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True Reform May Depend on the 'Greedy' Lawyers

March 05, 2000|Joseph D. McNamara | Joseph D. McNamara is the retired police chief of San Jose and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. His forthcoming book is "Gangster Cops: The Hidden Cost of America's War on Drugs."

STANFORD — If high-powered lawyers experienced in police-brutality cases ever pool their resources and wage the common fight against alleged lawlessness at Rampart Division, the Los Angeles Police Department may have no alternative but to reinvent itself. To be sure, cops and most Angelenos will be skeptical of these lawyers, among them Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and R. Samuel Paz, launching civil suits in the name of reforming police practices. They know lawyers usually sue to collect multimillion-dollar fees. Ironically, however, the outrage over the size of the potential settlements, which may bankrupt the city, could create the necessary political mandate to reform the LAPD for the first time in more than 40 years.

The department certainly has been insulated from the winds of reform. Responding to the progressive movement's conviction that city-hall politics corrupt police, Los Angeles citizens approved a city charter in 1925 that gave the Police Department extraordinary freedom from political oversight and extended Civil Service tenure to the police chief. In addition, the Police Protective League, the union of rank-and-file officers, has evolved into a powerful political force. Few who coveted political office were inclined to displease the LAPD because some people complained about its aggressive policing tactics. Then and now, politicians need endorsements more than controversy. Consequently, the LAPD was able to avoid reforms imposed on other departments and do things its own way: a military style of policing.

When testifying in 1991 before the Christopher Commission, appointed to investigate the LAPD after the police beating of Rodney G. King, some officers said that the culture of the department accepted the use of unnecessary force. The commission also learned that the department wasn't receptive to complaints against officers, let alone conducting impartial investigations of them and administering appropriate discipline.

Bernard C. Parks, the current chief, is far more discipline-minded than his predecessors, but he opposes an independent investigation of his department, because, he says, the Rampart scandal is limited to a relatively small number of officers, a claim that seems premature in what he describes as a continuing investigation. Inevitably, some people will interpret his resistance to an outside inquiry as a sign of his intention to limit the scope of the scandal. As a result, the public may learn more about the pervasiveness of corruption in the Police Department through civil lawsuits.

The Board of Inquiry report released last week, for all its candor and commendable self-criticism, does not cite the department's fundamental military style of policing as responsible for the horrible police crimes alleged by former Officer Rafael Perez, whose disclosures exposed the police misconduct at Rampart. Rather than calling for the development of a new style of policing, the report focuses on internal management practices. It contends that a few rotten apples, binge hiring, inadequate training, haphazard supervision, failure to hold supervisors accountable and other personnel shortcomings were the sources of the problems at Rampart.

All these should be addressed in any reform efforts. Yet, it should be noted that these kinds of excuses are the staples of police departments embarrassed by the unmasking of gangster cops in their ranks. But a troubling question arises: How can relatively few criminals wearing badges commit so many crimes for so many years without being reported by honest officers? In the LAPD, why weren't suggestions that some cops were robbing drug dealers and selling drugs handled the way the L.A. Sheriff's Department dealt with a similar scandal a decade ago? The Sheriff's Department sought FBI help and set up a sting operation that caught one of the suspected cops stealing money. Confronted with a stiff prison sentence, he helped trap other crooked deputies. In the end, 29 deputies were convicted.

In contrast, the LAPD and the district attorney are in the unhappy position of having to rely on Perez, a witness discredited by his own admissions. A year before Perez was arrested for stealing cocaine and decided to blow the whistle, the LAPD promised a thorough investigation of complaints that cops were robbing drug dealers and selling drugs. Why did the LAPD and the district attorney fail to ask for federal help in setting up a sting operation like the ones that have nailed corrupt cops in other cities?

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