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Lawmaker calls for full audit of developmental center police

Monica Lam/California Watch Donna Lazzini embraces her son, Timothy Lazzini, a resident of the Sonoma Developmental Center who died in 2005. 

The state Assembly’s Republican leader yesterday called for an exhaustive audit of the police force at California’s board-and-care institutions for the severely developmentally disabled.

In a letter to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, Assemblywoman Connie Conway, R-Tulare, requested an examination [PDF] into training, investigative practices and overtime pay within the force, called the Office of Protective Services.

The committee has scheduled a hearing for Aug. 7 to decide whether to order the audit.

Conway said she doesn’t anticipate any objection to an audit of the developmental center police. “I shouldn’t even think those involved would mind an audit,” she said. “If they have nothing to hide the way it is, then why would they care?”

Terri Delgadillo, director of the state Department of Developmental Services, which operates the institutions and the police force, did not immediately respond to a request for comment yesterday afternoon.

Delgadillo has said in recent months the department welcomes additional scrutiny from state lawmakers.

"We are fully committed to working with the Legislature to further enhance resident protection at developmental centers because the health and safety of the individuals we serve is our highest priority,” Delgadillo said in a written statement in February.  

Conway’s request comes in response to an ongoing series of stories this year by California Watch, which reported that detectives and patrol officers at the institutions routinely fail to conduct basic police work even when patients die under mysterious circumstances.

The Department of Developmental Services has hired numerous people with no law enforcement experience to handle criminal investigations. In 2007, the department picked Nancy Irving, a former labor negotiator and government manager, as police chief despite the fact that she was not a sworn officer. Irving led the force for a year before retiring from the department.

The current chief, Corey Smith, spent most of his career as a firefighter.

California Watch stories have also detailed how the small force is one of the most proficient in the state at accumulating overtime. Twenty-two officers, roughly one-fourth of the force, have claimed enough overtime to double their salaries.

The state operates five developmental centers housing roughly 1,700 patients with cerebral palsy and other intellectual disabilities in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Sonoma and Tulare counties. California is budgeted to spend $550 million on the patients and facilities this fiscal year, or about $314,000 per patient.

Coby Pizzotti, legislative liaison at the California State Law Enforcement Association, said the audit would likely show developmental center officials undermine the criminal investigations. The association represents sworn officers at the institutions.

“The administration is getting involved well before an investigator or officer is,” Pizzotti said. “That’s the problem. The first point of contact should not be the administrator of the developmental center or the medical director. It should be the protective services.”

Department of Developmental Services officials have told lawmakers and advocates for the disabled that they are already fixing the force’s weaknesses.

Delgadillo pledged to immediately upgrade criminal investigations at the institutions during a legislative hearing in March concerning the Office of Protective Services. The entire force received retraining in June, though the department has refused to say what that included.

California Watch submitted questions to Delgadillo on June 26 seeking details about the instruction. The questions asked about the curriculum, which officers received instruction and whether the Office of Protective Services is implementing new policies.

“We are reviewing your questions,” Nancy Lungren, a Department of Developmental Services spokeswoman, wrote in response. Delgadillo has not responded to additional calls for comment.

The department’s law enforcement manual has remained half-written for more than a decade, internal records show.

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