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Less Than Rewarding

Money offered to help solve crimes rarely pays off. But it does raise the profile of a case--and often that of the politician who announces it.

April 16, 1999|SUE FOX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When a Panorama City principal reported that he had been beaten unconscious outside his school in February, the crime triggered a reaction that has become a near-reflex among local politicians: They offered a reward.

Within weeks of the assault, the Los Angeles City Council, the county Board of Supervisors and the school board had all posted $25,000 rewards for information leading to the attackers--one of the largest public purses offered in years.

Detectives have yet to arrest the two men who beat Principal Norman Bernstein as he arrived for work at Burton Street Elementary School. And if they ever do, odds are high that it won't be because of a reward.

Despite the fanfare that often surrounds the announcement of rewards, these golden carrots rarely work. Typically offered in high-profile cases when investigators hit a dead end, they rely on the notion that someone out there knows something about a crime and will talk for a price. But after the television cameras click off and the spotlight fades, rewards sometimes create more problems than they solve by burying investigators under a hail of useless tips.

"What we're dealing with when we deal with rewards is a two-edged sword," said Lt. Frank Merriman of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's homicide unit. "They can be very helpful . . . but we've found over the years that for the most part they don't have a lot of influence on a case."

The city of Los Angeles put up more than $6.7 million in rewards over the past five years, according to city records. Only a small fraction of the money--about 5%--was ever paid. The county, meanwhile, offered $485,000 during the same period, with similarly spotty results. County records show that less than 12% was awarded.

Often Originate With Detectives

Rewards often originate with the detectives investigating a case. When leads run dry, police may ask City Council members or county supervisors to propose a reward. Reward motions are almost always approved without question.

"It's just kind of automatic," said an aide to City Council President John Ferraro. "I've never heard anybody quibble over them."

Sometimes lawmakers approach police to suggest rewards in specific cases. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he asked Los Angeles Police Department officers if a reward would help catch the men who beat up Bernstein, a white principal who said his attackers told him he was unwelcome at the mostly Latino school.

"What the reward does is, it raises the profile of a crime and connects it to a location," Yaroslavsky said. "People hear about crimes on the radio and TV all the time, and they tune them out. But when a reward is offered--when the councilman or police chief goes to the neighborhood for a press conference--suddenly the people who live and work in the area start to think again, 'Hey, maybe I was there. Maybe I heard something.' "

City rewards expire after 60 days unless the council extends them; county offers last 90 days. The city allows payment for tips that help identify and catch suspects, only requiring convictions in cases that involve attacks on police officers. County rules are stricter, requiring that the suspect be convicted before the informant gets paid.

When the city posts a reward, the money is set aside in a special fund until the council authorizes payment or the offer expires, said Joy Ory, an analyst in the city clerk's office. Usually set at $25,000, the rewards are most often for help in solving murders.

County rewards are capped at $5,000, with each supervisor contributing $1,000 from his or her discretionary fund. By ordinance, the supervisors can increase the amount "in particularly heinous crimes or where it appears the community is at great risk."

If all the reward money currently on the table were claimed at once, the city of Los Angeles would be out more than $300,000. The wanted list includes the killers of a Woodland Hills man kidnapped and placed in the trunk of his Bentley, a rapist who attacked a 12-year-old girl in a North Hollywood park, the murderer of a college student gunned down in Athens, and the killers of Howie Steindler, a well-known boxing promoter slain 22 years ago.

The reward in the Steindler case came in response to a request from his family and an LAPD investigator, who hope that the $25,000 offer will jar someone's memory--or conscience.

Fixture in American Justice Since 1800s

Rewards have been a fixture of the American justice system since the 1800s, when wanted posters advertised rewards for the capture of cattle rustlers and other villains.

Although police acknowledge that modern-day rewards seldom bring positive results, they still view them as useful incentives. In difficult cases, some say, when the only sources of information are people close to the suspect or those who fear retribution, the promise of cash may be the only way to loosen lips.

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