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Valley Perspective

Identity a Must in Police Matters

A change in LAPD policy about officer identification could end violent incidents and costly suits.

September 28, 1997|HARRIET K. BILFORD | Harriet K. Bilford is an attorney in Van Nuys

Earlier this month, the family of Kevin Gaines, an off-duty LAPD officer shot and killed by an LAPD undercover detective March 18, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles. The shooting occurred during a seemingly minor traffic dispute that began with the two men exchanging stares on Cahuenga Boulevard in Studio City. Neither properly identified himself as a fellow member of the police force.

The wrongful death lawsuit and related $25-million claim the family previously filed against the city alleged, in part, that the undercover officer, Det. Frank Lyga, "was an aggressive and dangerous police officer" who, along with other officers, conspired to "hide and distort the true facts concerning the incident." An LAPD internal investigation has not determined whether race played a part in the shooting, whether the shooting was a form of retaliation or whether the tragedy was a result of any police misconduct or negligence.

The incident shocked police and community leaders. Is it so unusual, however, for officers (whether operating undercover or not) to overreact when an individual may be bold enough to appear upset, question the officer or ask him or her for proper identification?

Ordinarily I would not be concerned with this issue. But earlier this year, I received a telephone call from a friend who was understandably frightened when, without notice, two undercover officers (who convincingly looked and dressed the part of gang members) parked in his parking lot to conduct a stakeout of possible criminal activities occurring on public streets. When questioned, the two men appeared angry and failed to tell my friend why they were there or provide identification.

A hostile situation arose, and my friend (fearing for his safety) telephoned 911, a watch commander and then my office for assistance. I sent a complaining letter to the LAPD on his behalf. Several days later, I learned that police had filed a complaint application against my friend with the city attorney for "interfering with a police investigation," resulting in my friend's arrest and trial. An LAPD lieutenant admitted to me that this whole thing probably could have been avoided had the officers simply identified themselves at the outset or gone elsewhere to conduct their undercover activities.


According to a news report, on May 16, LAPD plainclothes officers, while conducting another stakeout in Panorama City, shot and killed a man who was not the subject of the surveillance. The man had walked up to the unmarked car and asked the officers to explain why they were in the area. The officers claim they fired in fear for their lives after the man started to pull a weapon from his waistband. One witness who heard the gunfire was reported as saying she did not hear the officers identify themselves but that she did see the man run into an apartment complex while the officers fired at him. A police department statement, however, disputes that version of the incident and maintains that the officers did properly identify themselves and ordered the man to back away.

On Feb. 6, the city agreed to pay $86,000 to a gay man who claimed he was beaten by an LAPD officer after he questioned the officer and asked to see the officer's identification. The settlement included modifications to be made to LAPD policies requiring that officers properly identify themselves to anyone whenever they are physically able to do so and prohibiting an officer from retaliating against anyone for attempting to find out identifying information about the officer.

In another case, the city on Aug. 25 agreed to pay $325,000 to the lead plaintiff in an anti-gay discrimination lawsuit. A videotape shown at an ACLU news conference depicted officers hitting demonstrators with batons and dragging them on the ground. The plaintiffs claimed in the lawsuit that they were violently assaulted after they tried to get names and badge numbers from the officers.

Barring some pressing legitimate reason that would prevent officers from properly identifying themselves, this information should be freely disclosed and volunteered as soon as possible.

Although much of what occurred in the March 18 shooting of the off-duty officer remains under investigation, had either officer calmly and properly identified himself at the very outset, this tragedy may very well have been avoided. Similar situations, such as the one involving my friend, may not be as newsworthy or devastating, but unfortunately they are all too common, especially among minorities.

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