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Police Brutality Claims Are Rarely Prosecuted : Law: Vast majority of more than 300 cases in L.A. County since 1980 were dismissed, Times study finds.

July 07, 1991|DAVID FREED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For three miles, the police officers chased the car, sirens blaring. When the suspect finally stopped, as the officers would explain it later, he ignored their orders and tried to bull his way past them.

Five bystanders told a starkly different story: the policemen beat and kicked an unarmed black man as he lay on the street.

It was not Rodney G. King whom the witnesses saw being pummeled that night in 1988, but a suspected auto thief named Tyrone Demetri Carey. Unlike the King case, no one videotaped Carey. And, unlike the King case, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office never filed assault charges against the policemen Carey encountered.

"It is the opinion of this office," a deputy district attorney wrote, "that the evidence in this case is not of such a convincing nature that it would warrant conviction."

The vast majority of police brutality allegations referred to the district attorney's office over the last decade have ended in like fashion--with no charges filed.

Since 1980, a study by The Times has found, the district attorney's office has declined to prosecute at least 278 police officers and sheriff's deputies accused of assaulting civilians with fists, clubs, flashlights, leather-covered steel saps, pistol barrels, scalding water and an electric stun gun, district attorney records show.

At least 41 other officers--13% of the total--have been prosecuted on excessive force charges, according to the district attorney. About half were convicted.

In contrast, 77% of all civilians arrested last year in Los Angeles County for felony assault were ultimately prosecuted on felony or misdemeanor charges, according to California Department of Justice figures. Of those, nearly three-quarters were convicted.

A key reason for the disparity, The Times found, is that the district attorney's office commonly accords accused officers a benefit of the doubt when debating whether to file police brutality charges.

In making their decisions, record show, prosecutors rely almost exclusively on reports given them by the police themselves, while employing policies that routinely result in rejection of all but the most overt cases of excessive force.

"They're asleep at the switch," said attorney E. Thomas Barham Jr., a former Los Angeles County sheriff's lieutenant whose clientele includes alleged victims of police brutality.

Without aggressive prosecution, Barham and other critics complain, there is little to deter officers from abusing citizens again and again.

Los Angeles police officials and Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, who was elected in 1984, declined to be interviewed on the issue of excessive force pending outcome of the case against four officers indicted in the King beating.

Prosecutors, however, said they treat police suspects no differently than civilians when deciding whether to file assault charges. "There is no double standard," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Roger J. Gunson, who supervises 13 lawyers assigned to the Special Investigations Division (SID) responsible for prosecuting police officers and public officials.

The filing rate against police officers is relatively low, Gunson and others said, because officers accused of using excessive force usually have legal justification for their actions, or because there is little evidence to substantiate the allegations.

Others contend that police officers are given a break when facing possible criminal action for comparatively minor violations of the law.

"You can't prosecute your cops a lot--who'd want their job?," said James A. Albracht, a Superior Court judge and former deputy district attorney assigned to SID. "If they were prosecuted every time they made an error in judgment, it would undermine their morale and the willingness of people to do (police) work."

Although the district attorney's office sends prosecutors and investigators to the scenes of police shootings--even when a civilian is barely grazed by an officer's bullet--The Times found that allegations of beatings do not receive nearly the same scrutiny. SID members usually do little more than review the police reports when a suspect is beaten or otherwise injured by officers while in custody.

The district attorney's office also does little to independently ferret out acts of police brutality, according to interviews and records.

Hundreds of allegations of police misconduct are lodged as legal claims each year with the Los Angeles city attorney's office, but prosecutors assigned to SID say that they are too busy with other more pressing matters to review these claims.

Nor do prosecutors review civil lawsuits filed against police, even though Los Angeles paid a record $11.3 million last year in jury awards and settlements in police misconduct cases.

Records show that some instances of alleged brutality deemed justified by police administrators and not subject to review by the district attorney's office ended up costing taxpayers considerable sums.

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