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US CA: US Prepared To Sue To Force LAPD Reforms

Media Awareness ProjectLos Angeles Times 06 May 2000

US CA: US Prepared To Sue To Force LAPD Reforms

Author: Jim Newton, Scott Glover, Matt Lait

U.S. PREPARED TO SUE TO FORCE LAPD REFORMS*Police: Sources say Justice Department will brief local officials on whether violations fall into a pattern of abuse.

Meanwhile, officers’ homes are searched.

As search warrants were served on the homes of more than a dozen Los Angeles police officers linked to an ongoing criminal corruption probe, sources said Friday that federal authorities are prepared to bring a civil rights lawsuit against the LAPD unless the city and the department agree to a host of reforms.

U.S. Department of Justice officials have concluded after a four-year investigation that they have enough evidence of alleged civil rights violations at the hands of Los Angeles Police Department officers to file a so-called pattern and practice lawsuit against the entire department.

According to sources familiar with the federal government’s approach to the case, Civil Rights Division Chief Bill Lann Lee will come to Los Angeles on Monday to meet with city officials and brief them on the Justice Department’s intentions. Federal authorities are offering the city an opportunity to enter into a consent decree rather than face a lawsuit.

Since 1996, Justice Department officials have been monitoring the LAPD to determine whether incidents involving excessive force fall into any recognizable pattern.

The purpose of such reviews, authorized by federal law in 1994, is to ensure proper management and oversight of local police departments.

More recently, the Justice Department has concerned itself with the allegations that officers from the LAPD’s Rampart Division were involved in beatings, unjustified shootings, false arrests, evidence plantings and perjury, matters that go well beyond the issues the federal government previously had been examining.

City Atty. James K. Hahn, Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, Police Commission President Gerald L. Chaleff and representatives of the mayor’s office all have been summoned to the meeting Monday afternoon.

Inspector General Jeff Eglash and council members Cindy Miscikowski and Mike Feuer also are expected to attend.

Several local officials said they were not told what would be discussed at the 4 p.m. session.

The threat of litigation would vastly raise the stakes for local officials, and it would represent a clear vote of no confidence in Los Angeles’ political leadership, particularly its civilian Police Commission.

Based on the government’s actions in previous pattern and practice consent decrees, the proposal in Los Angeles could have broad ramifications. If enacted, a consent decree could, in effect, strip final authority over many matters relating to the Police Department from the mayor, the Police Commission and the City Council. In other cities and states, responsibilities such as internal investigations and even some budget matters have been placed under the jurisdiction of a federal judge.

Los Angeles could, of course, choose to fight it out in court with the Justice Department, but that would be a risky course, both politically and legally.

Civilian Overseer

Although sources would not detail what reforms the Justice Department expects to seek at the LAPD, federal authorities in all previous cases have insisted on the appointment of an outside auditor or monitor.

When the federal government took action against the city of Pittsburgh in 1997 and its police bureau, for instance, an auditor was appointed and given authority to review all incidents in which the police use force, searches and traffic stops, among other things.

Any time the auditor concludes that there is something amiss with an investigation in Pittsburgh, he can order the case reopened and issue written instructions as to how the matter should be investigated. Local officials are obligated to comply under the terms of the decree.

What that means in Pittsburgh, the first and largest such city to be placed under such an order so far, is that a civilian overseer essentially is the last word on internal police bureau investigations.

In Pittsburgh, federal authorities also required the city’s police bureau to collect a range of data and to install an officer-tracking system that would alert officials to employees with potential problems.

Officer tracking has been a particularly sore spot in Los Angeles. Several years ago, the city pledged to upgrade its rudimentary tracking system, and based on that promise, the Justice Department not only backed off but went so far as to make money available to the city to build a system.

Los Angeles officials failed to carry out that promise, however, bogging down in bureaucratic details and letting the system languish.

When Justice Department officials recently discovered that the money they had allocated for the project still was not used, they were furious.

When the Justice Department started its civil rights probe, former Chief Willie L. Williams was in office and the Police Commission was headed by lawyer Raymond Fisher, a well-regarded police reformer, who later went on to work for the Justice Department. In that period, federal investigators promptly received documents relating to excessive force complaints and other matters.

Additional requests in 1998–by which time Parks had been named chief and attorney Edith Perez was the acting commission president–were not responded to in such a timely manner, federal officials said.

“We got a quicker response to our first request,” one official familiar with the federal civil rights investigation said shortly before Justice officials met with Los Angeles leaders in March. “Whether that was because of the people who were in charge, I can’t say.”

As federal authorities prepared to address systemic problems within the department on Friday, local prosecutors and LAPD detectives were pressing ahead with their own criminal probe.

Authorities served search warrants on 17 current and former LAPD officers, most of whom once worked in the same anti-gang CRASH unit as Rafael Perez, the man at the center of what has become known as the Rampart corruption scandal.

Law enforcement sources said investigators were looking for further evidence that would bolster a criminal conspiracy prosecution.

Among the items investigators sought were plaques awarded to anti-gang officers involved in shootings who injured or killed suspects, according to attorneys for suspended officers.

The plaques were distributed to officers at boozy celebrations, occasionally held at the Los Angeles Police Academy, several former Rampart officers have told The Times.

Investigators also were looking for additional artifacts of the quasi-gang culture that allegedly existed within the division’s CRASH unit. Such items included shirts that bore a grinning skull wearing a cowboy hat in front of the so-called dead man’s poker hand.

At some residences investigators looked for photographs, financial records and officers’ notebooks pertaining to certain dates that investigators would not disclose.

The early morning searches, which took officers and their families by surprise, created yet another rift between the LAPD and the district attorney’s office, sources said.

Some officers whose homes were searched and their lawyers said the LAPD investigators were apologetic, insisting that the operation was not their idea and that they were not in favor of it.

A police union official said a deputy chief even placed an early morning call, warning him of the impending searches.

Department officials confirmed privately that they saw little reason for the searches eight months after the scandal broke and presumably after any incriminating evidence would have been discarded.

Ted Hunt, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, charged that the searches were a campaign stunt by Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who faces a runoff election in November.

“This was the result of a desperate politician who is trying to breathe life into his nearly extinct campaign,” Hunt said. “He’s using our police officers–these good decent human beings–as political cannon fodder.”

Raids Staged at Officers’ Homes

In one instance, Hunt said, an officer responded to a knock on his door about 7:30 a.m. to find several plainclothes district attorney’s investigators crouched at the entrance to his home, their guns drawn.

He said the officer’s child watched in horror as the investigators, along with LAPD detectives, barged into the house.

“The kid was in tears. . . . What need is there to point a gun [in the direction of] a 5-year-old kid?” Hunt said.

“This shouldn’t happen in America.”

Aruna Patel, the wife of Kulin Patel, an officer under investigation whose house was searched, broke into tears as she recalled the incident in an interview Friday afternoon. “I am so humiliated,” she said between sobs. “He is a police officer not for the money, not for the fame. He is there to help people.

And this is how they repay him.”

Lawyers for several other officers who had their homes searched said district attorney’s investigators and LAPD detectives were professional, even courteous.

District attorney’s officials defended the searches as a necessary part of what Garcetti has vowed would be a thorough investigation of the alleged corruption centered on the LAPD’s Rampart Division.

One district attorney’s source said the LAPD investigators’ recalcitrance offered more evidence of what prosecutors increasingly see as the LAPD’s unwillingness and inability to police itself.

“They just don’t have the stomach for it,” the district attorney’s source said.

To date, at least 31 officers, including three sergeants, have been suspended or fired or have quit in the wake of the scandal.

More than 70 officers officers are under investigation for committing crimes or misconduct or for knowing about such activities and helping to cover them up.

In addition, at least 73 criminal cases have been thrown out of court amid allegations of officer misconduct.

MAP posted-by: Jo-D