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RICO Will Probe Who's the Real Gang

August 30, 2000|STEPHEN YAGMAN | Stephen Yagman, a civil rights attorney, along with Brian C. Lysaght, represent the plaintiffs in the class action RICO case against the LAPD

In July 1991, Warren Christopher and his commission finished its extensive investigation of the LAPD in the wake of the Rodney King beating case, concluding that its officers engaged in widespread brutality and that its managers had a custom of looking the other way. Christopher's panel made more than 100 significant recommendations to clean up the LAPD, but few were put into place.

Eight years passed and in the fall of 1999, the so-called Rampart scandal broke. First one, and then hundreds of the LAPD's 9,300 officers came under scrutiny for an alleged pattern and practice of systematically setting up innocent people, planting evidence, lying in court, extortion and brutalizing the citizenry. In May 2000, the U.S. Justice Department made public its investigation of whether there is a "pattern or practice" of civil rights violations by the police. Justice warned the LAPD that unless it agreed to a federal consent decree to clean up the department, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department would sue it in federal court.

Led by City Atty. James K. Hahn, LAPD's negotiations with the Justice Department have dragged on for months, with Mayor Richard J. Riordan and Police Chief Bernard C. Parks doggedly seeking to delay and resist the Justice Department's attempt to clean up the LAPD. As incident after incident of LAPD corruption has come to light, the police department has rolled on in its bad ways with more incidents of misconduct piling up.

Finally, with the federal RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act to the rescue, there may be an end in sight. U.S. Dist. Judge William J. Rea, a Reagan-appointed Republican, has ruled that plaintiffs in a federal class action civil rights case pending before him can offer proof that, in fact, the LAPD itself really is the problem and is a "criminal enterprise."

When the Rampart scandal broke, many of the minority group members who had been victimized by LAPD cops claimed, tongue-in-cheek, that the real gang was the cops. Now some of those victims will get a chance to prove it.

Judge Rea held that there would be an opportunity to show that the LAPD is a racketeering enterprise. In order to prove that, the plaintiffs will have to introduce evidence that the police department's activities affect interstate commerce and that one or more so-called RICO predicate acts were committed by LAPD officers during the past 10 years.

Possible predicate acts include planting evidence, setting up innocent people, extortion, assaultive behavior and attempted murder. The federal RICO Act was adopted in 1971 to provide a tool to combat organized crime, and its congressional drafters and President Richard M. Nixon, who signed it, hardly could have imagined the law ever would be used against a governmental entity, much less a police department. Indeed, this is the first time that has happened.

Is RICO overreaching against the LAPD here? The police department's victims no doubt would say a resounding "no," but only the massive discovery of all LAPD misconduct over the past 10 years will answer that question--before a jury.

RICO also extends the usual statute of limitations for suing from one year to 10 years, while Riordan continues to lobby against state Sen. Tom Hayden's pending bill to increase the Rampart statute of limitations to just two years. The court's ruling, however, makes the bill moot. Further, RICO requires a judge to treble any damages a jury might award, thus increasing by three-fold the city's financial exposure.

The use of RICO against the LAPD has been overdue, at least since the July 1991 Christopher Commission report. Now there will be an opportunity, at long last, to find out if the LAPD is worse than the criminals whom it pursues, and just who is the real gang in Los Angeles.

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