Post-scandal Bell: Crime is down, trust is up

Since the City of Bell scandal erupted in the summer of 2010,  Anthony Miranda has had to put up with a lot of kidding and comments from colleagues. Bell is a city in East Los Angeles of about 38,500 residents packed into a 2.2-square-mile area, a blue-collar city located in the shadows of Los Angeles.

News had just broken about corruption involving misappropriation of public funds. The City Manager was making more than $800,000 a year and the police chief was making more than the LAPD chief or the sheriff of Los Angeles County.

“I’d be at lunch, and someone would say, ‘Miranda will pick up the check. He’s making a half-million bucks,’” said Miranda, who since October 2012 has been acting police chief of Bell – a title awaiting formal approval from a City Council still reeling from the departure, under a cloud, of several city officials.

In a recent chat with CalChiefsNews, Miranda, 46, in his 23rd year with the Bell P.D., discussed the challenges of moving beyond the scandal and lessons learned at an agency still continuing on the road to recovery.

“It was an extreme challenge on multiple levels,” said Miranda, whose staff during this same time period has been reduced from 42 to 32 sworn officers. During the nearly yearlong investigation into the scandal the department had to continue running its daily operations and I became the point person for almost every investigator who came to town.”

This included investigators from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, the IRS, the FBI and the Department of Justice and PERS, among others. After the resignation of the highly paid former chief, Miranda assumed the de facto position of acting police chief as his position as captain was the highest-rank in the department.

For Miranda, a family man who as a cop has always prided himself on forging friendly and close ties to members of the Bell community, it was a time of stress and long hours. For weeks, his cell phone would ring day and night.

“It was like a roller-coaster ride with no safety belt,” he says.

Miranda said his solid ties to the community helped him weather the storm.

Miranda said he never envisioned something like this when at 23, married and working at a carpet cleaning business in 1991, he met a Bell police sergeant. The sergeant was moonlighting at the time to make some extra money suggested he consider police work.

He took the sergeant’s advice and joined the Bell PD. Over the next seven years he found his niche in narcotics investigations and drug interdiction and community based policing while continuing his education. He began advancing through the ranks, spending seven years as a sergeant, two years as a lieutenant and six as a captain before the storm hit and he stepped in to the lead role.  

Miranda said that throughout his career, he has made a point of talking with residents and making sure they felt they could come to him with any issue. Such close bonds helped when he became the face of the police department during the city’s darkest chapter. For the most part locals knew him and trusted him. 

As examples of the trust he has forged over the years, residents brought him their concerns about bullying, crime and fights that were occurring around the schools. 

In June of 2011, the PD’s “Parents On Patrol” or POP, was formed. It’s a program in which parent volunteers work with the department and receive training by Bell officers to help keep a watch on the city’s nine schools. The program continues to grow, and problems around the schools have decreased dramatically. The POP program recently received a statewide award.

In October of 2011, retired Santa Cruz Police Chief Steve Belcher was appointed interim chief to conduct a review. After a year reviewing all aspects of the department he concluded that the corruption was limited to only the highest levels of government, giving the officers and staff (including Miranda) a clean bill of health. He was quoted at one point saying that the BPD included a hard working group of employees trying to do a difficult job under very challenging circumstances. 

After a lengthy chief’s testing process Miranda was once again handed the reins of the department in October of 2012.

Miranda says it was important for him to take the high road in the wake of the scandal. He focused on police work and reassuring residents that their needs were being attended to.

Crime rates in Bell have dropped over the past two years.  Homicides, rape and most serious crime have dropped 18 percent. Burglaries are down 22 percent and vehicle theft is down 40 percent.

Morale now is “very good and improving with time,” Miranda says, but says “there is always room for improvement and it could be better.” The officers’ labor union has been negotiating with the city for a new contract since 2010, and the chaos caused by the scandal has dragged talks out.

Not only did the former administration damage the reputation of the city but they damaged the city financially. It will take years for it to recover. “They ruined the place and walked away,” Miranda says of the city officials who have been fired, resigned and – in some cases – criminally charged. 

Today, Bell is emerging from those dark days. The City Council has appointed a city manager (Doug Wilmore) who has a long-range vision for the city and has hired permanent professional department heads. Miranda feels fortunate to be part of the new team. The council has been very supportive, not just for the police department but in trying to move the city forward and it appears to be on the right tract. 

“In many ways the scandal has brought the police department and our community closer together,” he says.

As the new chief, Miranda recently launched “Coffee With the Chief.” He has committed to spend two hours at a local restaurant or coffee shop every two weeks listening to community residents on any topic they want to talk about. He sees this as building bridges with residents, listening to both praise and critical comments about the department.

“I think it’s important to lead from the front,” he says. “Most of the residents I talk to tell me how happy they are to live in Bell.”

It’s a city where many people are longtime residents, and where cops like Miranda are known on a first-name basis.

Miranda also focuses on balance. “At the end of the day, home is No. 1,” he says. 

Miranda credits his wife, Nancy, for encouraging him and being his sounding board. Nancy is a corporal for the Glendora P.D.; they have four children ages 13-24, so if they are not at work they can usually be found at their kid sports programs.

Asked about lessons learned from the Bell scandal, Miranda says: “You have to stand by your morals and ethics and be prepared to do the right thing at the right time, and you’ll be fine. There’s a high and a low road you can take, and you have to stay on the high road. Most of us know what we should do and the answer is obvious but, it comes down to choices we make that will define us later.”

He jokes how he sometime refers to himself as a “Bell scandal survivor.”

His parting comments: “Listen to your personnel, maintain communication and openness with the community and continue to do the right thing. You will be fine."

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