Monday, March 23, 2015
Flashing of Unofficial Badges Persists Into the New Millennium
By ROGER M. GRACE
Eleventh in a Series
In the latter days of the 20th Century and at the outset of the new millennium, presentment of badges to persons outside of law enforcement persisted, and so did abuses. Here’s more about episodes in cities in Los Angeles County outside of the City of L.A., and in other counties.
•Santa Clara County, 1986: Sheriff Robert Winter’s practice of giving badges to members of his “advisory council” became a blistering campaign issue when Assistant San Jose Police Chief Stan Horton became one of two election challengers.
The Jan. 22 issue of the San Jose Mercury News tells of Horton’s opening shots at the sheriff, the previous day. One of his charges was that Winter had abused a program under which honorary deputy sheriff’s badges were dispensed.
The San Jose newspaper’s April 23 issue relates:
“At a news conference in front of the county administration building in San Jose today, Horton…criticized a group known as the Sheriff’s Advisory Committee. Horton displayed a badge which he said is one of many that Winter has distributed to committee members, and said the badges could be misused by someone who wanted to impersonate a law enforcement officer.
“Horton called on Winter ‘to recall these bogus badges before someone gets hurt….’
“Winter…said he will not recall badges issued to advisory committee members because Horton has not pointed to specific instances in which the badges have been misused.
In an April 27 “letter-to-the-editor” of the Mercury News, Horton asserts:
“If Mr. Winter wants to reward his political contributors, he should give them certificates, not a real badge in a real black leather badge case. If the badges were not meant to be flashed and used as real badges , then there is no need for them. They only erode the effectiveness of law enforcement in Santa Clara County.
“….Its only a matter of time before someone abuses the badges again.”
His words were prescient. Sure enough, the holder of one of the badges, Advisory Council member George Brix, became engaged in a heated argument with a video rental store operator, Abdullah Aziz, over a $32.31 charge for the late return of VHF cassettes. Aziz is quoted in the May 13 issue of the Mercury News as saying of Brix:
‘’He appeared intoxicated and yelled at me. He said he’d send me back to where I came from and threatened to kill me.
“Then he bent—or fell—down. I don’t know why. I was afraid. I thought he was a police officer and might be reaching for a gun, so I pushed the (alarm) button.”
The article explains:
“Aziz said he thought Brix was a police officer because he had shown a badge clipped to his wallet when he opened his membership at the store. Aziz said he saw the badge several times and thought it was a sheriff’s badge.”
The May 14 edition of the same newspaper elaborates on the story.
It quotes Horton as crowing: “I said all along those badges have no place in the general population.”
The article goes to say:
“Winter acknowledged that he allowed Brix to keep an honorary sheriff’s badge after Brix pleaded no contest in 1981 to a battery charge involving forcing a process server to eat a summons at gunpoint.
“ ‘I didn’t think the incident was sufficiently consequential to disqualify the guy,’ Winter said.”
For a sheriff to assert that the criminal act of “forcing a process server to eat a summons at gunpoint” did not reflect such lack of self control and judgment as to compel the expulsion of the culprit from an inner-circle council strikes me as astounding. If, as is not clear, possession of a badge was linked to present membership in the council—as opposed to being a gift of a keepsake—failure to retrieve it would appear to have been sheer folly on Winter’s part. The prospect of a misuse of the badge by Brix ought to have been clear.
Winter and Horton were pitted against each other in a November run-off.
An Aug. 9 Mercury News article advises that the council’s nine officers voted unanimously to call upon members to turn in the badges—temporarily—and receive them back mounted on plaques. After all, motorists are not apt to keep plaques in their cars and flash them if stopped by an officer.
The article makes note that Brix was not the only advisory council member who was permitted to retain his badge following a conviction—“[s]o was member George Bumb, who was convicted in 1979 of false imprisonment and possession of a blackjack.”
“A third member, attorney George Boryan, surrendered his badge after he was arrested in May on grand theft and forgery charges.”
By George, all three had the given name of George.
(Boryan resigned from the State Bar that year, with charges pending.)
Controversy over the badges did not deter voters from returning Winter to office. The same issue had been raised against him in the election four years earlier, though not so forcefully, also to no avail. It might have been thought that the matter wouldn’t come up again until the next election—but it did.
Although about 70 percent of the badge holders turned the emblems in, one Samuel Chihung Kwong didn’t. He was arrested Jan. 22, 1987 for interfering with police.
But the March 26, 1987 issue of the San Jose newspaper says that charges were dropped and he was reinstated as a member of the council. In interfering with a prostitution decoy operation, by interrupting an undercover officer in talking with a would-be customer, it seems he was just trying to be helpful.
“Kwong never suggested an act of prostitution, according to the police report,” the article says, “but he appeared to try to persuade the woman to stop what she was doing and go home.”
The article also recounts:
“Kwong told arresting officers, ‘I was given the badge for donating to (Sheriff Robert) Winter’s (re-election) campaign,’ police said.”
What the article doesn’t tell is whether Kwong got his confiscated badge returned.
•Fresno County, 1988: An Oct. 16 report in the Fresno Bee tells of honorary badge practices that were then current, and those in the past.
No longer did the sheriff personally hand out honorary deputy badges, as his predecessors had, the article says. However, the article notes, the department would issue authorizations to carry such a badge, and a permittee could buy one for about $56 from a private company and pay $20 for a wallet in which to insert it.
The article recounts that not all of those who received the badges in the past proved worthy of them:
“A few were arrested after achieving their honorary status. Ronald V. Cloud, named honorary deputy in 1963, was convicted of bank fraud in 1987. Vernon Boolootian was convicted of receiving stolen property in 1984, 25 years after becoming an honorary.”
“Mostly, though, this is a group that sheriffs describe as being supportive of the department particularly or law enforcement in general. In return, honorary deputies receive a token of appreciation—a laminated piece of paper with their fingerprints and the sheriff’s name on it.
“At one time, 30 years ago, the ID entitled its bearer to carry a gun. No more. Badges also were routinely handed out—there was no ‘honorary’ insignia on them—and no records exist to show who got them and who didn’t.”
Sheriff Steve Magarian is quoted by the Bee as saying that if a motorist flashed an honorary deputy badge when stopped for a traffic violation, the badge would be confiscated.
However, attributed to a former patrol officer is a rendition of two instances in earlier days when departmental disgruntlement was expressed over his issuance of tickets to bearers of such badges—and, in essence, the tickets were fixed.
•San Bernardino County, 2002: It’s generally the head of a law enforcement agency who gives out honorary badges. An issue arose in the March 5 election over the conferring of deputy coroner badges by then-Public Administrator-Coroner Brian McCormick.
The Feb. 13 issue of the Riverside Press-Enterprise quotes McCormick’s challenger, Monika Padilla-Rohlinger, as saying:
“This is an issue because somebody in authority is using taxpayer money to sell badges to people who have no background checks. How many badges did he get, and how many can he account for?”
The newspaper reports that McCormick explained that he gave badges to members of his volunteer Specialized Services Unit—made up of people like doctors and lawyers who gave the department free advice—but disbanded the group in 2000, didn’t keep a membership list, and had no idea who received the badges.
“How does he not know?” Padilla-Rohlinger retorted. “He ordered them and he gave them out.”
“What do people do with badges? They impersonate officers. Are those child molesters? Drug dealers?”
The March 6 edition of the Desert Dispatch, reporting McCormick’s election victory, notes:
“More than 100 people were selected as members of a volunteer Specialized Services Unit formed in 1985 by McCormick to assist in emergencies, documents provided by McCormick showed. Six of those would later become bribery suspects in San Bernardino and Orange counties.”
•San Gabriel Valley cities, 2003: A March 18 editorial in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune points to the arrest five days earlier of Baldwin Park City Councilman Bill Van Cleave, accused of flashing his council badge in the course of threatening to arrest a woman in connection with a dispute over money.
It recounts that in 1996, West Covina Councilman Ben Wong flashed his badge and confiscated the driver’s license of a motorist involved in a traffic accident with him, and that in 1992, La Puente Councilman (later Mayor) Lou Perez was accused of assaulting two persons after displaying a badge.
The editorial argues:
Remnants of the so-called good ol’ boys club of politics, the badges are emblematic of a time best left unvisited that saw such unofficial perks handed out to the folks who decided the issues of jobs and salary.
Intended as ceremonial, the badges were instead used as tickets to avoid traffic citations, assure free entry into sporting and entertainment venues and generally big-shoulder your way around town. In those days, incidents of “impersonating an officer” for private gain were swept under the political rug. Today such misuse carries potential litigation that communities can ill-afford.
Don’t get us wrong. We’re not against official identification for council members in any city. But these IDs should be as far removed from a police badge as possible. It’s the very fact they mimic official law enforcement insignia that invites abuse.
It’s time to let go of this bit of political swagger. Cities should give council members identification that leaves no question as to their authority or position. Business cards and lapel pins send the right message.
Van Cleave was prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney (now Los Angeles Superior Court Judge) Terry Bork who, according to a Sept. 19 Tribune article, told jurors the defendant was a “cop wannabe” who “impersonated a police officer” and “used his council badge as a symbol of authority for a private debt collection for his own good.”
(According to testimony, a $400 payroll check issued by his business, a hardware store, bounced; it was honored at a local liquor store; a representative of that establishment secured from the hardware store two make-good checks; upon realizing the double payment, Van Cleave located the emissary and, after showing her his badge, compelled her to enter his car and accompany him to the liquor store where she obeyed his command to relinquish one of the checks.)
With one hold-out for a “not guilty” verdict, the jury was deadlocked and a mistrial was declared.
A March 17, 2004 Tribune article says that just as a new jury was about to be empanelled, a plea bargain was struck: Van Cleave pled no contest to two misdemeanor counts (disturbing the peace and impersonating an officer), and in exchange, one felony count of false imprisonment was dismissed.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Mooney sentenced him to five days in jail, with credit for time served, fined him $100, and placed him on three years’ probation, with the condition that he devote 400 hours to community service, according to the account. Bork is quoted as declaring:
“It shows there is a criminal consequence to misusing a public badge. In this case, when Van Cleave said ‘I’m the police around here, you are under arrest,’ while displaying his City Council badge, he violated his oath of office and the law.”
Van Cleave did not reform. The Tribune’s Nov. 17, 2007 edition tells of his guilty plea to felony misappropriation of public funds. By this point, he was no longer on the City Council—but when he was, he placed about $7,806 in personal expenses on a Baldwin Park credit card. By admitting to that, four other counts were dropped; he was placed on probation and fined $300.
David Demerjian, who then headed the DA’s Office of Public Integrity Division, is quoted as quipping:
“When I speak to public officials, I always say that giving badges and credit cards to city councilmen is like giving a cell phone to a teenage girl.”
Copyright 2015, Metropolitan News Company