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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

Merrick Bobb

Police Brutality and Its Passionate, Politic Critic

September 27, 1998|JOE DOMANICK | Joe Domanick is the author of ''To Protect and to Serve: LAPD's Century of War in the City of Dreams.'' He is working on a book about the three-strikes law.

In early 1992, while the nation was focused on the beating of Rodney G. King and the Christopher Commission inquiry that followed, an equally important investigative body was appointed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Headed by retired Superior Court Judge James G. Kolts, it examined the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the accelerating accusations of discourtesy, brutality and unnecessary shootings that had cost the county $50 million in judgments, settlements and attorney's fees during the preceding four years.

After six months of investigation of the LACSD--an organization that polices 2.5 million people and runs the nation's largest urban jail system-the Kolts Report was issued. It was a withering account of the department's failure of leadership, breakdown in discipline and brutal style of policing in African American and Latino communities and the jails.

Helping spearhead that investigation and lead a staff of more than 60 lawyers, criminologists and social scientists, was Merrick J. Bobb, now 52, a precise, earnest, gray-haired man.

When the King beating occurred, Bobb, a graduate of Dartmouth College and UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall law school, was an attorney specializing in corporate litigation and government-agency work, first at Warren Christopher's old-line law firm, O'Melveny & Myers, and then at Tuttle & Taylor. Volunteering to serve on the Christopher Commission, the Denver, Colo., native became a deputy general counsel, helping lead the investigation into the Los Angeles Police Department's use of force. The result was a careful but unequivocally worded section of the report delineating the LAPD's inability to hold its officers accountable for excessive violence.

This ultimately led to Bobb's appointment to the Kolts staff. Following publication of the group's report in '92, Bobb succeeded Kolts as special counsel. Since then, Bobb has issued nine tellingly detailed, often critical semiannual reports.

In so doing, he has managed to avoid the political pitfalls inherent in criticizing a department headed by Sheriff Sherman Block--a powerful countywide elected official. (Block, who has led the LACSD for 16 years, is currently locked in a tight race with former Sheriff's Department Chief Lee Baca for reelection in November.)

Bobb's most recent report was issued in June. Focusing on the Century station in South-Central Los Angeles, it concluded that inexperienced and undersupervised deputies were provoking unnecessary confrontations, creating dangerous situations and shooting people unnecessarily.

Earlier reports in 1997 credited the department for becoming ''more tightly managed, open, questioning, reflective and cognizant of ... its performance.'' But they also criticized the jail system for having ''far too many instances of careless or inhumane treatment.'' It noted the system's continuing racial riots, its appalling treatment of mentally ill inmates and its mistaken release of prisoners accused of serious crimes including murder while keeping others incarcerated months beyond their release dates. A 1997 report also described how guards encouraged inmates to severely beat other prisoners. Since the June report, allegations have surfaced of county guards beating prisoners, including the Aug. 1 death of Danny Smith, a mentally ill inmate who was allegedly choked or beaten to death by deputies while handcuffed. An Aug. 10 beating incident allegedly involved a group of ''vigilante'' employees.

Sitting for a recent interview, in shirt sleeves in a conference room at his downtown law offices, Bobb displays a lawyerly detachment and need to be politic. But also apparent is his passionate belief in the necessity of his work.

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Question: What was the situation you found in the initial '92 Kolts investigation?

Answer: We found that there was an alarming lack of accountability within the Sheriff's Department for determining whether police misconduct had occurred and in dealing with its consequences. Taxpayers were paying out large sums in [police brutality and shooting cases] where it was possible to have controlled for those kinds of situations.

Q: Where was the management breakdown?

A: In many places -- among sergeants and lieutenants dealing directly with police officers, with captains who ran the stations, with commanders and bureau chiefs and with top police executives.

Q: You didn't mention Sheriff Block. Didn't the buck stop with him?

A: Well, the buck does stop with the sheriff, as ultimate head of the department. But we also saw that Sheriff Block was attempting to address the problems we'd raised, in good faith, and was being helpful. That was important to us.

Q: But he was the chief executive when this breakdown in officer accountability occurred -- 10 years after he'd been in office.

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