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Alarming Rate Of Law Enforcement Officers With Criminal Records

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A collaborative inquiry finds hundreds of California law enforcement officers with criminal backgrounds. The nation's highest court could decide the future for nearly a million undocumented immigrants. Wildfires destroy more than structures, a look at the impact on survivors' mental health.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:01 A statewide investigation uncovers an alarming number of police officers with criminal convictions. The nation's highest court weighs DACA in the future of 700,000 dreamers brought here is children and wildfires destroy more than structures. I look at the impact on survivors mental health. I'm Mark Sauer. The KPBS round table starts now.

Speaker 2: 00:30 [inaudible]

Speaker 1: 00:33 welcome to our discussion to the weak stop stories. I'm Mark Sauer and joining me at the KPBS round table today. KPBS science and technology reporter Schilling, the Chet Lani reporter, Jesse Marks a voice of San Diego and max real and Adler who covers the immigration and the border for KPBS news. Well, a disturbing number of police officers in California have criminal records. Hundreds of officers across the state have in the past decade or were in the past decade, I should say, convicted of crimes, including dozens of officers in San Diego. Voice of San Diego was among 30 newsrooms investigating cops who commit crimes. And we'll get to how that remarkable reporting effort came together in a minute. But Jesse, start with the convicted officers. Generally, what happens to them?

Speaker 3: 01:17 Well, what happens with them is, is a inconsistent, actually, some of them are fired, some of them are not. They keep their jobs, they keep their badges as well as their guns. And in most cases they wind up pleading down to a lesser offenses and they're initially charged with. So, uh, how they are actually handled within the criminal justice itself is really a case by case basis. But we did find some trends over the course of reporting this. And in San Diego County we found that a lot of these guys who had started off with more serious offenses, and I say guys, because most of them were men in law enforcement, they want a pleading down to disturbing the peace. I'm about half of them total pleaded down to lesser charges, but it was mostly for a PC for 15 violation. Uh, then we also found across the state that a third of the convicted police officers who kept their jobs were initially charged with a violent crime. So, uh, we found that locally as well. But on the state level to a pretty prominent degree.

Speaker 1: 02:09 Now some cases of course get our, our high profile cases. We've talked in this show, a lot of officers accused of, of uh, sexually molesting. Several women in, in those cases get a lot of notoriety. But you started your story with, with one such a San Diego officer who's, who's, uh, in still on the job. And that case really didn't get any publicity at the time of the, uh, the occurrence. Uh, give us a summary of that one.

Speaker 3: 02:33 So in that case, that was 2011 and it was a police officer with San Diego. Uh, he was accused of knocking his wife unconscious. He broke her cell phone. The Sheriff's department responded and ultimately charged him with corporal injury to a spouse. And a couple of additional charges after that. And what struck out to us about the case was one that he ultimately pleaded down to a property damage crime, not for the actual charge of violence, uh, which was common among officers who charged with domestic violence related crimes. But what also stood out to us was the fact that his, uh, profession, him being in law enforcement was a topic of conversation in the courtroom. So one of the things that we wanted to analyze with this, with these series of stories was how does the criminal justice system evaluate its own members. And in that case, we found that the prosecutor had pushed for a criminal protective order, but the judge wound up going with a less severe restraining order and no negative contact order citing the defendant's background in law enforcement. It's not entirely clear why that is. It's sort of a nonsensical ruling. But that's what we found in any case. And at the end of that, when everything was said and done, the officer kept his job, he kept his, his badge and his gun. And we found subsequent evidence that authorities have gone to his house over the years on several occasions to investigate additional domestic disturbances. So, uh, he was still a patrol officer. He was still likely responding to domestic violence calls, but himself was the subject of them.

Speaker 1: 03:59 Now do we know how many other officers have been convicted of crimes yet remain on the job?

Speaker 3: 04:03 So we tell it at least six, um, in San Diego, one in Imperial County as well, and we're still in the process of verifying some of those. And we've only, uh, produced names within our database that we could verify through court documents or with the defendants themselves or with the police department. So I say at least six, but there's actually more and there's still a lot that we don't actually know.

Speaker 1: 04:23 And, uh, I mentioned at the outset that it was a remarkable, um, uh, bit of reporting coming together from a lot of, uh, a newsrooms. Uh, this all kind of started with a pair of enterprising reporters at UC Berkeley. Give us the quick rundown of how that came about.

Speaker 3: 04:35 Yeah. So there are two reporters up there who asked the state for a list of notices between the AGS office and a post, which is the peace officer standards and training commission. And they wanted a list of any officers who'd been disqualified from serving in law enforcement because of criminal convictions. And so what they got instead was a list of 12,000 names, but it had no context to it. And immediately the state went silent and the reporters couldn't figure out how the list had actually been created or why it was given to them. But they realized very quickly it was just too many names for them to check themselves. So they started tapping newsrooms across the state of California to help them with the fact checking and vetting process. And we ultimately identified 630 members of law enforcement with criminal convictions. And that included people who had been charged and convicted before they became officers in California. It was in the state of California. Um, or while they were law enforcement officers, or even in a couple of cases after they were cops.

Speaker 1: 05:28 And, uh, the attorney general wasn't happy about all of this.

Speaker 3: 05:31 No. He, um, responded to the, uh, reporters up in Berkeley by basically saying, this list was released by accident. It should not have been given to you and destroy it. Please. Uh, I should note that we don't think that the list should be secret and it should be public. And the fact that the Sara didn't actually follow up with this threat should be telling.

Speaker 1: 05:50 Now there's research showing accord a year story that a certain amount of crime is really to be expected among cops. Explain it.

Speaker 3: 05:58 So there was a big study in 2016 out of bowling green state university and criminal justice researchers there took press clippings between 2005 and 2011 and analyze those and analyze the outcomes of it. And what they determined was that police crime is not uncommon and that it is likely a product of the occupation itself. And what they meant by that was police are constantly surrounded by crime and it's not uncommon for them to veer into it themselves. It's one explanation that doesn't explain every instance obviously, but there's a serious lack of research across the United States on this topic and really not a lot of people are looking into it. So that study is kind of the gold standard in this case.

Speaker 1: 06:35 And that kind of follows that, uh, the numbers from the post numbers and um, just the, the numbers, uh, in general regarding police officers and, and crime and criminal acts, they're not really reliable. They remain sketchy, don't they? They're just not forthcoming with this information.

Speaker 3: 06:51 It's, it's certainly incomplete. And we noticed that right away because some of the most high profile cases over the last couple of years were missing from the papers and made the headline. Exactly. And so we found not only cases that had escaped the attention of the press, but those that should have been on this list, which, which suggested to us at the state isn't keeping a very close eye on these officers.

Speaker 1: 07:10 Now the courts tend to be a lenient given the danger cops faced danger many might face in prison. Uh, some police departments are tougher than others though. When, when these, uh, instances come to light, right?

Speaker 3: 07:23 Yeah. They are in there and it's, it's inconsistent again. So we found examples of officers being charged with domestic violence, pleading down to property damage and then losing their jobs. And then we found the exact same situation, similar set of circumstances and facts in that person going on to keep their job. So we realized over the course of reporting that the state doesn't have any clear standards on when to fire a police officer. They allow local jurisdictions to figure that out. California is actually one of five States that doesn't automatically de-certify a police officer if you've been convicted of a crime. So that's where this conversation is going to go next. And a couple of lawmakers up in Sacramento this week who are positioned on both the assembly and the Senate public safety committees have come out and said it's time for us to reevaluate that.

Speaker 3: 08:02 And the police unions themselves have said, we're open to the conversation of firing a police officer for certain misconduct or even certain misdemeanors, but we want to make sure that their due process and the appeals, uh, are available for them to take. Um, it's an interesting argument because if you're convicted of a crime, you've already gone through due process. So, I don't know how the unions are gonna necessarily square that, but that's the argument they're going to try to make, which is that, sure. We can talk about de-certified police officers, but let's make sure it's fair.

Speaker 1: 08:29 All right. A few, a few seconds left on this, uh, segment. I just wanted to see what kind of feedback you've had from, uh, from the audience, from readers on that.

Speaker 3: 08:36 It's a, it's, it's been mixed. It's, it's been mostly positive I think. I think people were surprised that police officers aren't automatically fired even for more severe misdemeanors. The police officers, uh, the police chief's association in California did come out and they basically said, well, you only found 630 names. It's less than 1% of the total. And we were pretty clear the outset that

Speaker 1: 08:56 this, the point of the stories was not to highlight the numbers necessarily as how our officers treated within that system. That was the bigger issue that we wanted to explore and people can show Jeff and South. Alright, well we'll look for follow ups and see if the numbers get a little more solid as we move forward. Well, we're going to move on. It's known by the shorthand DACA, which stands for deferred action for childhood arrivals. These are the 700,000 us residents brought here illegally as children. They are the dreamers allowed to legally work and go to school if they can meet certain requirements and pass a background check. That was the program begun in 2012 under president Barack Obama, one Donald Trump and the Republicans want to end and let the do poor tations begin now. Max, start with the, a case before the us Supreme court this week, uh, centered on the DACA program. How did it get there?

Speaker 4: 09:44 Uh, the Trump administration last year, or I guess, uh, in 2017, canceled the deferred action for childhood arrivals program. This was after, during the campaign, the Trump administration Trump, the candidate, uh, saying that he had no interest in deporting these individuals and yet they still made the, uh, cancellation. Their argument at the time was that this is indefensible in court. Uh, so they moved to cancel it. Uh, States like California then sued these lawsuits got consolidated. And that's how we ended up at the Supreme court this week.

Speaker 1: 10:18 And Trump has said, I think even since he's been president that they don't have anything to fear under me. And yet here we are, as you say, in the Supreme court this week.

Speaker 4: 10:26 Right? Yeah. And, and honestly, the difference between the, how immigration law gets enforced and what comes out of the president's mouth is there, there's a wide gap, right? So he could say you, if you lose the status, you're not going to be deported. But what's actually happening on the ground and the ways that people interact with local law enforcement, the way they get shuffled into ice custody or the way ice conducts his operations is very, very far from the purview of the president.

Speaker 1: 10:50 Now, the arguments themselves in front of the Supreme court this week, a chief argument of the U S solicitor general representing administration. What was his theme?

Speaker 4: 10:58 His argument was that this wasn't legal in the first place. There was no way that the president gets to decide what are the priorities for who should be removed from the U S so a, it goes back to basically we can't defend this because it's not legal and thus we're not even going to bother to continue the program. Uh, that being said, they did continue the program for a short amount of time. Um, and you know, to this day people can still renew their DACA. Um, they already have DACA, they can still renew it.

Speaker 1: 11:24 And it seems like maybe an inc consensus in consistency with the, the president declaring the Muslim ban, for example, where she can keep people out. We can declare that, but we can't say who can remain here as soon as this argument.

Speaker 4: 11:37 Right. I mean, uh, to, to try to make any consistency in, uh, the kind of policy coming out of this white house is very tough. Uh, I would say that kind of across the board, it's tried to restrict the avail, like the ability of people who are not citizens to and live in the U S so that's pretty uniform

Speaker 1: 11:55 in the back and forth among justices. Uh, in that hearing, uh, the future of DACA, how did that look to veteran court observers?

Speaker 4: 12:03 Um, so it's obviously tough to divine from just the questions they ask. Oftentimes they have it surprises you either questioning know exactly. They have very specific things that they're looking into. But this did kind of break along the liberal and conservative, uh, ends of the bench, especially people were looking at chief justice John Roberts, who's become the swing vote and he seemed to be focusing on the idea that DACA was for work permits and gave people authorization to work here as opposed to facing possible deportation. Uh, that kind of tipped his hand a little bit to how he's ultimately gonna rule, which is, uh, what the liberal judges were looking at, the human element of it. And he seemed to not all that interested in that. So, uh, walking away, a lot of people saying, listen, take, take what you can from court arguments, but it's looking like they are leaning towards the Trump administration's opinion on this.

Speaker 1: 12:52 And uh, as I said earlier, the, the Trump's declarations on this and his administration's actions, it, it all gets rather muddled.

Speaker 4: 13:00 Yeah. So again, you know, the Trump administration can absolutely say we have no intention of deporting these individuals and then the next tweet can say things like, many of these people are criminals, right? So you're kind of selling away that you have it both ways. That says, I'm not going to deport these individuals. However, if they do fit certain, you know, qualifications, like they run into the criminal justice system or uh, they so happen to end up on a database that's like a gang database or something like that. Um, all of a sudden an individual can be deported. And it's not as if the Trump administration has an actively deporting dreamers or hasn't in the past deported DACA recipients. Shalina

Speaker 5: 13:38 yeah, I was going to say under the Obama administration, deportations were happening a lot too. Do you feel like in the age of Twitter it's making it so that I guess the, the responsibility or the blame is being shifted kind of, or being put in different ways?

Speaker 4: 13:53 Ah, like that the blame is being put on the immigrants themselves. Um, you know, I mean, th one thing that the government has engaged in for quite some time is, uh, social media surveillance. Um, so the idea that going and registering with the government to get your DACA puts you on the radar of the government so you could easily be deported. Uh, which you know, is the big fear of DACA recipients. Um, kind of undersells how much the government is already observing immigrant communities. Um, they have invested a lot of money. A lot of private contractors have spent a lot of money. I'm observing these groups. If these kinds of wholesale, um, you know, deportations where to begin and you know, I think they'd be very difficult to pull off. But there are a lot of resources there.

Speaker 1: 14:37 Now this ruling a w would be generally expected around June, the middle of the, of the campaign season there in 2020 and a solicitor general said, we own this, meaning the administration, they're taking responsibility for this terribly unpopular in California, 85% cleaning. Many Republicans in California want the dreamers to be protected. How do you think this will play politically? So many Americans on both sides feel the dreamers should be allowed to stay.

Speaker 4: 15:02 Yeah. Right. It plays to, you know, a, a nativist base, uh, that Trump has kind of drawn from. Um, and uh, in turn that show in a massive increase in Latino votes, uh, in the midterm and as 2018 as compared to 2014, these things will continue to track up. Um, and of course this will already, uh, the Democrats will probably already have a nominee by the time this comes down and it's kind of on them to provide an alternate path. Right? Is it gonna just be that we support something that looks like deferred action or we're going to, um, propose a moratorium on deportations like Bernie Sanders has had? Or is it going to be much more like a, what Biden has proposed, which is more in line with the Obama administration saying, you know, if you pass these background checks, you get to stay. So

Speaker 1: 15:50 really interesting you say this, how this will play out in the next year and what the ruling will be now if they were to be deported. These are people who haven't been to places they are being deported to and perhaps don't speak the language, maybe don't know much about the culture. And it's like landing in literally in a foreign country. Uh, what happens to these young people?

Speaker 4: 16:08 Yeah, so I really want to downplay just off the bat, you know, the idea of, of kind of large scale roundups and, and you know, I said earlier that the government does have the resources to know where people are at and track them down, but the legal mechanisms that a lot of these individuals will have at their disposal, these are people who have been in the country for a very long time, uh, who are professionals who work. I mean, we're talking doctors, dentists, you know, lawyers, lawyers. Yes, absolutely. You know, um, that one of the people arguing in court was a DACA recipient. So you know, the actual deportation of these individuals would be a very long drawn out process that I doubt would be finished within a single presidential term. Um, but other animal, it's a whole other ammo. But um, you know, basically, um, a lot of what the Trump administration has done is to speed up the ability to remove people through expedited removal to, uh, get people out of the country very quickly. So, um, clearly these are people who are well aware of their rights, have known it for some time and would have to be extremely aware of how they interact with law enforcement when they leave the house, whether they bring proof that they have lived in this country for some time and have a kind of chain of custody for their kids, things like that. It's, it's pretty dark.

Speaker 1: 17:21 All right, we're out of time on this segment, but as fascinating and I'm sure we'll be watching it as we go forward. Certainly where that Supreme court decision coming, reasonable adults realized tragedy could strike at any moment a deadly car accident, a dreadful diagnosis or devastating fire. But it's human nature to believe that will never happen to us until it does. Living in Southern California means living each year through the ever expanding wildfire season. But it's different for those who've actually been directly hit by the fire justice. It's one thing to serve in the military quite another to survive combat. So Shalina many survivors of, of combat and of wildfire here have something in common, right?

Speaker 5: 18:00 Yes, they may be susceptible to developing symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. Um, in any traumatic event, um, people are likely to develop stress, um, but clinically of after about six months, um, a psychologist might diagnose you with the actual disorder, meaning you have longterm symptoms of experiencing that stress.

Speaker 1: 18:22 And of course, unfortunately in, um, San Diego in my community, you look back to the major fires, we had 2003, I believe it was around 2200 homes were destroyed, uh, in Oh seven, another 1600. My ballpark figure if I recall other fires since then, you'll have scores or, or dozens of of homes lost. We're talking about a lot of people in our community, right?

Speaker 5: 18:42 Yeah. Um, millions of people can be displaced at any given time. And, and that's kind of how stress, posttraumatic stress develops with these incidents. Um, it's unpredictable. It's uncontrollable.

Speaker 1: 18:53 Now those whose houses were destroyed by wildfire, a generally how would PTSD manifests itself?

Speaker 5: 19:00 Yeah, so it's a sense of personal belongings being lost. I'm feeling like you don't have control over the situation. I'm feeling like all of a sudden your life has completely changed. Uh, when you lose your house and a lot of the personal belongings in that you are losing a lot of sentimental items, um, that you may not realize that you may be very connected to. Um, there's also the, the stress of the event itself, uh, can put a lot of um, you know, stress on your body and on your, on, on the human psyche. Uh, so the, the adrenaline rush,

Speaker 1: 19:34 where's the dog? Where's the [inaudible]

Speaker 5: 19:35 exactly. And a lot of these symptoms can develop over a long time. And uh, part of the reporting that I did on this is that it's actually very, uh, unpredictable whether you might develop longterm symptoms because there are varying factors. If you have been experiencing stress before an event, you might be more likely to develop longterm symptoms because you're already experiencing traveling. You would just enhance it. And there's also a lot of studies out there that say that, that are showing that some people might be genetically predisposed to developing post traumatic stress symptoms. Um, there's a lot of work that's happening through the department of veteran affairs to collect a massive database of genetic material from veterans of war and they've found that actually some research has shown that people might develop a stress hormone, um, or some people with existing conditions like schizophrenia might be more likely to develop PTSD.

Speaker 1: 20:29 Now your story, a features or Rancho Bernardo, Bernardo couple who lost their rental home there in 2007 hadn't been here very long and all of a sudden the fire, um, hits they escape with her. Two children, uh, summarize that story for it.

Speaker 5: 20:42 Yeah. So this family moved to San Diego. Uh, they were here for about six months, had, well they were living in Seattle. They had not experienced wildfire season ever. Um, and then all of a sudden they woke up and everything around them was in flames. Uh, they had to act very quickly. They made it to an evacuation center, but found out the next day that their house had burned down. And because they were so unprepared for it, they left a lot of materials in their home that they realized they, they were really gonna feel sorry about losing.

Speaker 1: 21:11 I can only imagine for those, for people who have lost loved ones in a fire, we had 81 deaths in that paradise fire in Northern California last year. It's gotta be just magnitudes worse.

Speaker 5: 21:22 Absolutely. Yeah. There's a lot of reporting, um, about people who are re-experiencing burns. And how it just results in them completely reliving that tr the first traumatic, uh, events. And that can be really tough, especially if you put the work in to go to counseling and all of a sudden you ex re-experience that, that same trauma again.

Speaker 1: 21:43 And excuse me, your story shows, it really starts in the evacuation shelter. Maybe the adrenaline rush of getting out of the house and kids are safe, we're here and all of a sudden it starts hitting you. What's going on.

Speaker 5: 21:52 Yeah. It really provides sort of a window into, you know, when we think about emergencies and disasters, we think about material necessities like food and water and clothing and shelter. Um, and, and speaking to some professionals at the red cross who are emergency responders, they explain as soon as the event happens, you also have to think about your mental health because you are going through that processing in your mind already trying to figure out what happened, what your next steps are going to be. Um, so, you know, out of this, it really shows mental health really has to be a part of those first emergency steps.

Speaker 1: 22:27 And, uh, I imagine we're seeing some counselors there. Of course you've got, we've gotten unfortunately better at this as we've had more and more fires over the years. But they have resource people at the, the shelters, they have an insurance people, they have, uh, uh, other folks. But I imagine counselors now are stepping up and starting even in that early.

Speaker 5: 22:44 Yeah, there are some, uh, publicly available services. For example, the red cross as a featured in my story has, uh, counselors that they deploy all across the state, um, in different parts of the country when emergencies like natural disasters happen. And, uh, even San Diego County, a supervisor, Nathan Fletcher said that he was going to vote it up, a program that would provide, uh, mental health services for first emergency responders like firefighters. So there's a larger conversation happening around providing mental health services, but obviously it can, there can always be more resources available for people. Just use that. Also the topic of conversation politically, because I know there's gonna be a ballot measure next year that dealing with sprawl out in wildfires zones is this is the site we're in a housing crisis, but is the psychological effect of what's happening to people who've experienced this. Do you think that's gonna be part of the political discussion as Fletcher given any sense of that as well? Oh, I don't know if it's going to be part of the discussion for individuals, for people who are actually owning the home. I think it's been a part, the larger conversation for folks like firefighters and police officers that are experiencing these traumatic events kind of firsthand dealing with them continuously. Um, but in terms of individual homeowners, I'm not as sure that they are going to be part of that conversation on public mental health services being available.

Speaker 1: 24:05 I wonder too, you know, we, we, we reading about the PTSD with soldiers in the, the folks who survive and get back and had to bear their buddies back on the battlefield have survivors guilt. And I wonder about the folks who are my neighbor's house burned down. My house was just fine. I wonder if they're impacted as well. You know,

Speaker 5: 24:22 I'm sure, I think the takeaway from this and talking to psychologists is that the idea that everybody needs to realize is that when a traumatic event happens, you will be impacted by it. Um, it doesn't matter who you are, how far you or how far away you are from a fire or from an earthquake. There will be a sense of can this happen again within you. Um, so yeah, I am sure that there, that everyone who was experienced with event, whether you survived it, whether you lost your home, you're going to be impacted by it in some kind of way. You might smell smoke in the air and wonder, is the fire going to come to my home?

Speaker 1: 25:01 Yeah. If nothing else, you're in vulnerability, as we were saying at the outset is shattered. You know, this can happen to you. It happened to my neighbor.

Speaker 5: 25:08 Yeah. That's, that's kind of how these psychological conditions kind of develop as a sense of losing control. Um, will I be able to react in this situation? And you know, one of the symptoms of PTSD is emotional detachment. You don't want to relive an experience. You don't want to think that something can happen to you.

Speaker 1: 25:28 All right, well we're out of time, but hopefully the rains will come soon and we can put this off and not worry about fires again this season for awhile. Well, that wraps up another week of stories at the KPBS round table. I'd like to thank my guest Shalina Chad Lani of KPBS news. Jesse Marks the voice of San Diego and max and Adler of KPBS news and a reminder, all the stories we discussed today available on our website, kpbs.org. Thanks for joining us today and join us again next week on the round table.

Speaker 6: 25:58 [inaudible].

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Mark Sauer hosts KPBS Roundtable, a lively discussion of the week's top stories. Local journalists join Sauer to provide insight into how these stories affect residents of the San Diego region.