered” a woman who was in a dispute with his girlfriend, according to court records.

“That’s how you do it, LAPD style,” Guerrero allegedly said as he drove away.

The DA’s office didn’t file charges. It also didn’t prosecute Guerrero in 2013 when he allegedly threatened to kill the mother of his child, court records show.

He finally ended up behind bars in 2016 when he got into an argument and allegedly sucker-punched a man, leaving him blind in one eye. Guerrero — who said in an interview he was defending himself — was charged with a felony and ultimately pleaded no contest.

“I certainly did not expect this from a Police Officer, whether he was off duty or not,” the victim wrote in a letter to the judge who sentenced Guerrero to 30 days in jail and five years of probation.

This time, the LAPD got rid of him.

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department showed similar tolerance with Deputy James Naguina Jr.

He was charged with domestic battery in October 2008 after his ex-wife alleges he broke down a bathroom door and grabbed her during a violent confrontation.

Naguina managed to plead down to a lesser charge — violating a court order — that let him stay on the force. The judge let Naguina keep his gun for his job but ordered he carry it for work purposes only.

But if that was his second chance, Naguina was about to need a third.

Two weeks from the end of his probation, Alameda officers spotted Naguina driving without his headlights on and making an illegal U-turn. According to the police report, he appeared drunk and as he struggled to find his car insurance and registration, the officer spotted “a holstered pistol in the center console.”

Prosecutors accused him of violating his probation by carrying his gun outside of work but only charged him with driving drunk.

Naguina didn’t lose his six-figure-a-year deputy’s job, though.

Despite his two criminal convictions, he’s still working for the San Francisco sheriff.

Jesse Marx and Lyle Moran of the Voice of San Diego contributed to this report.

This story is part of a collaboration of news organizations throughout California coordinated by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and the Bay Area News Group. Reporters participated from more than 30 newsrooms, including MediaNews Group, McClatchy, USA Today Network, Voice of San Diego, and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. The Jonathan Logan Family Foundation and the Fund for Investigative Journalism provided support for this project. Click here to read more about the project. 

Read this Berkeley Journalism announcement about other students and alum who participated in the project.

 

Production Staff & Crew

Laurence Du Sault ( 2020 )

Reporter

Robert Lewis ( 2008 )

Reporter

Jason Paladino ( 2015 )

Reporter

Katey Rusch ( 2020 )

Reporter