11:46 PM PST on Saturday, March 12, 2011

By IMRAN GHORI, RICHARD BROOKS and CASSIE MACDUFF
The Press-Enterprise

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department training scandal — called the first of its type in California — is prompting officials in both Inland counties to consider tightening their procedures for verifying training-class attendance.

San Bernardino County Sheriff Rod Hoops said at a news conference Tuesday that procedures already have been improved. “I’m hoping the policies we now have in place, there’s a better check and balance,” he said.

Riverside County sheriff’s Capt. Richard Coz, the department’s academy commander said, “Historically, it hasn’t been a big problem … (but) that doesn’t mean we ought not tighten it up.”

A special grand jury charged seven current and former San Bernardino County sheriff’s employees — who include a retired assistant sheriff, a retired captain, a retired lieutenant, a corporal detective, a lieutenant and two civilian employees — with perjury, grand theft and conspiracy. The defendants, who appeared in court Friday, have pleaded not guilty.

According to the indictment, Angela Gray, 42, and Sallyann Christian, 45, who worked at the sheriff’s training academy, falsified attendance records to indicate that David Pichotta, 48, William Maddox, 57, Russell Wilke, 44, Michael Stodelle, 64, and Hobart Gray, 51, — who is married to Angela Gray — got credit for courses they didn’t attend.

As a result, they were able to boost their pay and retirement benefits, prosecutors said.

POST COURSES

More than 600 agencies are credentialed by the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training or POST to offer law enforcement training, according to the POST website.

Some are run by sheriff’s departments like San Bernardino County while others are privately-run schools.

The state agency reimburses local police or sheriff’s departments all or a portion of the training costs, law enforcement officials say.

Every law enforcement officer must complete 960 hours to earn his or her basic credential before they can work as a police officer or sheriff’s deputy, said San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputy Chief Sheree Stewart, who oversees the training academy.

Most will continue to take POST courses throughout their career that can vary from four hours to several weeks to advance their career or brush up on skills they want to improve.

“Often times, it’s the officer’s initiative,” Stewart said. “Sometimes it’s for their career (advancement). Sometimes it’s just to enhance the skills they use now. It’s to help improve what they do now.”

In other cases, a supervisor may suggest course-work to help improve certain skills such as writing reports, she said.

All law enforcement officers must take 24 hours of training every two years to maintain their certification, Stewart said.

The courses and curriculum offered must be approved by POST. Instructors, who also must be approved by POST, can be contract teachers, sheriff’s employees or officers from other police agencies, she said.

While many Sheriff’s Department employees will attend classes while on-duty, others may do it on their own time, similar to how somebody might take night classes in addition to their regular jobs, Stewart said.

“I would say 70 percent want to learn a skill that will help them move up the ladder or improve their skills,” said San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Lt. Rick Ells, who oversees the Twin Peaks office. The rest take classes suggested by their supervisors, he said.

Officers earn credits through their courses that allow them to earn certificates through POST, which certifies different levels of officer training from basic to executive.

The county’s contract with sheriff’s employees promises them pay increases when they move up in certification level.

The amount varies based on their rank and to what level they move up, Stewart said.

UNIFIED STANDARDS

According to the contract, a deputy sheriff who earns an intermediate certificate can increase hourly wages by $1.06.

And a sheriff’s lieutenant with a supervisory certificate can get a $4.23 bump in hourly pay. Stewart said the increases average out to 2 percent instead of the 8 percent figure cited at a Tuesday news conference.

Robert Presley, a former Riverside County undersheriff and longtime former state senator who was considered a leader on law enforcement issues, said before POST was established in 1959 most police agencies were “doing their own thing” with no unified set of training and educational standards for officers.

“It’s been an awfully good thing for law enforcement,” he said.

Presley said he was surprised by the allegations and said most officers view POST courses as a vital way to improve their skills, not an obligation to try and get around.

“For somebody to take advantage of that, actually commit fraud, I think it would be a surprise to anyone in law enforcement,” he said.

Marin County Sheriff Robert Doyle, chairman of the POST commission, said he believes the allegations are “an isolated incident.”

He said it’s up to the individual training centers to ensure the accuracy of training rosters, saying the agency has to rely on the trustworthiness of those centers.

“POST does this from afar, so it isn’t possible for POST to be at every training site,” he said.

NEW MEASURES

In the case of San Bernardino County, two of the suspects who worked at the academy, Angela Gray and Christian, had complete autonomy to place names on attendance rosters without anyone auditing them, according to the indictment.

That has now changed, Stewart said. Everyone is now required to show a photo ID and sign an attendance sheet so signatures can be compared later if necessary, she said.

Training staff now physically verify attendance three times the first day and at the beginning and end of each day the remainder of the course. Instructors must also sign in.

Daily sign-in sheets are the chief method of ensuring attendance at advanced classes and mandatory biennial refresher training, say officials at the regional police training academies in Riverside, Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

The Ben Clark Training Center in Riverside County is considering tightening up its sign-in process, which — like those in the other counties — includes each student’s signature and POST identification number.

“I’m finding that we pass the roster around on the second or third day (of every class) and have people initial it,” said sheriff’s Capt. Coz, the academy’s commander.

At stake is taxpayer money and legal liability, he said. Officers are usually paid to attend training and may be reimbursed for meals, lodging and travel expenses. As for liability, an officer’s training can be scrutinized in court during anything from a drunken driving accident to a fatal officer-involved shooting.

When challenged about their procedures, the standard response is, “I was trained to do it that way,” Coz noted.

“That’s the whole purpose behind our documentation. We have to know who was trained, how they were trained, when they were trained and who did the training.”

If an officer lies about class attendance, he or she can be fired.

“If you don’t have integrity, it doesn’t matter how good a traffic investigator you are,” Coz said. “In our organization, if you’re dishonest, we’re going to fire you.”

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