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What secret files on police officers tell us about law enforcement misconduct

What secret files on police officers tell us about law
enforcement misconduct 1

For years, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has kept under wraps a list of deputies with records of misconduct.

When a former sheriff tried to hand over the roster to prosecutors, the union for rank-and-file deputies stepped in to block the disclosure, triggering a fierce legal fight that reached the California Supreme Court.

In another case, the Sheriff’s Department disregarded a federal judge’s repeated orders to produce the list in a lawsuit brought by the mother of a man fatally shot by deputies. The department was ordered to pay the mother more than $2 million last year and the information was kept secret.

Now, with its hand forced by a recent state law that loosened strict privacy protections given to police, the Sheriff’s Department has released a cache of documents that provide details about dozens of deputies on the list.

One deputy, the records show, was suspended for making false statements to investigators after he was caught in a car with a prostitute. Another was disciplined for lying about brandishing a gun during a road rage incident. A third was benched for 30 days without pay for directing a trainee to falsify a stolen car report, which resulted in a fraudulent insurance claim.

The records, released in response to a lawsuit brought by the Los Angeles Times, identify more than 70 deputies whose discipline ranged from written reprimands to firings. In at least half the cases, deputies had their punishments reduced or amended as part of a settlement with the department or an appeal. Some deputies committed more violations after being punished; others went on to earn promotions or commendations.

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The documents offer the clearest picture yet of the type of misconduct that landed deputies on the department’s secret list of law enforcement officers with misconduct in their past that could undermine their credibility as witnesses in court. The disclosures took on increased significance when Dist. Atty. George Gascón last month asked all law enforcement agencies across L.A. County to provide his office with the names of officers “who have engaged in acts of moral turpitude,” including those with sustained findings of tampering with evidence, misappropriating property, dishonesty, family violence and other wrongdoing.

One of the deputies in the batch of disclosures made by the Sheriff’s Department was Richard Rubalcaba, who in 2012 was caught while off-duty in a car with a woman whom he had agreed to pay “in exchange for sexual acts,” the sheriff’s records show.

Rubalcaba told sheriff’s investigators he didn’t know the woman was a prostitute and that he only had wanted to invite her to “get tacos.” He maintained that he hadn’t negotiated a price for oral sex and that nothing sexual had occurred before he was caught.

Rubalcaba, who was arrested for loitering with intent to commit prostitution, later admitted he had been untruthful, according to the disciplinary records.

He was initially suspended 20 days for making false statements during an internal investigation, but the punishment was cut in half as part of an agreement with the department that required he undergo additional training. Rubalcaba was listed as a potential witness in 50 criminal cases after he was disciplined, records show. It is unknown whether prosecutors in the county district attorney’s office were aware of the misconduct committed by Rubalcaba and other deputies on the Sheriff’s list.

Rubalcaba acknowledged in an interview with The Times that he lied about the incident but said he later accepted responsibility.

“I spoke to some good peers and mentors and they basically told me: ‘What you did wrong is what you did wrong, and you have to accept it.’ And that’s what I did,” he said. “People make mistakes.”

He said he was fired last fall for an unrelated incident, but declined to provide details.

Rubalcaba was one of nearly 300 deputies named on a 2014 version of the Sheriff’s Department’s secret list previously reviewed by The Times. So, too, was Deputy Kevin Duxbury, who was disciplined for lying about throwing a handcuffed man he’d arrested for public intoxication to the floor of a Santa Clarita hospital in 2008, according to the recent disclosures.

The records show Duxbury lied both to Sheriff’s investigators and a supervisor about what happened, claiming the man tripped when their legs “got tangled up.” Duxbury also failed to report the incident to a supervisor — a violation of the department’s policies on how deputies must report uses of force, according to the records.

The man suffered a broken nose and a head injury, according to the records. A nurse told an investigator the man lost consciousness for about 30 minutes.

“I’ve seen plenty of force in various situations and this one was just so over and above,” another nurse said. “I ended up tossing and turning awake most of the night, worrying about it.”

Duxbury initially was suspended 15 days for the reporting violation, but the punishment was later reduced to three days as part of an agreement that required he do more training, according to the department records.

He declined to comment. Duxbury has been listed as a potential witness in more than 130 criminal cases since he was disciplined, according to district attorney records.

For Robert Leyba, another deputy in the records, a lie he told to a supervisor two decades ago about being the victim of an assault to explain an injury he suffered while drinking with friends threatened to upend his career.

“I was 22 years old when this happened,” he said in an interview. “I learned from it.”

Leyba was demoted, but later earned back his rank and is now a sergeant at Industry station. He said he talks often to younger deputies about the mistake that landed him on the department’s list of deputies with potential credibility problems.

“If it maybe stops that one person from getting in trouble, you know, it was worth it,” he said.

For decades in California, it was against the law to publicly disclose information about an officer’s misconduct and discipline.

But in 2019, the state Supreme Court ruled that then-Sheriff Jim McDonnell and other law enforcement agencies could alert prosecutors that an officer who might testify in a criminal case had a history of misconduct. Earlier that same year, a new police transparency law took effect that required law enforcement to release records about officers involved in shootings and other serious uses of force, as well as those with a history of sexual misconduct or dishonesty.

The law cleared the way for The Times to seek information from the Sheriff’s Department on deputies who were on the 2014 version of its secret list. The roster of names is often referred to as the Brady list after a landmark 1963 Supreme Court ruling that requires prosecutors to disclose favorable evidence to defendants, including material that could undermine the credibility of government witnesses.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department keeps a secret list of about 300 deputies with histories of dishonesty and similar misconduct that could undermine their credibility when testifying in court.

The Times also requested that misconduct, if any, by members of the department’s command staff and a handful of other deputies be disclosed.

In response, the Sheriff’s Department released records on only a few deputies. The Times sued, alleging the department was failing to abide by the law.

After turning over records for the more than 70 deputies, sheriff’s officials claimed none of the more than 200 other deputies in The Times’ request committed misconduct that had to be disclosed. Under the police transparency law, records in cases involving dishonesty or sexual assault must be made public if an allegation against an officer is “sustained,” or found to be true.

But sheriff’s officials have declined to provide information about discipline cases in which sustained dishonesty charges were rescinded or reduced as part of a negotiated settlement agreement or appeal. That stance is troubling to police watchdogs.

“‘Sustained finding’ has been interpreted too narrowly by a number of agencies,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. “The problem is that some agencies are interpreting that term in a way that they think allows them to withhold records that we think they clearly need to disclose.”

Sheriff’s records filed in a lawsuit, for example, show department officials in 2011 concluded Deputy Andrea Cecere should be suspended 20 days for dishonesty about an incident in which she claimed another deputy forcibly subdued a jail inmate after the inmate attempted to strike Cecere. Three other deputies said the inmate was in handcuffs when he was struck.

But the Sheriff’s Department released no information about Cecere’s misconduct, saying the records filed in court were preliminary and “do not constitute a sustained finding.” Court records show a judge found that the Sheriff’s Department had missed a deadline for imposing Cecere’s punishment and threw out the suspension on a technicality.

The law also leaves it up to police agencies to interpret what constitutes an act of dishonesty. That has led to confusion within the Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff’s officials told The Times that violations of five of its policies on honesty were disclosable under the law, but in a letter sent to The Times in December, an attorney from a law firm hired to represent the Sheriff’s Department listed eight honesty policies that would trigger disclosures.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), the author of the disclosure law, proposed follow-up legislation last year that would allow a court to impose fines of $1,000 per day if a police department does not release documents within 30 days and the person seeking the records files a lawsuit. Had that provision been included when the law went into effect, the Sheriff’s Department could have faced more than half a million dollars in fines for its handling of The Times’ request.

“We know they wouldn’t have dragged their feet on it,” Skinner said in reference to the Sheriff’s Department. “The purpose of that is to avoid circumstances like L.A. Times and others have experienced where departments have waited two years to respond to requests. That absolutely does not follow the intent of the original law.”

Sheriff Alex Villanueva has attributed delays in producing records to limited staffing and lack of funding.

Skinner’s bill would also expand the existing law to cover any use of “unreasonable or excessive” force by police and also officers found to have conducted unlawful searches or arrests.

Beyond the records released to The Times, the Sheriff’s Department since last summer has been posting to its website investigative files about other cases as well. In his December letter to The Times, the agency’s attorney spelled out its plan for disclosing records. The department, he said, will search its files for disclosable incidents that occurred after 2014 and first release documents on shootings, then other serious uses of force, and last, sustained cases involving dishonesty and sexual misconduct.

The attorney did not provide a timeline for the disclosures.

Times staff writer Maya Lau and Leila Miller contributed to this report.

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