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More than 80 law enforcement officers working today in California are convicted criminals, with rap sheets that include everything from animal cruelty to manslaughter. At least six continue to work in San Diego County and one in Imperial County.
Their names appeared on a secret list of cops and police academy applicants with criminal records that was accidentally released to a pair of Berkeley-based reporters late last year through a public records request. California’s attorney general threatened to take legal action if the list wasn’t destroyed.
Instead, the reporters shared it with a select group of media outlets, including Voice of San Diego. Dozens of journalists reviewed nearly a thousand case files at courthouses across the state and have produced a public database of their collective findings.
More than 600 officers in California have been convicted of a crime in the last decade — an average of more than one a week. Nearly all avoided jail time. Most managed to plead down to a lesser crime and remained on the job.
They represent a small percentage of the 79,000 sworn officers in California, but exactly how many cops with criminal convictions are still on the beat today is far from clear. The secret list was missing plenty of high-profile cases over the last decade, which suggests that the state is not keeping a close eye on problem applicants and officers.
All this week, we’ll be publishing stories on our findings locally.
But first up is a piece about how California residents don’t really know who’s patrolling their streets thanks to some of the strictest secrecy laws in the country. The Golden State is one of only five that doesn’t strip officers of their badges for misconduct and lesser offenses, including misdemeanors. That means virtually all hiring and firing decisions are up to local chiefs and sheriffs.
After DUI and other serious driving offenses, domestic violence was the most common charge. A third of the state’s convicted officers still working were originally charged with a felony or violent misdemeanor that could have cost them their right to carry a gun, but they pleaded down to softer offenses, allowing them to keep their weapons and keep enforcing the law.
Most of the criminal cop cases out of San Diego over the last decade involved misdemeanor offenses ranging from domestic violence to theft to soliciting a prostitute. Half ended with a reduced plea and about a quarter included convictions for disturbing the peace.
Jesse Marx and Voice of San Diego contributor Katy Stegall report that local courts often took a cop’s professional background into consideration before deciding how to rule. They spotlight one SDPD officer who was accused of knocking his wife unconscious in their Imperial Beach home. The judge placed him under a less severe restraining order, citing “the defendant’s occupation.”
That officer later pleaded guilty to a property damage charge and was allowed to keep both his badge and his gun. But the allegations of domestic violence didn’t end there.
Several former police officers who’d been fired for their criminal convictions agreed to interviews and made clear that they’re still bitter about the way things went down. At the same time, local police leaders cautioned against drawing any conclusions from individual cases about their ability to hold their own accountable.
In recent years, San Diego has implemented internal reforms to flag misconduct before it manifests itself into potentially criminal behavior. In pushing for those changes, former City Councilwoman Marti Emerald said she was accused by one former police chief of being “against the cops.”
But the police themselves have acknowledged on occasion that their profession is unique and suggested that the people entrusted to uphold laws and use force deserve scrutiny. After the arrest of one officer this summer — on charges of enticing a minor for sex online — San Diego Police Chief Nisleit told the public he was disappointed and embarrassed.
“Police officers should and must be held to a higher standard, both on-duty and off-duty,” he said.
Want to know more about how this project came together and how Voice of San Diego got involved? Check out this Reveal podcast, produced by our buds at The Center for Investigative Reporting.
The Morning Report was written by Jesse Marx, and edited by Sara Libby.