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FBI Probe of Fuhrman Tests Thaw With LAPD : Police: Ties with U.S. Justice Department were patched up after King inquiry. But new problems may arise.

October 26, 1995|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the federal government this week formally launching a civil rights investigation of former Detective Mark Fuhrman, two of the nation's foremost law enforcement agencies again are warily circling each other, their leaders pledging cooperation at the same time they weigh the implications of a new federal inquiry involving the Los Angeles Police Department.

According to sources, Police Chief Willie L. Williams, in Washington this week for an awards ceremony, sought an audience with Justice Department officials to sound them out about their intentions. Federal officials agreed to the session, sources said, only to have Williams abruptly cancel the meeting late Tuesday after police commissioners in Los Angeles expressed reservations about the chief going alone to a session that would involve him speaking to the very people who could bring legal action against his department.

The dance between the LAPD and the Justice Department, particularly the FBI, is hardly new: Relations between the two agencies historically have been marked by long periods of mutual animosity, exacerbated by flare-ups such as a turf battle over the 1984 Summer Olympics and by the aggressive federal probe of the police officers who beat Rodney G. King.

But the latest issue brings a special host of problems.

They range from the practical--statutes of limitations make it unlikely that the federal government could prosecute Fuhrman for civil rights violations discussed on tapes made by an aspiring screenwriter--to the political--a drawn-out legal battle between the city and federal governments may harm both without doing much to eliminate their common foe of racism and excessive force within the LAPD.

One thing is certain: Sources say a formal civil rights investigation officially was launched by the FBI this week and has been assigned to Michael J. Gennaco, an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles who formerly worked for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in Washington.

Although the FBI generally confirms the existence of civil rights investigations, John Hoos, a spokesman for the FBI's Los Angeles office, declined comment, referring questions to the Civil Rights Division. Officials at the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles also said they could not comment, and a Justice Department spokesman would say only that Atty. Gen. Janet Reno had made clear her commitment to thoroughly reviewing the concerns raised by the Fuhrman tapes.

At least for now, the FBI investigation, according to sources within the Police Department, appears to be focused only on Fuhrman and whether he committed civil rights violations that might still subject him to prosecution. No broader inquiry into the Police Department appears under way at this point, though that does not mean one could not grow out of the current efforts.

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Prospects for a federal prosecution of Fuhrman, however, are clouded by problems. Most of the Fuhrman tapes are eight to 10 years old, meaning that even if authorities could prove that he committed the acts he describes on the tapes, they could not prosecute him because the legal statute of limitations for civil rights violations has expired.

"That's going to be a real problem for them," law professor and former federal prosecutor Steven D. Clymer said of the federal investigation.

Charges growing out of more recent conduct, including the possibility of a perjury prosecution for Fuhrman's testimony in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, would not face a statute of limitations problem. But perjury would be a state charge, not a federal one.

Despite the limits on the federal Fuhrman investigation, some city officials have welcomed that inquiry. Deirdre Hill, president of the Police Commission, said the Police Department would cooperate with any federal investigation, though she stressed that she believed local officials should conduct their own probe.

Inside the Police Department, however, some officials are less comfortable with the federal government's entry into the fray. Still fresh on their minds are the LAPD's bruising confrontations with the FBI that characterized the King civil rights investigation.

In that case, FBI agents angered many police officers by showing up at police roll calls to conduct interviews and by confronting some officers at their homes. In one case, FBI agents turned off a police officer's power when he did not come to the door.

The King investigation left a bad taste in the mouths of many police officers, who watched angrily as two colleagues were sent to federal prison. Since then, however, the two organizations have worked hard to patch up their differences, successfully cooperating in federal-local task forces that have produced large numbers of arrests.

Those successes have led to a thaw in FBI-LAPD relations, but that detente would certainly be broken if the Justice Department expanded its efforts beyond looking at Fuhrman and conducted a broader investigation of the Police Department.

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