Editorial: California has a criminal cop problem. Will State Legislature change the law?

The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in Op Eds

California has a criminal cop problem.

They wear badges and carry guns. They possess the power to enforce the law on the rest of us even though they have failed to follow the law themselves. They remain in uniform despite their criminal rap sheets. The communities they patrol have often remained in the dark about their misdeeds – until now.

This is the conclusion of an 8-month investigation involving 30 newsrooms, including The Sacramento Bee:

"More than 80 law enforcement officers working today in California are convicted criminals, with rap sheets that include everything from animal cruelty to manslaughter," according to the Criminal Cops investigation. "They drove drunk, cheated on timecards, 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."

For example:

--San Diego police officer Roel Tungcab remains on the force despite being charged with knocking his wife unconscious during a domestic dispute in 2011. Authorities let Tungcab plead down to a misdemeanor.

--San Francisco police officer Warrick Whitfield was convicted of using law enforcement databases to look up confidential information about a domestic dispute. Despite being criminally charged in 2014, he remains on the force. It was the second criminal conviction for Whitfield while in uniform -- in 2012, he got a DUI.

--At least a dozen criminal cops continue to work at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. They include David Hernandez, a deputy convicted of "filing a false report after lying about why he pulled over a suspect in a drug arrest."

--In the city of McFarland, one out of every five officers has a criminal conviction. "They hired a cop investigated in an FBI child porn probe, and another caught up in an LAPD burglary ring. They gave a job to an officer who filed a bogus insurance claim for a car his friends dumped in Mexico. And they brought in a cop with a conviction for pulling a gun on his stepdaughter's friends," according to the Criminal Cops investigation. One McFarland officer was accused of having sex with a teenager. Another was accused of threatening to jail women unless they had sex with him.

The investigation discovered that 630 California police officers had been convicted of a crime in the last decade. Though the 80 officers still working in California are a small percentage of the state's overall police force, it's unlikely that they would have kept their jobs in Florida or Georgia. Those states tend to take a hard line toward officers convicted of crimes, moving to "decertify" them and make sure they no longer work as police.

But California takes a lax approach. Officers who would have likely been removed in other states continue to work here.

That's because California leaves such decisions up to local law enforcement agencies. No state law exists to require the removal of police officers convicted of crimes. This unacceptable failure poses a serious threat to public safety and it's time for the California State Legislature to make it clear: Cops who commit crimes shall no longer be entrusted to uphold and enforce the law in the Golden State.


It's long past time to update the law and ban criminal cops. State leaders must also fully embrace transparency when it comes to police misconduct.

None of this information would be public today if Attorney General Xavier Becerra had gotten his way. After a state commission accidentally released a list of California's criminal cops to reporters at the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley earlier this year, Becerra threatened them with criminal prosecution.

California journalists responded with the Criminal Cops project, which ran on the front pages of over a dozen newspapers this week. But it shouldn't have taken 30 newsrooms eight months to track down this information and publish it. Such information should always be made available to the public, and Becerra should be ashamed of his attempts to hide it.

Now that we know the truth, it's time for the Legislature to act. As absurd as it seems, Californians can likely expect police groups resist changes in the law to prevent criminals from serving as police officers.

"You'd have no more police officers," said Paul Cappitelli, a former director of POST, California's Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training. "You'd have the public deciding, and they often want to fire people."

We certainly don't believe that eliminating convicted criminals from law enforcement agencies will result in "no more police officers." Police groups tend to make such overwrought and inaccurate arguments every time there's a push for needed reform, and state leaders should disregard such arguments.

After all, Florida and Georgia don't tolerate criminal cops but still have police officers. The vast majority of law enforcement officers are good people who follow the laws they're entrusted to enforce.

Keeping criminal cops off of the police force is a common-sense step to protect public safety. California law enforcement agencies should spearhead, rather than resist, this necessary change.

(c)2019 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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