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Huntington Park Department Leads Southeast in Police Brutality Claims

July 06, 1986|RALPH CIPRIANO | Times Staff Writer

Huntington Park police officers are accused of brutality more frequently than officers of any other municipal police department in the Southeast/Long Beach area.

In the last two calendar years, the 60-member Huntington Park department had 30 legal claims filed against it that allege brutality. That is a sufficiently high number, given the size of the department, to put the city on notice about possible problems within the department, say a top state criminal justice official and legal experts interviewed by The Times.

The claims list one person killed and 61 injured, including:

A fleeing suspect who was shot at 31 times by four police officers. He was hit six times and was critically injured. Police said the suspect--originally stopped for failing to have a license plate on his vehicle--shot at them first. No gun was ever found, and the man was later acquitted of assault and attempted murder of a police officer.

A legally blind man who suffered from a brain tumor at the time of an altercation with police. He said he was hit in the head with a police baton and knocked unconscious.

A businessman who said he was kicked and beaten by police outside his office after he set off his own burglar alarm.

A theft suspect who, while attempting to run away from a police officer, was allegedly rammed by a police car.

An 82-year-old grandfather who fired a revolver when police came to his door and was killed by a salvo of police bullets and a shotgun blast.

(Each of these incidents are detailed in an accompanying story.)

The 30 claims filed against the city in 1984 and 1985 seek about $35 million in damages. All have been routinely denied by the City Council.

Since 1981, the city has had more than $900,000 in pretrial settlements and jury verdicts entered against it in eight cases involving misconduct by about 15 officers. In the same period, the city spent more than $130,000 to defend police officers in claims and suits filed against the city.

A claim is the first required step in filing a lawsuit against the city, though often people who file a claim do not take the matter to court. Of the 30 claims filed against the city in 1984 and 1985, 14 have resulted in suits filed in state and federal courts, four claims have been closed because no lawsuits were filed within 12 months and the remaining 12 cases are considered open by city officials.

The number of brutality claims per officer in Huntington Park in 1984 and 1985 was 25% higher than brutality claims filed against the next highest department--Bell-Cudahy--during the same two-year period. No other department in the area approached Huntington Park's totals for brutality claims per officer in the two most recent calendar years. (See chart.)

Such claims are a significant indicator of possible police misconduct because they take time to file and cost money if a lawyer is consulted, according to a prominent Los Angeles defense lawyer, a top state criminal justice official and a USC law professor, who were interviewed separately.

View of Defense Attorney

"It takes some real effort to file these claims. A citizen has to feel that he's really been put upon," said Los Angeles lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.

Cochran, a former prosecutor and top assistant to John K. Van de Kamp when Van de Kamp was Los Angeles County district attorney, is a defense lawyer who has handled many prominent police brutality cases in the past 20 years. Those cases included the 1981 homicide of Ron Settles, a college football player who was stopped for speeding and died in the Signal Hill Jail.

California Chief Assistant Atty. Gen. Steve White said the high number of claims filed against the Huntington Park Police Department is "a flag, a warning" of possible problems within the department.

"It's not unlike a house with a lot of smoke coming out of it. You want to go in and see if there's a fire," White said. He is in charge of the attorney general's criminal division which, among other duties, investigates complaints of police brutality. The department has not undertaken an investigation of the Huntington Park department, he said.

USC Associate Professor Irwin Chermerinsky, an expert on constitutional law, said that the large number of claims filed against the Huntington Park department is "something that should put the city on notice about a possible problem." Inaction by the City Council and other officials who oversee the department may be seen as an "implicit sanction" of police misconduct that could leave the city liable for damages in federal civil rights lawsuits, the professor said.

Defense From City

Police Chief Geano Contessotto and other top city officials defended the department in interviews.

Contessotto said his officers have been cleared by internal police investigations and in "several" cases, investigations by the district attorney and FBI.

"I see no misconduct in my department," the chief said. "We're not on trial in the press."

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