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

A six-month investigation found more than 80 law enforcement officers with rap sheets still employed today.

By Robert Lewis, David DeBolt | ddebolt@bayareanewsgroup.com, Jason Paladino, Katey Rusch | rusch.katey@gmail.com, Laurence Du Sault and Ali DeFazio | Investigative Reporting Program, UC Berkeley.

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.

Riverside Police Department’s acting Chief Larry Gonzalez is vying for the permanent post despite a drunken driving conviction. He was a lieutenant in 2013 when he pleaded guilty after reportedly crashing a city-owned SUV with a blood-alcohol level nearly twice the legal limit. (Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

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.

A roadside memorial marks the spot where Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Deputy James “Tommy” Council dozed off at the wheel and plowed into a group of cyclists, killing Kristy Gough and Matt Peterson.

“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.”

Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Deputy James “Tommy” Council, center, was convicted of two counts of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter for the deaths of two elite cyclists after plowing his patrol car into the group on a training ride in 2008. He’s still on the force, currently working in Santa Clara County’s jail.

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.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra threatened to prosecute reporters who obtained the state’s list of convicted officers. (Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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.

In San Francisco, reporters found Officer Warrick Whitfield still working despite two prior criminal convictions. He got a DUI in 2012, then was criminally charged two years later for using his law enforcement access to dig up confidential information about a domestic dispute. He was convicted in that case too but again kept his job. And the San Francisco Police Department refused to explain why.

San Diego police wouldn’t explain their decision to keep four convicted officers, including Roel Tungcab, who was charged with domestic violence in 2011 on suspicion of knocking his wife unconscious. He pleaded down to a single misdemeanor charge of damaging her phone. Records show authorities have responded to multiple domestic incidents at Tungcab’s home in recent years. And yet, records show, Tungcab — who declined to comment —- is still working today.

And the Compton Unified School District wouldn’t respond to questions about keeping school officer Donte Green on the force after a jury convicted him of child endangerment. In 2014, Green left his 7-year-old daughter alone in a car with his loaded gun. She grabbed it and fired it in the direction of a school, records show. No one was hurt. Prosecutors insisted Green should be held accountable.

“Look, I appreciate what he does for a living,” Deputy District Attorney Craig Rouviere told the jury during closing arguments at Green’s trial. “But you know what? If I fall over dead tomorrow, they are going to bring in another D.A. to finish this case, because the system is bigger than one person. … We can’t look at him and go, ‘Yeah, man, he’s a cop, man. Give him a break.’ That’s not how the law works.”

A judge sentenced Green to three years probation and he had to take a National Rifle Association gun safety course.

It’s possible none of those officers would be working in Florida or Georgia.  The two states have agencies with some of the broadest power to decertify officers over not just convictions but a range of misconduct, including dishonesty, unethical conduct and “moral turpitude.”

In Georgia, officers can be booted from law enforcement for offenses such as sexual harassment, drunken driving and undue force. Florida can revoke a cop’s license for possession of cannabis and perjury.

Together the two states decertified nearly 1,000 officers in 2015 — roughly half the decertifications nationwide, according to a 2016 study.

Glen Hopkins, an official at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said even when local prosecutors let an officer off on lesser charges, his state can aggressively pursue discipline.

“If they plead it down to a lesser misdemeanor — if we’ve got the facts — we’re not bound by that,” Hopkins said.

While most other states don’t take as hard a stance, they do have stricter rules than the Golden State.

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.

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.

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