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Appellate Court Upholds Deputy’s Termination For Failing To Report A Use Of Force
Meghan Pasos was a deputy sheriff with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (Department) at the Men’s Central Jail. Another deputy, Omar Lopez, took an inmate to an area outside of the view of surveillance cameras and pushed the inmate’s head against a wall, causing severe bleeding from the inmate’s face. The use of force also left blood on the inmate’s clothes, the wall and the floor. Pasos was standing approximately four or five feet away at the time of the assault, but claimed she was monitoring inmates in a nearby hallway and was not paying attention to Lopez and the inmate. Pasos then turned around to see the bloodied inmate, and Lopez confirmed he had shoved the inmate’s head into the wall. Pasos told Lopez to “handle the paperwork” to which Lopez replied that he would, but he never did so.
The inmate later reported his assault. Since no deputies reported a use of force incident involving the inmate, the Department opened an investigation into the inmate’s complaint. During her interview, Pasos admitted she did not report the incident because she was afraid of the repercussions of “ratting on” a fellow deputy.
Following the investigation, the Department discharged Pasos based on her failure to report Lopez’s use of force or to seek medical assistance for the inmate. The division’s acting chief determined discharge was appropriate because Pasos’s conduct violated the Department’s policies on general behavior, performance standards, use of force procedures, and safeguarding persons in custody. Further, the chief determined Pasos’s conduct perpetuated a code of silence among the deputies, which undermined the Department’s operation of the jail and brought embarrassment to the Department. A panel of three commanders from other divisions reviewed Pasos’s case and agreed with the chief’s decision.
Pasos appealed her discharge to the Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission (Commission). The Commission sustained the discharge based on the grounds that Pasos’s behavior was so egregious that it merited the highest level of discipline.
Pasos then challenged her discharge in superior court. The trial court held the Commission abused its discretion in upholding the discharge. The trial court said the chief could not discharge every deputy involved in any aspect of inmate abuse in order to deflect media and public criticism. The trial court said that the chief’s job was to impose fair and appropriate discipline for each instance of misconduct. The trial court found for Pasos and directed the Commission to set aside her discharge, award her back pay, and consider a lesser penalty.
The Department appealed, claiming the trial court substituted its own discretion for that of the Department in determining the appropriate penalty. The California Court of Appeal agreed and reversed.
First, the Court of Appeal held the Department followed its written guidelines for discipline by discharging Pasos. Pasos’s failure to report the use of force was egregious because it perpetuated a code of silence among deputies in the jail, which encouraged other deputies to ignore their responsibilities, and brought embarrassment to the Department. That type of misconduct violated the Department’s general behavior policy, which states that the penalty may range from a written reprimand to discharge.
Second, the Court of Appeal upheld the penalty of discharge because Pasos’s conduct harmed the public service. Pasos’s claim she had no duty to report ran counter to her initial stated reason for not reporting the use of force—that she did not want to “rat” on her partner. The penalty of discharge was supported because Pasos’s actions betrayed the public’s trust in peace officers to guard the peace and security of the community. The Court of Appeal noted that California cases often hold that a betrayal of the public trust is grounds for termination. The Court of Appeal noted in a footnote that this misconduct was likely to recur given Pasos’s stated fear from the consequences of “ratting” on a fellow deputy, and minimization of her responsibility to report the severe battery.
For these reasons, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s order and ordered the trial court to enter a new judgment upholding Pasos’s discharge.
Pasos v. Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission, 52 Cal.App.5th 690 (2020).
The public is more keenly aware and critical use of force incidents. This case demonstrates that a “code of silence” regarding these incidents, and the resulting breach of trust between the agency and the public, harms the public service and supports severe discipline.