03/19/2012 07:44 pm ET Updated May 19, 2012

California's Developmental Centers' Police Need Immediate Fixes, Officials Say

This article comes to us courtesy of California Watch.

By Ryan Gabrielson

SACRAMENTO - Investigations of patient abuse by in-house police at California's institutions for the developmentally disabled have been unacceptably poor for years and must be fixed immediately, state officials and patient advocates agreed during a hearing today.

At a hearing of the Senate Human Services Committee, witnesses and lawmakers called for changes - ranging from improved training of police employed by the Office of Protective Services to the outright elimination of the department, which investigates crimes at the state's five developmental centers.

In a series of stories, California Watch has reported that detectives and patrol officers at the state's five board-and-care institutions - home to about 1,800 severely disabled men and women - routinely fail to conduct basic police work even when patients die under mysterious circumstances. The facilities have reported hundreds of cases of abuse and unexplained injuries, almost none of which have led to arrests.

The hearing came as the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown announced a series of changes for the Office of Protective Services. The overhaul includes beefed-up training for officers and detectives, new standards for securing evidence and potential crime scenes, automated tracking of injuries and other incidents, and the hiring of an independent overseer.

"Any case of abuse is unacceptable, regardless of where the person lives," Terri Delgadillo, director of the state Department of Developmental Services, which oversees the Office of Protective Services, told the Senate Human Services Committee.

Diana Dooley, secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency, announced in a statement today that she had hired a law enforcement expert to oversee the changes. That consultant, Joseph Brann, is the former chief of the Hayward Police Department and consultant to the state attorney general monitoring reforms at the Riverside and Maywood police departments.

Brann said he will push for meaningful action to ensure crimes against patients are investigated competently. "Everyone will be operating with a sense of urgency," he said.

Brann agreed to oversee the institution police, in part, because his son lives at the Fairview Developmental Center in Orange County.

"This is not only a civic responsibility for me; it is also a personal responsibility," he said.

After nearly a decade of scathing audits and complaints about the internal police department, lawmakers at the hearing were demanding action. The state promised to implement reforms within the next three months.

"We will be monitoring your progress and hoping the changes come quickly," warned Sen. Carol Liu, D-Glendale, chairwoman of the Human Services Committee, who has questioned whether the standards at the Office of Protective Services had allowed people to "get away with murder."

California is budgeted to spend $577 million this fiscal year to operate the centers, or roughly $320,000 per patient. More than 5,200 people work in the institutions - more than 2.5 staff members for each patient. The five centers are in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Sonoma and Tulare counties.

Ric Zaharia, a consultant hired by the state to review the Office of Protective Services, said about half of the changes offered by the Brown administration were made a decade ago in a California Department of Justice audit.

The audit recommended the department hire an experienced police executive to manage officers and caseloads at the centers. Instead, the state hired employees with little to no law enforcement background for the top job.

The current chief, Corey Smith, was previously a firefighter. Smith hadn't worked on criminal investigations until 2006, when the department made him police commander at the Sonoma Developmental Center, responsible for overseeing hundreds of cases each year.

Thomas Simms, a former California Department of Justice consultant who conducted the 2002 audit, expressed frustration that little has been done to reform the Office of Protective Services since then. Now, he said, the investigating authority of the Office of Protective Services should be eliminated.

"How many more times are we going to meet and talk about the need for fundamental reform?" said Simms, a retired police chief who for 20 years led the Roseville and Santa Rosa departments. "If my organization had failed the way this one has, I would've been fired."

State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, echoed a similar concern when she questioned whether the developmental center police are "too intertwined to be impartial" handling criminal investigations at the institutions.

Zaharia said that potential crimes at developmental centers are best handled by a centralized force based at the centers and trained to interview victims with intellectual disabilities. He said the ideal model is Massachusetts, which built an independent law enforcement agency dedicated to investigate abuse of the disabled at institutions and community group homes.

Simms urged lawmakers to follow a model that separates institution officials from the police work, though he acknowledged this wouldn't be a simple solution.

"It will not be cheap, it will not be easy, and it will not be without risk," Simms said about disbanding the 90-officer department.

Coby Pizzotti of the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association, the union representing the Office of Protective Services, said that rather than disbanding the department, the state needs to separate the police force from its Sacramento management. He said Sacramento officials are more concerned with maintaining the state's record as good caregivers.

"You have kind of a conflict role in which the preservation of justice may not jibe with what the licensing requirements may be," Pizzotti said. "We believe the OPS system is one that should work with maybe an independent chief who is experienced in law enforcement."

Delgadillo, however, said every injury or case of potential abuse is reported to state Department of Public Health, which licenses the developmental centers. She said the department has a zero-tolerance policy for abuse, and any staff member suspected of abuse is immediately removed from his or her job.

Patients at the institutions are among the state's the most vulnerable residents, sometimes unable to speak or paralyzed by cerebral palsy or other conditions.

"People with disabilities are more likely to experience more severe abuse and for long periods of time," said Leslie Morrison, head of investigations at Disability Rights California.

Advocates have said developmentally disabled men and women frequently are treated as second-class citizens, and they have questioned why so few people have been arrested or prosecuted for abuse at California's institutions.

"How many people went to jail for abusing patients?" Sen. Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood, asked Kathleen Billingsley, chief deputy director of the Department of Public Health. "How many people have been fired in the past five years for abusing patients?"

Billingsley said her department had substantiated 89 cases of abuse from the past four years at the developmental centers, but said she did not know how many of those cases were referred for prosecution.

Delgadillo said any investigation into potential abuse or injuries at developmental centers have unique challenges for the police force, including difficulties communicating with patients, many of whom have severe autism or cerebral palsy. But she said all death and serious injuries are reported to local law enforcement.

Delgadillo nevertheless acknowledged that some investigations do not occur in a timely manner. "I think we've made improvements, but I don't think we're good enough," she said.

Ryan Gabrielson is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.