By BILL HETHERMAN
LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission’s reinstatement of a sheriff’s deputy the department had fired for allegedly repeatedly berating individuals during field duty in 2016 was upheld Tuesday by a judge who found the panel acted properly in allowing the deputy to keep his job.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant denied a petition by county attorneys who argued that the commission’s ruling regarding Deputy Charles Kunz III, which was based on the findings of a hearing officer, should be overturned. The lawyers maintained Kunz made false statements when explaining three encounters with the public.
“While credibility is important for a peace officer and respect and professionalism are important in dealing with the public, a lower level of discipline is permissible even with a proven false statement,” Chalfant wrote.
“The false statements here were dishonest, but they consisted of not completely truthful statements and/or failure to disclose Kunz’s actual recollection. Thus, the harm to the public service, the circumstances surrounding the misconduct and the likelihood that such conduct will recur, all support the hearing officer’s decision.”
Kunz had been a deputy sheriff for 11 years before incidents occurred leading to his discipline. During that time, Kunz was never disciplined, reprimanded or counseled about lying, and he was rated highly in most of his annual performance evaluations, the judge noted, adding that the deputy’s dishonesty was therefore “an anomaly.”
The litigation involving Kunz began last Aug. 3 when sheriff’s department attorneys brought a petition arguing that the commission abused its discretion by reversing Kunz’s firing in favor of suspending him for 30 days and reassigning him to his original position at the Pitchess Detention Center South Facility.
“Honor, professionalism and integrity are qualities that the department and the public expect from sworn peace officers,” Calvin House, an attorney for the county, stated in his court papers. “Deputy Kunz failed to live up to those expectations.”
Instead, Kunz treated members of the public with open disdain and disrespect, then lied to the Internal Affair investigators to avoid taking responsibility for his actions, according to House’s court papers.
“Therefore, discharge was the only appropriate discipline,” House argues in his court papers.
The commission’s hearing officer thought that Kunz’s years of discipline-free service, and prior positive evaluations, constituted extenuating circumstances, House states in his court papers.
“But those are not extenuating circumstances in that they did not explain why he made false statements,” House further stated in his court papers. “They were just part of his record at the department. Those facts did not prove that he would refrain from making false statements in the future.”
When an administrative tribunal like the commission reduces the discipline for a law enforcement officer found to have been dishonest, a judge “should not hesitate to step in to uphold the law enforcement agency’s decision to discharge the (deputy),” House further stated in his court papers.
In her court papers, Kunz’s attorney, Elizabeth J. Gibbons, defended her client’s reinstatement.
“The commission’s determination of the appropriate disciplinary penalty is well within the commission’s discretion and is a decision to which the Superior Court must defer, absent a factual showing of a manifest abuse of discretion,” Gibbons stated in her court papers. “(The sheriff’s department) has made no such showing here.”
Gibbons further stated that the commission found Kunz guilty of lying only about whether he called two juveniles obscene names.
“All other allegations of lying were found by the commission to have not been proved to be true,” Gibbons stated in her court papers.
Kunz worked at the Pitchess Detention Center until April 2016, when he began field training at the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station, the sheriff’s department’s petition stated.
In early June 2016, Kunz was being trained in the field by Sgt. Jason Goedecke and were on patrol when they encountered a woman they believed was in violation of the state vehicle code, the petition stated.
While talking with the woman, Kunz got into an argument with her and began cursing, calling her a word so severe that Goedecke pulled him away and admonished him, the petition stated.
Later that month, Kunz and Goedecke spoke in the back seat of their patrol car with a man who had allegedly stolen a shopping cart, according to the petition.
Kunz asked the man for consent to search his backpack and when the man refused, Kunz told him that if he did not relent he would “find a way to arrest him and search him anyway,” the petition stated.
In mid-July 2016, Kunz and Goedecke arrested a boy suspected of shoplifting at the Westfield Valencia Town Center, the petition stated. Kunz placed the boy in the back of the patrol car, then sat in the front passenger seat. Goedecke reported he overheard Kunz use profanity while calling the boy names, according to the petition.
After bringing the boy to the station for booking, the deputies placed him with another minor while Goedecke reported Kunz’s alleged misconduct, the petition stated. Goedecke later learned that Kunz had yelled at both juveniles, telling them that they were not raised well by their parents and that was why they were arrested, the petition stated.
Kunz’s alleged misconduct resulted in an internal investigation by the department, but Kunz denied making inappropriate statements and additionally stated that he did not recall ever being counseled for uttering such remarks, the petition stated.
Based on the Internal Affairs investigation, Kunz was charged with violating department policies on professional conduct and in other areas and was served with a letter of intent to discharge in May 2017, the petition stated. Kunz appealed and a hearing officer listened to evidence in the case in 2018 and 2019.
In June 2020, the hearing officer concluded that Kunz had acted inappropriately with members of the public on multiple occasions and lied about his actions in an official proceeding, but he nonetheless “without any rational explanation” recommended that Kunz be reinstated with a 30-day suspension, the petition states.
The Civil Service Commission in July 2020 announced a proposed decision adopting the hearing officer’s recommendation to reduce the firing to a suspension, but the commission reversed itself three months later and concluded after hearing objections from the sheriff’s department that Kunz’s discharge was the appropriate penalty, the petition stated.
However, in early June 2021, the commission held another hearing on Kunz’s alleged misconduct and adopted its previous recommendation to follow the findings of the hearing officer and suspend the deputy for 30 days and reassign him to the Pitchess Detention Center rather than fire him, the petition stated.