The more you ignore some problems, the more costly they become, and unless solutions are found, the problems will just repeat themselves. The Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart corruption scandal is a prime example.
Charges include a litany of police abuses: unjustified shootings, beatings, perjury and tampering with and stealing evidence. Nearly three dozen related convictions have been overturned and more cases--3,000 so far--require review. Long-standing claims that such abuses exist beyond Rampart are increasingly plausible.
The LAPD's Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums program, or CRASH, which bred Officer Rafael Perez, may well have similar problems in divisions across the city. If, as seems likely, practices at Rampart are more standard than aberrant, and CRASH reflects a lawless police culture, tens of thousands of cases may require review. The needed staff hours are daunting. The liability potential is staggering: Pre-Rampart scandal, LAPD civil judgments cost the city tens of millions annually. It is now estimated that the currently known abuses may result in $125 million in damages. The scandal is also bleeding public faith in justice itself. Judge Larry P. Fidler of the Los Angeles Superior Court recently observed that juries increasingly throw out cases based on the testimony of LAPD officers that would normally win convictions.
A troubling aspect of the current scandal is that we've been warned that it was coming. Police abuse in Los Angeles has a rap sheet decades old. After bloody civil disturbances stemming from brutality incidents, we have twice appointed blue-ribbon commissions to study the causes and cures of local police abuse. Even so, we've failed to fix things because, after offering solutions, their implementation was left to the LAPD itself.
What we need now is a new, independent commission to create a blueprint for systemic changes within the department. The commission mandate must extend to ensuring that these reforms take place. It must also include meaningful civilian oversight. Currently, only the LAPD's board of inquiry is investigating the Rampart scandal--a completely internal process that excludes any civilian participation. Can any party accused of wrongdoing properly investigate itself?
Opening the process to public scrutiny is essential to exposing and purging corruption. Creating an independent prosecutor is a second critical step. Currently, the district attorney's office is charged with investigating and prosecuting cases of police misconduct. But the D.A.'s attention must not be diverted from the full load of cases now before him, and the current crisis is overwhelming in scope. Although Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti has assigned seven prosecutors for this purpose, his office faces an inherent conflict of interest in its need to work with law enforcement. An independent prosecutor's office is necessary and must be fully staffed, funded and empowered to get to the bottom of police department corruption.
Establishing a civilian complaint office is another practical reform. Currently, to complain about the police, you have to go to the police. The reluctance of victims of wrongdoing to enter perceived enemy territory is a clear reason the abuses of Rampart festered for so long. Other cities have successfully enacted civilian-staffed complaint offices. So can we.
Addressing CRASH is also a major priority. The American Civil Liberties Union has called for its abolishment. Failing that, CRASH cars should be clearly marked, its officers should undergo improved training and their participation in the unit should be limited to no more than two-year periods. Yet even if CRASH were eliminated, that program signifies a deeply flawed mentality that taints the department. Without public scrutiny and reform, the entire system remains compromised.
The Coalition for Police Accountability, of which the ACLU is a co-founder, has swollen from a handful of organizations to nearly 40. Many of these agencies have been fighting police abuse in their own communities for years. They insist that systemic reform is vital.
One City Council source compared the police abuse settlement costs with a natural disaster. This is a man-made disaster--more precisely, a government-made disaster. The only solution is to take responsibility, openly investigate the depth of the problems and institute reform. Whether you count the deficit in money or justice, ignoring losses caused by the LAPD is something we can no longer afford. If we don't fix the problem now, we will surely regret it later.