Detective alleges sexual hazing on LAPD’s Centurions football team

He was a former Pac-10 college player, one of the best recruits on the LAPD’s amateur football team, the Centurions. He joined because a supervisor told him it was a quick route to promotion and good assignments.

But as he walked off the field at his first all-weekend practice, that veteran supervisor and others on the team began to yell: “Rookies to the locker room.”

What followed was an alleged hazing, a group sexual assault so damaging that the young linebacker didn’t dare report it. Who would he tell, anyway? The alleged assailants were Los Angeles police officers, the people meant to investigate such crimes. And their victim? He was a rookie cop.

That rookie officer is now a respected detective. He reported the alleged assault to the L.A. Police Commission’s inspector general in March. And on Monday he filed a legal claim, a precursor to a lawsuit against the city that sets out his allegations detailed in this story. The Times is not naming the officer as a possible victim of sexual assault, which allegedly unfolded on Feb. 7, 2009.

The officer told his parents and three friends in the years after the alleged assault, which happened in the last year of Chief William J. Bratton’s tenure. He did not speak to The Times for this story, although two friends and his attorney did address the allegations.

When reached on Tuesday, a department spokesperson said she was not aware of the claim and would have to learn more about the allegations before commenting. Messages seeking comment that were left on a phone number and email address listed on the Centurions website weren’t immediately returned.

Part of the LAPD’s athletics program, the football team has more than 50 players on the roster and plays a six-game schedule, generally against teams from other local law enforcement agencies. After a two-year hiatus because of the pandemic, the Centurions started playing again in 2022.

The LAPD Centurions football team, in dark jerseys, plays a team of Los Angeles County and city fire department members — the L.A. Heat — in 1999.

(David Bohrer/Los Angeles Times)

The team is registered as a nonprofit but it is frequently featured on the LAPD’s social media profile and has been mentioned in official news releases over the last couple of decades. For some officers, the squad is both a networking opportunity and a way to continue playing a sport they grew up with. For the detective who filed the claim, it turned out to be a nightmare.

“He is a tough son of a gun with a strong depth of character and a decorated career despite really being put through it by this evil,” said his attorney, Michael Morrison, a veteran sex abuse lawyer who was part of nearly $1 billion in L.A. settlements in priest abuse cases.

Morrison said his client is haunted daily, that “he had guilt and shame and humiliation.” As the legal claim outlines, after the assault he felt “like he was in a gang that he could not leave without putting himself in danger.”

Within minutes after practice ended, the rookie officer was pressured to strip naked and face a gantlet of more than 30 men hurling a barrage of abuse, according to the legal claim.

They hollered at him to show his penis. They grabbed at him and threw unidentified liquids his way. Before the attack ended, the filing alleged, a Centurion teammate rammed a hard object into his anus.

The agony shot through his body, according to the legal claim, and he began to bleed.

That gantlet allegedly included one officer who is now a captain, a few lieutenants, several sergeants and former Officer James C. Nichols, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence for raping and sexually assaulting women while on duty, according to records.

“You one of us now,” one officer told him after pulling him to another area following the hazing, seeing his visible distress, according to the legal claim.

Court records say the intervening officer mentioned Ricardo Lizaraga, a former Centurion who was gunned down in the line of duty in 2004 — and whose suspected killer was found hanging in his cell in the county’s Twin Towers jail. “Lizaraga was one of us,” the officer said, according to the lawsuit. “We took care of him; we take care of you.”

Fearing retribution, the rookie probation officer said nothing at the time, , according to the legal claim.

But he did tell some of those closest to him, and those individuals confirmed to The Times that the officer shared the story of the alleged assault with them years ago.

Morrison said the detective, shortly before deciding to file his legal claim, ran into one of the perpetrators. That officer, the lawyer said, claimed he was a different person now and expressed amazement that the detective did not “rat them out” despite the culture of silence. Morrison said that conversation triggered his client’s need for justice and to blow the whistle on the Centurions for the hazing he allegedly endured in 2009.

As he walked off the field that February day 14 years ago, two team veterans muttered that they didn’t want a part of “this,” they didn’t like when the team did “this,” and they walked away in their pads to their cars, according to the legal claim. The other players herded the rookies into a dimly lit training room and called out their names one by one, the legal claim stated.

From the other side of the door in the locker room at Bishop Mora Salesian High School where they practiced, there were audible screams from those who had already been summoned, according to the legal claim.

The officer who is now pursuing litigation said he was last to go among the rookie players. He alleges that he was ordered to strip naked while surrounded by more than 30 screaming men. At first, the legal claim stated, he kept his underwear on despite the barrage of homophobic abuse, shouts like, “Show us your d—, f—!”

He slipped off his underwear and covered his genitals, according to the claim. The men screamed to see his “little c—” as he walked the gauntlet, the claim alleges, and others grabbed his arms, threw liquids and jabbed at his backside with a hard object.

At the showers, he alleges he was required to climb into a trash bin filled with ice water as the officers yelled abuse about his body. As he climbed out, he saw colleagues making fists, and he took up a defensive posture with his knees bent. According to the claim, that is when he felt the bottle penetrate his anus.

The statute of limitations has already expired for criminal charges, but not for civil litigation for assault, negligence and emotional distress. As the claim outlines, the detective suffers from lingering post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Some friends of the detective agreed to speak to The Times about what he told them. They agreed to share their recollections of those conversations on the condition that their names not be used for fear of retribution.

“He seemed really embarrassed, I almost want to say ashamed, because he had always been an athletic, kind of an alpha male type of character,” said one close childhood friend, adding that it was “almost as if he was afraid for his own safety and was scared because he didn’t know what to do.”

A second friend told The Times that the detective confided in him about a week after the incident occurred. They would speak by phone nearly every day, according to the friend, which caused him to be concerned when the detective became withdrawn and distant. In conversations the two had about the incident over the ensuing years, the detective conveyed his dread of being found out and going to work while keeping such a painful secret.

The legal claim does not identify who wielded the bottle that day. Among those identified as being part of the gantlet was Nichols, the former LAPD officer who is currently in state prison after being convicted of two counts of rape and two counts of forcible oral copulation. Nichols and another colleague victimized four women between 2008 to 2011 by forcing them to have sex. The women were informants for Nichols and his partner in drug investigations.

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore speaks during a news conference outside LAPD headquarters.

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore speaks during a 2020 news conference outside LAPD headquarters.

(Stefanie Dazio / Associated Press)

Another person allegedly present during the assault was Dana Smith, an officer in Central Division who was sent to a board of rights this July and is facing potential termination, according to a claim that Smith himself filed against the city seeking to overturn discipline for an excessive force complaint. Smith appealed a disciplinary panel recommendation that he be suspended for an incident in which he struck a suspect in the face twice and was discourteous.

According to the detective’s legal claim, Capt. Anthony Espinoza was also among those present in the locker room that day in 2009. He now runs the LAPD’s innovative management unit.

Lt. Matthew Ensley of the Pacific Division is another officer listed in the litigation. Raymond Puetteman, another officer also allegedly present for the locker room abuse, has since risen to lieutenant in the training division.

Emails sent to the four officers at their LAPD addresses went unreturned on Tuesday afternoon. The legal claim does not specify their roles in the alleged assault.

The Times spoke with several officers who have played with the team over the years. One former officer, who requested anonymity to speak freely about the team’s culture, said that before joining the team, he heard stories of hazing. In at least one instance, the officer heard that new recruits were forced by senior team members to strip off their clothes and jump into an ice bath.

The officer said such frat-like pranks were far more common in the 1990s, but the team’s culture was largely cleaned up during the tenure of former Chief Bernard Parks, who took a particular interest in the team.

In the early days, the team’s brand was so popular that it played its games in the L.A. Coliseum. It won several titles as part of the National Public Safety Football League, playing against police teams from Las Vegas, Houston and Chicago. The Centurions’ main rival, though, was the New York Police Department, with regular matchups in years past billed as the Super Police Bowl.

Being a part of the team comes with its perks, former players said. Officers can receive days off to practice or travel, and plum assignments in specialized units. It also carries with certain risks. Players are on the hook for their own travel expenses, and many get their own insurance to cover medical expenses in case they get injured while playing.

Historically, the team has had its own cheerleading squad, a mix of sworn and civilian employees. When they weren’t cheering, members performed other tasks, such as organizing picnics, barbecues and other events to raise funds for the team’s main charity, the Blind Children’s Center.

But Centurion members have gotten into brawls when playing out of town, one former officer who played on the team said, and department leaders have turned a blind eye to some of the heavy drinking that went on in years past.

In wake of the alleged assault in 2009, the detective said he feared that the officers who sexually assaulted him could get him fired, or worse, even “find a way to kill him,” according to his legal claim.

His escape came in the form of an injury, which prevented him from finishing the 2009 season, according to the claim. He never returned to the team.

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