Investigative missteps by the Long Beach Police Department are complicating the case of an LBPD officer facing prison time for trading images online of children being sexually abused.
Anthony Brown, 57, will face a federal judge Monday where prosecutors will ask for a sentence of five years and 10 months after Brown pleaded guilty in March to distributing child pornography.
The charge is tied to at least 10 pictures or videos of children being sexually abused that Brown admitted to distributing through the social media website MeWe, where prosecutors say he also participated in graphic chats fantasizing about forcing a fictitious 13-year-old niece and 8-year-old daughter into having sex with men. In a plea agreement, Brown admitted to sharing at least one of the sex-abuse images while he was on duty at the Long Beach Airport.
Brown’s attorneys have argued he deserves only the mandatory minimum sentence of five years, in part because federal prosecutors rarely, if ever, pursue such cases based on so few images of child pornography. Prosecutors responded by saying they have no way of knowing the extent of Brown’s wrongdoing because he wiped his phone clean before police searched it.
That potential destruction of evidence, now a key issue in Brown’s sentencing, was enabled by a series of decisions early on in the investigation, some of which the LBPD now admits were mistakes or based on outdated procedures.
As laid out in court documents and search warrants reviewed by the Long Beach Post, the LBPD began its investigation in May 2020 after getting a tip from a child-welfare group about a MeWe account registered to a phone number in Long Beach.
A detective soon tied the phone number to Brown and then, not yet realizing Brown was a police officer, called to tell him about the complaint that his account was sharing sex-abuse images. According to court documents, Detective Laurie Barajas told Brown she was going to drop the case, but if she ever got another complaint about him, she’d reopen it and pursue felony charges.
Police declined to explain why Barajas made this call, saying only that it was “consistent with historical investigative best practices at the time,” but it’s a move that baffled Elizabeth Donegan, a retired Austin Police sergeant who led that city’s sex crimes unit and now trains law enforcement and other experts across the country.
“You would never say that,” Donegan said.”Your job is to uncover the truth as an investigator, whatever the evidence leads you to. You certainly don’t tip off perpetrators.”
LBPD spokesman Brandon Fahey said in an email that the department has revised its protocols since the Brown investigation and “detectives no longer initiate a phone call with a suspect in this manner.”
Donegan said detective Barajas also made a crucial error by not doing basic background research before calling Brown. Court documents say the detective only learned Brown was an LBPD officer after hanging up and looking him up in a law enforcement database.
After a review of the case, the LBPD said it’s built more oversight by supervisors into the investigative process and instructed detectives to do more background research earlier in the process.
“Under our revised protocol, the suspect would never have been contacted until additional investigative work was completed,” Fahey said.
Brown’s defense team argues Barajas’ promise to drop the case, the subsequent discovery Brown was a police officer and the ultimate decision to pursue charges show he was only prosecuted because of his job.
If that’s the case, Donegan said, it raises questions about how seriously the LBPD handles other child pornography investigations.
“What does that say about their department that they were OK about letting someone go, but when they went back and identified this person as a police officer, they say, this is different now?” she said.
Despite Barajas’ statement that the case would be dropped, the LBPD said it was never actually closed, only “suspended” until new leads developed “and sufficient evidence was obtained to effectively identify and arrest the suspect.”
Meanwhile, prosecutors say, Brown performed a factory reset of his phone almost immediately after Barajas contacted him, effectively eliminating all data before police could search it.
Even after police searched Brown’s phone and learned it had been wiped clean, Brown was allowed to stay on the job. The LBPD made that decision because, “The preliminary review of the investigation did not initially warrant the officer to be removed from their work,” according to Fahey, who said detectives still needed to do more work to connect Brown to the MeWe account.
He kept working until his arrest in February 2021, after which he retired almost immediately.
After an assessment by a doctor, Brown’s attorneys now argue it was his 27 years on the job that drove him to view child pornography.
“In short,” they wrote in court papers, “because the defendant was a police officer who suffered from intense PTSD and was subjected to great public animus during the pandemic due to the international focus on police officer misconduct and racial injustice, the defendant — a good-hearted, kind, good-guy officer — plunged into a deep depression (like millions of others who slide into depression and boredom).”
As a result, they wrote, Brown “felt ‘dead’ inside and turned to ‘porn’ and ‘taboo porn, including [child pornography]’ to try and feel something inside himself.”