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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

When presented with the case by the Police Department's Internal Affairs Division, Deputy Dist. Atty. Reid A. Rose speculated in his final report that a jury might conclude that some of Carey's injuries resulted from the car crash, not police batons.

Rose wrote: "The numerous and conflicting statements of the suspect, civilian witnesses and expert witnesses, couple(d) with the absence of a thorough initial investigation, would create serious, if not insurmountable, obstacles to proving that the amount of force was not unreasonable under the circumstances"

Case closed.

In determining whether to file brutality charges, prosecutors try to anticipate whom a jury is more likely to believe--the accused officer or the alleged victim.

More often than not, prosecutors point out, the officer's accuser has been taken into custody on criminal charges and may have a prior arrest record, both of which can be used in court to impugn his integrity.

Frederick Broussard's criminal record was a factor in dismissing allegations he raised after being arrested by Los Angeles police in November, 1984, on suspicion of robbery.

While being driven to jail in a patrol car, he was allegedly dragged out and had his face "ground into the pavement" by Officer Leonard Mora. Records showed that Broussard, who had 16 assumed names, had been arrested 30 times on charges ranging from murder to rape to carrying a loaded gun.

"A review of reports and addenda including (Broussard's) criminal background reveals that the admissible evidence is not of such convincing force that it would warrant conviction beyond a reasonable doubt," wrote Deputy Dist. Atty. James E. Koller.

Case closed.

Unless a person can prove that he received demonstrable and lasting injury at the hands of the police, the chances of winning an assault case against an officer are slim, prosecutors say.

But even when injury is apparent, it usually must be more than \o7 diminimus\f7 --minor--before SID prosecutors will file charges, records show.

Take the 1983 case of Bryant Nelson, who was being held on misdemeanor charges in the North Hollywood police station when he began to argue with jailer Segundo S. Ronquillo over the lockup's no-smoking policy.

Ronquillo, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert L. Cohen's report, "decided to move Nelson to another cell as (Nelson) was disturbing the other prisoners." Ronquillo entered the cell "with a towel in his hand or loosely wrapped in his hand" and struck Nelson once. The blow chipped a front tooth and cut the inside of Nelson's lip.

Ronquillo was later suspended for eight days.

"Although the striking of Nelson was not justified," Cohen stated in his report, "the injury was \o7 diminimus. \f7 Officer Ronquillo is being suspended for eight days, a punishment that likely exceeds that which might be meted out should prosecution be brought."

Case closed.

The tendencies of jurors also play a significant role in decisions by the district attorney's office.

Americans traditionally have been taught as children to respect authority and that "the policeman is your friend." Those lessons, prosecutors and plaintiffs' attorneys say, can be difficult to shed when the typical citizen steps into the jury box and is asked to objectively pass judgment on a police officer.

"Most jurors would like to believe that police officers are fundamentally reasonable and ethical in the discharge of their duties . . . ," said attorney Richard A. Levine, who has represented dozens of law enforcement personnel accused of wrongdoing.

This patina of goodness that comes with a police officer's badge can prove impenetrable--even when an officer concedes guilt.

As a prosecutor assigned to SID in the early 1980s, James Albracht brought assault charges against two sheriff's deputies for allegedly beating a suspected car thief who was cornered in a cul-de-sac and handcuffed by other officers. Complaints by a civilian witness prompted SID to charge the deputies with assault.

The case went to trial and the jury deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of conviction.

A second trial was held. This time, according to Albracht, defense attorneys depicted the deputies as Vietnam War heroes being maligned by the legal system. At the same time, the deputies' wives and children began appearing in court each day.

"So here are these two handsome, upstanding young crime fighters and their families--all these spic and span, bright, healthy, young people," Albracht recalled, "and here's my client--tattooes, scars, long greasy hair. The deputies get up on the stand and admit they did it--they admit it! 'Something snapped,' they say. They were in fear of their lives."

It did not take long for the jury to reach a verdict: not guilty.

Albracht said: "It's very hard to convict a cop."

Prosecuting Police

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