California's criminal cops: Who they are, what they did, why some are still working
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, The Mercury News is 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.