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Accessible Justice for Cops' Victims : Law-enforcement does poorly at disciplining itself, so let's try Small Claims Court.

January 23, 1994|RONALD KAYE | Ronald Kaye, an attorney with the Greater Watts Justice Center, is one of the founders of the Police Abuse Small Claims Clinic, a board member of the National Lawyer's Guild and a former staff attorney on the Christopher Commission.

We have had almost three years now of trials and special commissions that put the Los Angeles Police Department and the county Sheriff's Department under close scrutiny. Reforms of many kinds have been proposed, but the truth is that neither police force has taken substantial measures to regain the trust of communities of color--the people who overwhelmingly are the victims of police misconduct.

Historically, victims of police abuse in Los Angeles have felt that their valid claims against police officer misconduct would not have the clout necessary to produce any change in violent police behavior. First, as demonstrated in both the Christopher Commission on the LAPD and the Kolts Reports on the Sheriff's Department, the internal complaint process--where victims of police abuse file complaints against offending officers--has not resulted in effective disciplinary actions against these officers.

Yet neither Christopher nor Kolts recommended civilian review to enhance the credibility of the complaint procedure. Although there appeared to be significant reform advocated by these two commissions, the reality is that no true accountability occurs where discipline is solely an internal police matter. To rely exclusively on cops to review other cops' behavior has low credibility by definition.

That leaves the courts as the only recourse for victims of police abuse. But there are few attorneys who specialize in civil-rights actions against the police department. Even these attorneys are not likely to take a case without the possibility of a substantial monetary judgment. This reality leaves the homeowner whose house has been trashed in a mistaken drug raid and the motorist unjustifiably stopped and roughed up but not badly injured without a means of legal or moral redress. Add to this a general distrust of the legal system in communities of color, and victims of police abuse are left voiceless, without any avenue to seek justice.

Thus, contrary to the party line of government officials--that the residents of Los Angeles should now concentrate on "healing" after two years of conflict--the denial of the endemic problem of police abuse and the community's lack of power against it can and will lead to renewed frustration and outrage like that experienced in April, 1992.

There is, however, one court where citizens don't need a legal team or a big-dollar complaint to seek justice. It's Small Claims Court, more often thought of as a place for landlord-tenant or contract disputes. It could also be a forum for making police accountable; the key is in helping citizens make their own case and take it to court.

Toward that end, a coalition of public-interest groups, including the Los Angeles chapter of the National Lawyer's Guild, Police Watch, the Mark Rosenberg Community Law Center of South-Central Los Angeles and the ACLU of Southern California have created a Police Abuse Small Claims Clinic to represent victims of police abuse. The clinic is currently operating out of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. The clinic is staffed by law students, legal workers and supervising attorneys, all working with the client to prepare cases for Small Claims Court.

Los Angeles communities of color continue to live day to day with personal knowledge of incidents where innocent young men are forced to "spread eagle and kiss the sidewalk" and unsuspecting families suffer from police searches where the modus operandi is "walls down, carpets up." Although such acts of violence are generally worth more than the $5,000 jurisdictional maximum allowed in Small Claims Court, at least victims will now have a way to make their claims heard. Of equal importance, "rogue cops," those who commit multiple acts of abuse, would have a record visible for public review.

The Police Abuse Small Claims Clinic is intended to create an atmosphere of accountability among the police officers of Los Angeles County, as well as to provide a vehicle for the community to seek justice.

In the long run, it might also prompt the real policy changes--specifically civilian review boards--that are necessary for improvement of the law-enforcement environment in Los Angeles.

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