Carlos Puma/California Watch A caregiver at Lanterman Developmental Center in Pomona assists a patient.
State lawmakers have introduced two bills to increase the number of agencies alerted about injuries and alleged crimes against patients at California’s institutions for the developmentally disabled.
The law now requires developmental center officials to report patient deaths and serious unexplained injuries to law enforcement. But often, the centers’ in-house police force, the Office of Protective Services, is the only criminal justice agency involved in potential patient abuse cases.
Under SB 1051, the reports also would go to outside law enforcement and a patient advocacy organization, Disability Rights California. Sen. Carol Liu, D-Glendale, and Sen. Bill Emmerson, R-Riverside, are sponsoring the measure.
The companion legislation, SB 1522, goes further, mandating that city or county police agencies receive notice of cases of sexual assault, assault with a deadly weapon or force, and unexplained injuries involving broken bones or patients’ genitals. Sponsored by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, the bill would require centers to alert outside law enforcement “regardless of whether the Office of Protective Services has investigated the facts and circumstances relating to the incident.”
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In a series of stories in February, California Watch reported that detectives and patrol officers at the board-and-care institutions routinely fail to conduct basic police work even when patients die under mysterious circumstances. The facilities have documented hundreds of cases of abuse and unexplained injuries, almost none of which have led to arrests.
The state operates five developmental centers that house roughly 1,800 patients with cerebral palsy and other intellectual disabilities in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Sonoma and Tulare counties. California is budgeted to spend $577 million on the patients and facilities this fiscal year, or about $320,000 per patient.
Both measures are scheduled to go before the Senate Human Services Committee at a hearing Tuesday. The bills’ sponsors continue to seek supporters, including patient advocacy groups and the state Department of Developmental Services, which runs the developmental centers.
“The department is tracking and reviewing the bills, and the administration has no position at this time,” Nancy Lungren, the department’s spokeswoman, said in a written statement.
As written, SB 1051 could flood local police with reports of every bruise and scrape that appears on developmental center patients. The institutions record more than 200 unexplained injuries a year. State law does not presently define what injuries should be categorized as “serious.”
While many injuries are worrisome, including broken bones and genital lacerations, some are minor abrasions that do not warrant police attention, said Leslie Morrison, head of investigations at Disability Rights California.
The legislation also would require the state Department of Justice to begin tracking whether victims are disabled in California crime statistics.
In addition to mandating injury reports, the bill would set minimum qualifications for serving as police chief at the Office of Protective Services. The chief would have to be a certified peace officer, as is already required by law, and possess “extensive management experience directing uniformed peace officer and investigation operations,” the bill states.
It is unclear whether the current chief, Corey Smith, meets that standard. Smith spent most of his career as a firefighter and became chief in 2010 after his predecessor was indicted for his alleged involvement in an overtime fraud scheme.
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.
Legislation is only part of the effort to upgrade the Office of Protective Services. In March, the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown pledged to overhaul the force with 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.
Terri Delgadillo, director of the Department of Developmental Services, said the officers’ training would begin swiftly and be complete within 90 days, or by mid-June.
However, Joe Brann, former chief of the Hayward Police Department and the independent overseer of the Office of Protective Services, said he is still assessing what fixes are needed.
“They’re very committed to trying to honor that timeline,” Brann said of the department, but his work might cause the force to miss the deadline.