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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON THE LAPD

Report on Rampart Scandal Has a Hollow, Disturbing Ring

Yes, the department is responsible, but its internal investigation falls far short of what's needed now.

March 03, 2000|ERWIN CHEMERINSKY | Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor of law and political science at USC, has agreed to provide an independent analysis of the Board of Inquiry report to the Police Protective League

The Los Angeles Police Department's Board of Inquiry report on corruption in the Rampart Division, while sharply criticizing many aspects of the department, also unduly minimizes the seriousness of the scandal. The report says the problem is because "a few individuals decided to engage in blatant misconduct." Yet all available evidence indicates much more widespread police lawlessness and corruption.

The report repeatedly attributes the problem to "mediocrity" within LAPD. This is far too generous; this is a story of malevolence and evil, not simply mediocrity and incompetence.

On Tuesday, Mayor Richard Riordan and Police Chief Bernard C. Parks were eager to congratulate themselves and the police department for the Board of Inquiry report. This has a hollow and disturbing ring coming from those who were at or near the top while the scandal occurred, who are spared from any criticism in the report and who now are vehemently opposing any outside review.

The self-congratulation also is premature. The 362-page report and its 108 recommendations require careful and detailed analysis. At this stage, it is possible to identify some of the key questions that must be asked in appraising this report:

* Does the Board of Inquiry go far enough in looking at corruption in the police department?

* Does it probe deeply enough into the underlying causes for this outrage?

* Is its focus on solving the problem through internal mechanisms sufficient to ensure that this never happens again?

The report fails to tell us how many officers were involved, directly or indirectly, or how high within the department the scandal reaches. The Board of Inquiry focused on one division, Rampart, and did not fully examine whether similar corruption and lawlessness occurred in other CRASH units or divisions. Moreover, there also must be scrutiny of the district attorney's office, which relied on the tainted evidence, overlooked signs of the problem and secured convictions of many innocent people. Even the behavior of judges who sometimes accepted questionable evidence needs to be examined.

Nor does the report probe deeply into the underlying causes of a scandal of this magnitude. The report identifies problems in the hiring, assignment, supervision and discipline of officers.

There also must be analysis of why it went on for so long before being uncovered. A large number of officers had to know what was happening and be complicit at least through their silence. It is troubling that there is not significant discussion of this or the "code of silence" documented by the Christopher Commission in 1991.

In appraising the Board of Inquiry report, it is crucial to note that all 108 of its recommendations focus on strengthening internal controls and discipline within the LAPD. The report recommends no new outside oversight mechanisms, such as civilian review boards for police discipline or a special prosecutor to probe police corruption. A key question is whether the problem can be solved solely through internal reforms or whether external oversight of the department in the future is essential.

The absence of recommendations for outside review is not surprising given the adamant opposition to it by Chief Parks to any form of external review. Previously, Parks opposed strengthening the role of the civilian Police Commission and the commission's inspector general, even though both are really internal mechanisms. Every time there has been a proposal for any outside review of the Rampart scandal and the department, Parks has quickly appeared in the City Council in an effort to kill the effort.

Now that the Board of Inquiry report has been released, it is essential that an independent body like the Christopher Commission be created to look at the scandal, appraise the board's recommendations and make further suggestions for reform. Only such an external appraisal can begin to restore confidence in the police department.

This is quickly becoming the worst scandal in the history of Los Angeles. It probably will cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. The behavior of the officers--framing innocent individuals and regularly committing perjury--strikes at the very heart of the rule of law. Now the task is to figure out how this happened and what to do to prevent it in the future. The Board of Inquiry report is a starting place for discussion and analysis. There is enormous work to do in the weeks and months ahead.

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