By Rick Lomas' account, the Los Angeles police officer who stopped him in 1987 for a possible traffic violation yanked him out of his car, threw him to the ground, pulled him up by his shirt collar and pushed him into the patrol car. Lomas later went to the LAPD's Rampart Division to complain--but said he never got past the officer at the desk.
"I remember him saying: 'Is this against one of our officers?' " said the 35-year-old singer and drummer from Hollywood. "I said, 'Yes it is.' He said, 'You're going to have to take that downtown or try to find an attorney.' It got to a point where I didn't feel comfortable with filing the doggone thing."
Three weeks ago, at the Van Nuys station, Hardy Rogers said he had a similar experience. The 48-year-old General Motors assembly line worker was angry with two officers who, he alleged, fabricated a report saying they had found drugs in his car. He asked for a complaint form, unaware that the department has no such forms. Rather than tell him so, a sergeant pressed the complainant to talk.
"He asked, 'What happened?' " Rogers recalled. "I said, 'That's for me to put down on a complaint form. . . . I'll write out the complaint and then you deal with it.' But he would not give it to me. I walked out."
These two incidents--four years apart, one long before the infamous police beating of Rodney G. King and the other shortly after--illustrate what some view as the shortcomings of the Los Angeles Police Department's procedure for handling citizen complaints.
Critics complain that the system is shut off from the public, an internal process in which cops investigate other cops with little, if any, outside scrutiny. All too often, they say, citizens are discouraged from filing complaints. In the majority of cases, officers are exonerated--without the complainant learning the result. In part, this is because of a state law that requires police agencies to keep most misconduct investigations confidential.
In the wake of the King beating, the department's citizen complaint process is under more scrutiny than at any time since the Watts riots. The Christopher Commission--the independent panel investigating the Police Department--is examining the system, and is reportedly considering sweeping changes. So is the Los Angeles Police Commission, which is looking at citizen complaint procedures in five other cities as part of its probe.
"We are attempting to examine other jurisdictions . . . and how they handle complaints of police misconduct," acting Police Commission President Melanie Lomax said, "because clearly, our system is not fail-safe."
Others are far more pointed in their criticism. "The object of this entire process is to squelch complaints," charges Tom Beck, a lawyer who represents victims of police abuse. "I've been doing this since 1978 and I've run into this time and time again. We've got cops committing crimes that the department doesn't even bother to look into."
In the King case, a sergeant refused to initiate an investigation after King's brother, Paul, contacted the Foothill Division station and complained about the beating. Paul King told the sergeant that a videotape of the beating had been made, but no complaint was lodged until after the video was shown on television.
Civil rights advocates are calling for an independent review panel that would either investigate police misconduct or review the department's findings. About 50 U.S. cities--including New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Miami and Washington, D.C.--have civilian review boards, although their authority varies and none has power to impose discipline.
Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates has expressed his opposition to such a board. His department maintains that its current system--in which complaints are investigated internally and the police chief metes out discipline--is fair and effective.
"We hire very talented, very intelligent people who conduct very thorough and insightful investigations," said department spokesman Lt. Fred Nixon, "and you're not going to get a better investigative effort than the one that is put forth now."
According to Nixon, the department makes it "extremely easy" for people to file complaints; it can be done over the telephone, in writing or in person, at any station or with the mayor's office or the Police Commission, the five-member citizens panel that oversees the department.
The vast majority of complaints--more than 90%--are investigated by the officers' superiors at the division where they work, a method that was criticized 26 years ago by the commission that investigated the Watts riots. Most are investigated within 30 days. The remainder are investigated by the departments' Internal Affairs Division, before forwarding them to the chief for action.
Nixon stressed that the department takes great pains to "really drum it into our officers" that discouraging a complaint or stonewalling an investigation is "a very, very serious act of misconduct."