LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Three sheriff’s department employees, including two supervisors, were disciplined for their handling of last year’s drunken-driving arrest of actor-director Mel Gibson, the head of a civilian oversight panel said on Friday.
An independent review of the case, which sparked a furor when Gibson’s anti-Semitic remarks to arresting officers were revealed, concluded that actions by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department employees violated agency policy.
According to the report, Gibson was permitted to leave the sheriff’s station in Malibu without providing a palm print or signing a statement promising to appear in court as required. A sheriff’s sergeant also gave Gibson a ride to a tow yard to retrieve his car without clearing with it station commanders.
While constituting relatively “minor” infractions of department policy, those actions “create a perception of preferential treatment,” said Michael Gennaco, who heads the Office of Independent Review.
He said two sergeants received formal reprimands and a department jailer was suspended for two days without pay.
“The general public expects equal treatment under the law, and when there’s a perception that’s not what is going on, that’s a problem,” he said.
To the department’s credit, Gibson’s arrest and prosecution were otherwise handled professionally, Gennaco said.
“Thirty years ago, if a celebrity was detained or stopped, most likely that celebrity would have been driven home and never even charged,” he told Reuters. “So I think law enforcement has come a long way.”
The report was less critical of another aspect of how Gibson’s case was handled — the way the agency first reported his July 2006 arrest to the media.
Department spokesman Steve Whitmore initially asserted that Gibson was pulled over and detained “without incident.”
But it was later revealed, through a police report leaked to celebrity Web site TMZ.com, that Gibson was belligerent, had tried to bolt away and went into a drunken, anti-Semitic rant about Jews being to blame “for all the wars in the world.”
The episode sparked a public outcry and international headlines two years after Gibson had fended off accusations of anti-Semitism surrounding the release of his box office hit “The Passion of the Christ.”
Gibson apologized for his behavior, pleaded no contest to drunken driving and was placed on probation for three years.
The review board found Whitmore’s treatment of the media was not a policy violation, but Gennaco said the agency needs to develop consistent guidelines for how to handle media inquiries into such high-profile cases in the future.