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Commentary | PERSPECTIVES ON THE RAMPART SCANDAL

As Bad as Things Are, They Could Get Worse

The implications of misconduct are too broad. There must be no hint of a cover-up or a whitewash.

March 02, 2000|ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA | Antonio Villaraigosa is speaker of the California Assembly

Nearly 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson said, "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but his capacity for injustice makes it necessary." When you consider the staggering costs of the ongoing police scandal in Los Angeles, Jefferson's insight hints at the final price.

There are steps we can take to correct the situation, but they will not be easy or painless.

First, however, we should examine the impact of the scandal. The most important initial cost is the human suffering of the innocent victims of the Rampart officers. The physical and emotional injuries they have endured are great.

Another huge cost to the city caused by the rogue officers in the Rampart Division was outlined in a report issued Wednesday by the LAPD's Board of Inquiry. The report concluded that the scandal "devastated" the police's relationship with the public and "threatened the integrity of [the] entire criminal justice system."

The potential financial costs to the city are likely to be monumental, perhaps even threatening to overwhelm the city's ability to pay. Yet the ultimate cost of the Rampart scandal goes even beyond that.

As the evidence slowly emerges, it becomes increasingly apparent that this may not be merely a case of a few cops gone wrong. It began, perhaps, as the result of officers settling for "mediocrity," as Chief Bernard C. Parks put it. Police officers cut corners. They lied, cheated, planted evidence and worse.

Most Angelenos have no patience with those who commit crimes, but politicians and the public at large must never get to a point where we say, "The end justifies the means." Left unchecked, this insidious corruption will force us to pay the ultimate price--a loss of confidence in our system of justice and the undermining of the very pillars of our democracy.

This is a monumental crisis that requires bold, practical steps to not only root out all the wrongdoers but to put into place a series of checks and balances so it never happens again. Every day we fail to provide solutions, the human cost of the scandal grows. The most wrenching aspect of it is the suffering of the victims' families. Also suffering are the honest cops in the LAPD--the overwhelming majority of our officers. These brave men and women deserve nothing less than our most vigorous efforts to restore trust between them and the community.

The city must take the following actions to restore that trust:

* While the City Council correctly called for an initial internal investigation, it is time to admit that outside help is required. The implications of misconduct are now too broad for the public and the media to accept LAPD's findings as conclusive. As bad as things are now, things will become much worse if there is even a hint of a cover-up or a whitewash. Only an independent, outside investigator will restore the public's confidence in our law enforcement.

Both the federal and state departments of Justice, through the FBI and the state attorney general's office, have taken initial steps to get involved. Both need to seriously consider taking charge of the entire investigation. This may include the impaneling of a federal grand jury and the appointment of a federal prosecutor with full subpoena powers.

* The city should not wait to act, however. It should immediately begin to carry out the reforms recommended in 1991 by the Christopher Commission that have not been implemented. This starts with an effective system for tracking disciplinary violations of officers to establish a clear mechanism for monitoring a pattern of problems in the department.

* The LAPD also must reinstate and expand the senior lead officer program, which is the foundation of a successful community-based policing program. For several years, the senior leads made giant strides in improving police relations with the public, involving communities in valuable dialogue about policing and generally increasing levels of understanding between the police and those they are sworn to protect and serve.

If there is a lesson to be learned from the Rampart crisis, it is that we must never waver in our pursuit of justice and our obligation to democracy. The moment we allow injustice to prevail--even under the guise of fighting crime--we all lose.

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