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COLUMN ONE : 'They Hit Me, So I Hit Back' : The Christopher Commission spoke of 44 'problem officers' in the LAPD. Now their names have been obtained, allowing an examination of their records. Some of them speak out.

October 04, 1992|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles Police Officer Henry J. Cousine--a police ring on his finger, an LAPD tattoo on his leg and battle scars on his body--says the officers accused of beating Rodney G. King swung their batons like "little girls."

Then he ticks off some of his own episodes of violence during a decade as a beat cop: three fights and three shootings.

"You get in my face, I'm going to fight back," Cousine said. "You swing at me, I'm going to knock you off your feet. And you pull a gun, I'll kill you."

Cousine, who has been suspended a total of 170 days, is one of 44 "problem officers" described by the Christopher Commission in its landmark review of LAPD operations after the King beating.

Their names were not published in the commission's report last year and police officials have closely guarded their identities. But The Times recently obtained a list of the names, allowing an examination of the officers' alleged misconduct and the LAPD's response.

Interviews and a review of lawsuits, transcripts of disciplinary hearings and job evaluations show:

* The officers were accused of a variety of offenses such as clubbing handcuffed prisoners, pushing a suspect through a window and trying to hide improper behavior. One officer said he had so many citizen complaints that he could not remember them all.

* Thirty-seven of the 44 officers remain on the police force. Although some have been taken out of the field, the vast majority continue to work in jobs that involve contact with the public. One officer works as a police representative defending colleagues charged with misconduct.

* Three of the 44 have been fired, and four have voluntarily left the department. One officer who was fired now works as a special deputy U.S. marshal. A disciplinary board strongly recommended the firing of another officer for taunting people with gang signs, but his job was saved in one of Daryl F. Gates' last personnel actions as chief.

* Many of the officers have not received extensive psychological counseling and new training recommended by the Christopher Commission. Several said months went by before they were officially informed that they were on the list.

Using confidential personnel records, the commission listed officers who had six or more complaints of excessive force or improper tactics between 1986 and 1990 and concluded that the department "did not do enough to control or discipline these officers."

LAPD officials said the commission provided the department with a copy of the list, ranking the officers according to the severity of their problems. But the commission report did not fully explain the criteria.

Police Department and union officials said many of the 44 were unfairly placed on the list.

"At least half" do not belong there and "it was not fair to give them the title of problem officer," said Cmdr. Rick Dinse, LAPD liaison to the Christopher Commission.

Dinse said the department has worked hard to counsel and retrain some officers but others needed no special attention. "I am comfortable in that a careful review (of their conduct) was done," he said.

Gates said the Christopher Commission did not take into account whether the officers worked in high crime areas, had an extraordinary number of arrests or other factors that could result in citizen complaints. "We (already) knew who the officers were who had problems and we were dealing with it," he said.

Bill Violante, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said: "The great majority of (the 44) were put back in the field. They are back out doing their jobs, and doing it the way they were trained."

Meanwhile, the union has filed a multimillion-dollar claim against the city on behalf of several officers. It alleges that the list was seriously flawed and has damaged the professional reputations of the officers.

Several officers reached by The Times said being on the list is a status symbol of sorts. "You're totally infamous," said Cousine, No. 33.

But others on the list, such as Officer William B. Harkness, believe that many good, solid police careers have been damaged, if not ruined.

"The list is just an excuse to screw with officers, to cause them some discomfort," said Harkness, No. 25. "We are dedicated, hard-working officers who do the right thing, but because of this department's sensitivity with kissing the public's ass . . .they look at us as troublemakers.

"But I don't go out beating people up."

The officers have served from five years to a quarter century on the 7,850-member force. Several have been honored for their heroism, including at least two winners of the Medal of Valor, the department's highest honor for bravery.

Most of the officers have not been linked to high-profile brutality cases or police scandals.

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