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THE SIMPSON LEGACY / LOS ANGELES TIMES SPECIAL REPORT : Trial & Error: FOCUS SHIFTS TO A JUSTICE SYSTEM AND ITS FLAWS : Weighing the Necessity of Change : How One Case May Reshape Criminal Justice in America : The Police / "It's not a bad apple. The barrel itself is rotten."

October 08, 1995

No part of the criminal justice Establishment took a more punishing beating during O.J. Simpson's dou ble murder trial than the Los Angeles Police Department, whose officers and technicians were charged at various times with bigotry, deceit, ignorance and garden-variety incompetence. Outwardly, however, the department displays few scars.

With its chrome equipment, well-paid staffers in white lab coats and double-locked doors, the LAPD's crime lab certainly doesn't look like a "cesspool of contamination."

Nor does West Los Angeles Division, the police station where Detective Mark Fuhrman made his last professional stop, seem like a repository of racism. It's one of the city's tidier police divisions, and although its legacy includes more than its share of sexual harassment complaints, its officers generally are well-regarded by residents--including onetime LAPD admirer O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of murder charges.

And at Police Department headquarters, the LAPD's vaunted Robbery-Homicide Division appears too threadbare to host a sophisticated police conspiracy. Old desks, beaten-up typewriters, bare tile floors and a few overworked detectives struggle to handle the most controversial, complicated and closely watched homicides in a city that registers more than 1,000 violent killings a year. Most go by with little notice--much less with charges of evidence-tampering and gross misconduct.

Yet for more than a year, the LAPD--its lab, its detectives and even its history--have stood at the center of one of the most aggressive and sustained attacks on a police department ever waged by a team of criminal defense lawyers. And long after the Simpson trial has drifted off the front page, the LAPD will be wrestling with its fallout: from the devastating critique of its investigative techniques to the explosive revelations of a rogue racist cop boasting of a career filled with brutality and deceit.

All of that has taken a toll within the department, drawing Police Chief Willie L. Williams' angry demands for an apology from the defense team and exacting a deep, numbing toll on rank-and-file officers who watched with increasing dismay as their department, still struggling with the fallout from the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King and the riots that followed, came under fire yet again.

"It has been devastating," Williams said in an interview. "Our employees have had to listen to so much and be blamed. From the beginning, it was suggested that there was a plot, the race card was played by people inside and outside the defense team and it has been talked about around the world. All that has, to a degree, been dumped in the lap of the LAPD."

Some changes are inevitable after such a humiliating courtroom defeat, according to sources within the Police Department. Tighter rules on evidence handling, for instance, might have avoided the embarrassing admission that a detective carried a vial of Simpson's blood from police headquarters to Simpson's house. Some jurors have said they viewed that suspiciously, and although LAPD officials dismiss the defense team's ominous suggestions about what happened to that blood, they concede that its unorthodox handling gave the Simpson team something to exploit.

Similarly, the LAPD is likely to ask for more resources for its underequipped crime lab and its overburdened detectives. But in a city strapped for cash and more determined to increase the size of its police force than to equip the officers already on board, the prospects for progress in those areas remain uncertain.

The verdicts barely had been delivered before demands for LAPD reform--many of them uttered many times before--were reignited by the city's political leaders.

Councilman Hal Bernson, a strong supporter of the Police Department, recommended a top-to-bottom review of police procedures, saying that the LAPD had made many mistakes in gathering and securing evidence in the Simpson case. Bernson, who said he believed that the jury's doubts about Fuhrman's credibility were key to the verdicts, also asked for an update on the 44 problem officers referred to by the 1991 Christopher Commission report on the King beating.

Similarly, Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg expressed concerns about the LAPD lab's performance in the Simpson case. She, too, called for quick action.

"There are specific steps we could take to take care of that," she said, referring to the Simpson jury's repudiation of the LAPD's work. "That's the message."

And confronted with mounting public concern about the lab and its performance, Councilman Joel Wachs released a six-point plan for improving its facilities. Implementing that plan, Wachs said, could cost $1 million upfront and another $1 million a year; not implementing it, however, could end up costing far more, according to the councilman.

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