OP-ED: No End in Sight in Los Angeles Police Scandal 3/24/00

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Steve Beitler, special to DRCNet

Six months after the first allegations of widespread police misconduct in the Los Angeles Police Department's (LAPD) Rampart division, statistics that give an overview of the scandal are like one of those chalk-drawn body outlines at a crime scene: they hint at the mayhem without conveying the depth of the disaster.

As of mid-March, 40 convictions have been thrown out and scores of other cases involving members of the Rampart division's anti-gang unit are under review. Twenty LAPD officers have been relieved of duty, been fired or have quit, and dozens more are being investigated. More than 15 civil suits have been filed, with estimates of the ultimate price tag for settlements of such suits ranging from $125 million to more than $1 billion dollars.

On February 25, former officer Rafael Perez, whose arrest for pilfering cocaine from an evidence locker touched off the revelations, was sentenced to five years in prison. On March 2, a remarkable report by the LAPD's Board of Inquiry sparked some public bickering among city officials and intensified calls for a civilian-based, independent review of the events. The FBI and the US Department of Justice are investigating civil rights violations, and the outcome of their efforts is far from clear. In addition, a group of prominent attorneys with extensive experience in police misconduct cases began discussions on a possible strategy for legal action whose goal would be systemic reform of the LAPD.

These developments suggest the complexity of the still-unfolding scandal and the many intriguing subplots that feed into the main story line. What has been largely missing so far is a compelling articulation of how systemic forces -- America's perpetual state of war against drugs and gangs -- make such misconduct not only possible but inevitable.

Ironically, former officer Perez came the closest so far to articulating this idea. "My job became an intoxicant that I lusted after," Perez said, according to an account of his sentencing by Los Angeles Times reporter Scott Glover. "The 'us against them' ethos of the overzealous cop began to consume me, and the ends seemed to justify the means. I can only say I succumbed to the seductress of power. Whoever chases monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster himself."

Perez had taken an incredible route to his newfound moral high ground. In hours of testimony in his attempt to win a lighter sentence, Perez told investigators how he had stolen cocaine from an evidence room for several months without a problem and was caught only after he got careless. Beth Barrett and Greg Gittrich of the Daily News of Los Angeles reported that Perez told investigators he replaced stolen cocaine with flour on at least three occasions and lifted about $1 million dollars worth of cocaine. "I could have been anybody," Perez is reported to have said. "Anybody can walk in there." Perez was caught when he used the badge number of another Officer Perez, who was cleared in a subsequent investigation.

Soon after Perez's arrest in August, 1998, the LAPD tightened procedures that govern access to evidence. Police can no longer take narcotics, guns or money from evidence facilities, according to Lt. Sharon Buck, a department spokeswoman.

Sgt. Leo Jones of Irvine, California, who supervises narcotics investigations in that city, told the Orange County Register that the system that allowed a police officer to steal $1 million in cocaine says as much about the system as the officer.

The LAPD's Board of Inquiry report on the Rampart scandal is a 362-page tome that makes more than 100 recommendations amounting to a laundry list of procedural changes -- better screening of recruits, more effective supervision, performance evaluations for officers that actually mean something, and greater power for the chief of police to discipline and fire officers. These are surprisingly tame steps in light of a scandal that the report describes as having "devastated our relationship with the public we serve and threatened the integrity of our entire criminal justice system." As the Los Angeles Times' coverage noted, conspicuous by their absence were recommendations to create outside systems for subjecting the LAPD to consistent, independent scrutiny.

Such scrutiny might have uncovered a 1992 incident in the Rampart division's anti-gang unit at the end of the Rodney King riots. A supervisor found several members of the unit playing cards and working out when they were scheduled to be on patrol. The supervisor complained to his superior, and two days later the supervisor's tires were slashed. He bought new tires that soon suffered the same fate.

Many of the LAPD's procedural shortcomings that were noted in the Board of Inquiry report are strikingly similar to what the Christopher Commission described in its report after the Rodney King beating. That group was headed by former US Secretary of State Warren Christopher (prior to becoming Secretary), who told the Los Angeles Times on March 12 that it was "troubling to find that matters of real importance that were discussed in our report of nine years ago remain unaddressed or not fully resolved today."

That gap didn't seem to bother Mayor Richard Riordan, who praised the Board of Inquiry report on the day it was released but before he had finished reading it, a fact the Mayor discounted by saying he had been thoroughly briefed on the report and had finished the executive summary.

The Board of Inquiry report sparked new calls for an independent review of the Rampart events. LA Councilman Joel Wachs told the Daily News of Los Angeles that while the LAPD's self-diagnosis was a positive sign, "the magnitude and seriousness of their findings underscore why a broad-based, outside review should be welcome as a helpful tool in resolving this."

Wachs's colleague on the City Council, Rita Walters, was more forceful. "This is something we really must look at independently," she told the Daily News. "We have to dig it up, root it out and be certain there are no Ramparts in our future."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California was pretty blunt in its rebuke of Mayor Riordan's assertion that an outside review of the LAPD is unnecessary. "It's time for the Mayor to wake up," said the ACLU in its statement. "Relying on the Police Department to ferret out all of the underlying problems is like having a cancer patient operate on himself."

A step in this direction was taken on February 24th, when the FBI and US Justice Department joined the LAPD investigators to look into possible civil rights violations. Pressure from City Council members, civil rights groups and, ironically, from the LA police union contributed to the decision to bring in the Feds. The police union has expressed "growing concern for due process, protection against a witch hunt and security against scapegoating" of individual officers, according to Rick Orlov of the Daily News of Los Angeles.

At the same time, a February 26 meeting hosted by attorney Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. brought together Mark Rosenbaum of the ACLU and a number of attorneys who are veterans of the "police brutality bar," according to the Los Angeles Times. The attorneys didn't reach any formal agreements but did discuss how the courts and legal system, which were so widely abused in the Ramparts scandal, might be a vehicle for bringing about meaningful police reform.

"This is a situation that is tailor-made for reform," said Rosenbaum, in part because of the breadth and severity of illegal conduct revealed to date. Dan Stormer, an attorney who has considerable experience with police misconduct cases but was not at the meeting, said that one aspect of the Rampart situation that makes it different from other police misconduct cases is "a district attorney acknowledging that there was wrongful, unlawful conduct that deprived someone of their civil rights." Rosenbaum added that "this is not a case of a few bad apples; it is the case of a poisonous tree." That larger perspective on the Rampart scandal is a welcome change from the few-bad-apples explanation that LA Police Chief Bernard Parks has favored.

It remains to be seen whether a legal challenge to the LAPD's long-standing, entrenched immunity from public accountability can succeed. It's also not clear whether the Rampart events will become an issue in the state's high-profile Senate race between Republican Tom Campbell and incumbent Democrat Dianne Feinstein. To this point, six months of Rampart revelations have yet to ignite widespread public outrage, and, given what has come out to date, it's hard to imagine what it will take for this to change. Without such outrage, politicians would probably be happy to steer clear of the issue, especially in light of the political muscle that law enforcement has in California. That doesn't bode well for people who would like to see the Rampart scandal become a turning point in the struggle for law enforcement that plays by the rules it is sworn to uphold.

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Issue #130, 3/24/00 Innocent, Unarmed Man Shot by New York City Drug Unit | National Drug Strategy Released, and Testimony by Eric Sterling | Dump Judge Judy Campaign Growing, Needs Volunteer Monitors, Pain Patients Speak Out | Another Medical Marijuana Bill Goes Before Maryland House Committee | Senate Judiciary Committee Passes Forfeiture Reform Bill, Colombia Aid Package Stalled | Medical Marijuana Patients Begin Northern Florida "Journey For Justice" | Breaking News: UK to Legalize Medical Marijuana | No Hemp for the Masses | High School Anti-Drug Lesson Daringly Different | Link of the Week: "Lost Political Causes" by William F. Buckley | OP-ED: No End in Sight in Los Angeles Police Scandal
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