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This Case Calls for a Truly Outside Inquiry

In the wake of local agencies' failure to oversee the LAPD, the federal Justice Department must step in.

February 20, 2000|TOM HAYDEN and PAUL HOFFMAN and ROBERT GARCIA | Tom Hayden is a Democratic state senator representing parts of West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. Paul Hoffman and Robert Garcia are civil rights attorneys in Los Angeles

The people of Los Angeles cannot trust local law enforcement officials to police themselves. We need federal justice officials to step in to restore law and order within the Los Angeles Police Department.

In the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, Congress gave the U.S. Justice Department the authority to investigate patterns and practices of police abuse by state and local law enforcement agencies and to bring lawsuits to remedy those abuses. If ever there was a case for the use of this authority, it is the Rampart Division scandal and the egregious pattern and practice of police misconduct that lies at its heart.

Police Chief Bernard C. Parks has called for the mass dismissal of tainted cases against 99 defendants who were framed by the police through a pattern and practice of unjustified shootings, beatings, drug dealing, false arrests, witness intimidation, perjury, planting of evidence and wrongful convictions. The Los Angeles County district attorney has admitted that innocent people have been convicted and punished for crimes they did not commit. Twenty-three cases have already been thrown out, and Parks has accused the district attorney's office of dragging its feet in dismissing others.

One state court recently apologized to an innocent man for the time he spent in prison. The district attorney's office does not know how many cases have been dismissed. Twenty LAPD officers have been relieved of duty, quit or been fired. Anti-gang injunctions have been suspended in the wake of the scandal. One of the officers at the center of the scandal has called corruption in the LAPD a cancer that has gone a long time without being treated.

None of the local institutions with responsibility for dealing with these issues has the capability or the track record to instill public confidence and assure that not only will justice be done to the victims of these abuses but, more important, that the kinds of structural reforms necessary to prevent similar abuses will be put in place.

The Christopher Commission in 1991 set in motion wide-ranging reforms of the LAPD, but it is now apparent that the worst abuses of this century were occurring in Rampart at the same time these reforms were being implemented.

The Police Commission is not capable of tackling issues of this dimension. The district attorney's office has a demonstrated track record of ineffectiveness in tackling issues of police misconduct. These local forms of police accountability have failed and the community is about to pay the price in the form of huge civil judgments and the questioning of hundreds of criminal convictions.

Section 14141 of the U.S. Code prohibits law enforcement officers or officials from engaging in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives persons of rights, privileges or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States. It gives the Justice Department the authority to intervene where local systems of police accountability have failed. The Rampart scandal is just such a situation. If this is not a pattern and practice of police abuse, what is?

Our local systems of police accountability have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that they are incapable of addressing in a serious, permanent way the structural flaws within the LAPD that led to this latest and most devastating scandal.

The federal justice system has the capacity to get to the bottom of this and to ensure that there is an adequate, impartial investigation and that there are remedies equal to the violations involved.

It is time that the Justice Department take over this mess and created a durable solution to the police accountability crisis in our community.

For years, internal investigations into officer-involved shootings have been exercises in obfuscation rather than genuine attempts to investigate possible officer misconduct. It is not surprising that the corrupt officers in Rampart would have had every confidence that even rampant acts of police misconduct would not be seriously investigated within the LAPD. A culture of impunity existed within the LAPD for such misconduct, and we are now paying the price for it.

The Justice Department can and must play a major role in ensuring that this scandal, unlike all of the others before it, really does lead to the kinds of structural reforms and continuing oversight that are essential to any solution of the LAPD's problems.

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