There is, unfortunately, precedent for the Los Angeles City Council's decision to use the taxpayers' money to pay for a jury judgment of punitive damages against Police Chief Daryl F. Gates. The city's Mexican community still has painful memories of a similar council action in 1970. The reprise should raise concerns about our city government's attitude toward police officers' accountability for their actions and, ultimately, about the power of the police Establishment in Los Angeles politics.
In the 1970 case, heavily armed Los Angeles Police Department officers searching for a murder suspect stormed the wrong Skid Row hotel room. They shot all its occupants--unarmed, innocent Mexican immigrants. Two of the men ("the Sanchez cousins," as they have become known) were killed and three wounded. Later the police said that the man being sought was no longer a suspect in the murder.
An outraged Latino community demanded that the officers be held accountable for their actions, calling for their prosecution and removal from the force. The district attorney's office filed criminal charges against the officers, and the FBI announced that it also would prosecute them under federal civil-rights statutes. But, under intense pressure from the police Establishment, the City Council voted to pay for the officers' defense.
Eventually the criminal charges against the officers were dismissed and they were acquitted of the federal charges. The department took no disciplinary measures against them.
The current case involving Gates stems from a federal jury's finding that several LAPD officers had, by using excessive force in a search, violated the civil rights of a low-income Latino family named Larez. The jury also found that Gates had condoned the officers' unlawful behavior, and it ordered him to pay $170,000 in punitive damages.
The key to that finding lay in contemptuous and arguably racist remarks that Gates had made outside the courtroom. As widely reported in the media, Gates suggested that the Larezes were lucky that their beatings had not been worse, that their injuries were not worth the amount awarded, and that they had been "cleaned up" for their court appearances.
What followed was a fascinating demonstration of the police Establishment's power with the city's political Establishment. Shortly after the jury verdict was announced, Gates met in secret with City Council members and pressured them into an immediate, unanimous and uncritical resolution to pay for the judgment against him. By then Mayor Tom Bradley (himself a former LAPD officer) had announced his support for Gates.
There was no need for the City Council to make its decision at this time. The city is not required to pay for punitive damages imposed on its employees for actions that they took in the course of city business. The city attorney's office had already announced plans to appeal the verdict against Gates. The council could have simply waited for the years of appeals to run their course and then make the decision, if it was necessary.
Apparently the council felt compelled to send the community an immediate political message of support for Gates. And, apparently, the council did so without considering--or, worse, with callous disregard for--how that message would be heard in the Latino community.
The most disturbing fact is that all this transpired without anyone in city government daring to criticize Gates for his intemperate remarks. The message is clear, and ominous: When the chips are down, holding police officers accountable for unlawful actions is not a political priority.
The council's attitude in this matter adds mistrust of elected officials to the damage that Gates has done to relations between the police and the community.
With many of our people locked in the inner city, the Latino community places great value on good police protection. However, we also want protection from officers who would misuse their authority. We therefore place equal value on effective disciplinary policies and practices that ensure accountability of police officers for their actions.
What's more, such policies must have the full, public support of the police chief and his division commanders if they are to prevent intentional and reckless conduct that violates peoples' human and civil rights.
Some things have changed since 1970. We even have Latinos on the City Council. But apparently the police Establishment is still the most powerful political force in Los Angeles.
Some of the latest damage to community trust might still be repaired. For starters, if it is not too much to ask, Gates should apologize for his statements. If he does not, the mayor and the City Council should press him to do so. And the council should reconsider, in public debate, its decision to pay for the judgment. Then they all should re-examine and adjust the inadequate policies, practices and attitudes toward police-officer accountability. Concern for protecting the public's human and civil rights should override the powerful political hand of the police.