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THE RAMPART SCANDAL

Civil Rights Lawyers Form a Gathering Storm for L.A.

March 01, 2000|HENRY WEINSTEIN and JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Just how great a problem Los Angeles will confront in defending itself against lawsuits spawned by the Rampart police corruption scandal is illustrated by a meeting held Saturday afternoon at Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.'s mid-Wilshire law office.

Among the two dozen attorneys gathered at the 10th floor suite were some of the city's most accomplished civil rights lawyers--including Mark Rosenbaum of the American Civil Liberties Union and Connie Rice of the Advancement Project--as well as a bevy of skilled veterans of the police "brutality bar," including Cochran, R. Samuel Paz, Antonio Rodriguez and Carol A. Watson, as well as Carol Sobel, who has spearheaded major employment discrimination litigation against the LAPD.

While no formal agreements were concluded, the lawyers discussed how they may use the courts and other means to bring about what they regard as meaningful police reform, according to more than half a dozen attorneys at the session. Cochran said he expected the group to meet again later this month.

"If we band together, we can get a lot done," said Cochran, who filed his first misconduct suit against the LAPD in 1965.

There already are more than 15 civil damages suits on file stemming from the Rampart scandal, with many more expected. It also is possible that there will be an attempt to consolidate those cases, though there are difficult legal procedural hurdles to overcome. In addition, it appears probable that lawsuits seeking structural reform of the LAPD will be filed.

The array of legal firepower convened by Cochran and Paz adds to the city's mounting woes in the widening scandal. To a degree, the pooling of resources parallels the entente forged between private plaintiff lawyers and public prosecutors leading to multibillion-dollar settlements against the historically invulnerable tobacco industry.

Some of the lawyers at the meeting, such as Gregory W. Moreno of Montebello, already represent several Rampart victims, including Javier F. Ovando, who was permanently crippled by Rampart officers. Law professors Laurie Levenson of Loyola, a former federal prosecutor, and Erwin Chemerinsky of USC, who has been asked by the Police Protective League to formally critique the LAPD's internal inquiry report, offered other expertise. Winston K. McKesson, the defense lawyer for Rafael Perez, the former officer who is at the center of the scandal, also spoke at the three-hour gathering.

Rodriguez said most of the people at the meeting have been battling with the LAPD for years and hope that the Rampart scandal serves as the catalyst for real change.

"This is a situation that is tailor-made for reform" because of the breadth of the illegal police conduct already revealed, Rosenbaum said. That the appropriate city officials failed to "clamp down" on the Police Department, despite warnings from the Christopher Commission and community leaders, made the Rampart scandal "the natural and foreseeable result," Rosenbaum said.

That contention may be debatable, but there is broad agreement that the Rampart scandal is the worst in city history and that it will be very costly.

Cases Called City Nightmare

Chief Deputy City Atty. Tim McOsker told the City Council in closed session Feb. 2 that the city ultimately will have to pay as much as $125 million to settle lawsuits stemming from the 99 cases already conceded by Chief Bernard C. Parks to have been tainted--a number that virtually all observers expect to grow.

Significantly, attorneys with considerable experience in suing the police and their adversaries who defend law enforcement are in rare agreement that the Rampart-generated damage cases are a nightmare for the city. To both sides of the aisle, they represent an entirely different challenge than the city usually faces in defending police misconduct allegations.

In the typical case, a plaintiff accuses an officer of mistreating him in some way--often with few or no witnesses--and the trial becomes a credibility battle. The police win most of them.

But in the Rampart cases, the plaintiffs will come into court under dramatically different circumstances, said Rodriguez, who has filed two Rampart-related suits. First of all, those cases, if they are not settled, will come to court after months and months of publicity about Rampart police lawlessness.

In some instances, the defendants will include an officer who has been convicted of or charged with an array of crimes, including illegal shootings, planting of evidence, falsifying police reports and, perhaps worse, perjury. In other instances, the officer, even if not charged with a crime, will have been fired or suspended from the department because of misconduct.

Normally, when the city defends a police misconduct case, its arsenal includes a credible client and the weight of the city attorney's office, sometimes aided by private lawyers, lined up against attorneys from small law firms.

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