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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON THE LAPD

Don't Fight Justice's Lawsuit; Use It

A consent decree would give the City Council the chance to act decisively on the Rampart scandal.

May 09, 2000|ERWIN CHEMERINSKY | Erwin Chemerinsky, a USC law professor, was chairman of the Elected Los Angeles Charter Reform Commission. He is conducting an independent review of the LAPD Board of Inquiry's report on Rampart for the Police Protective League

The U.S. Department of Justice has informed Los Angeles city officials that it is ready to sue the city for civil rights violations by the LAPD. The city should not contest this lawsuit, but instead should quickly negotiate a settlement to prevent further litigation that it is sure to lose.

The filing of this lawsuit is the chance for the City Council to act decisively to deal with the Rampart scandal by entering into an agreement that can immediately improve policing in Los Angeles. In fact, until July 1, when the new City Charter becomes effective, the council can agree to a settlement on its own--even over the likely objections of Chief Bernard C. Parks and Mayor Richard Riordan.

Under federal law, a city is liable if the U.S. Justice Department proves a "pattern or practice" of civil rights violations by police officers. The Los Angeles Police Department's own internal investigation by the Board of Inquiry, which I believe unduly minimizes the extent and seriousness of the Rampart scandal, documents repeated egregious offenses by the LAPD--certainly enough evidence to lead any court to conclude that there is a pattern and practice of L.A. police officers infringing basic constitutional rights. Already more than 70 convictions have been overturned because of proof that Rampart officers planted evidence to frame innocent individuals or committed perjury to gain convictions. As a matter of law, Los Angeles cannot credibly deny that there has been a pattern and practice of police officers violating civil rights.

Therefore, the city should spare its taxpayers the substantial costs of protracted litigation and settle the Justice Department case as soon as it is filed. This might have an added benefit: An agreement in the form of a consent decree in federal court might help to resolve many other suits that are being filed against the city.

In addition to claims for money damages by victims of police abuse, class action suits seeking injunctive relief to reform the LAPD already have been filed. More such suits are likely. A comprehensive consent decree in a Justice Department lawsuit might resolve many of these other cases.

Most important, settling a lawsuit with the Justice Department offers Los Angeles an immediate opportunity to implement needed reforms in the LAPD and to begin to restore public confidence in its police force. Although the terms of the consent decree would have to be negotiated, they likely would involve many of the reforms proposed by the Board of Inquiry report. Among them likely would be instituting a system for tracking disciplinary complaints against officers, a key proposal of the Christopher Commission that never was implemented.

Also, the settlement probably would put key aspects of the LAPD, such as its disciplinary system, under the control of a federal judge, working with a civilian auditor or monitor, who would review the department's compliance with the agreement on an ongoing basis. A similar Justice Department lawsuit in Pittsburgh, Pa., was settled on these terms. Such outside review and control would ensure that long overdue reforms actually are implemented. This external presence is crucial to rebuilding public trust in our police department.

A settlement would mean, however, that the city would lose control of some aspects of the department for a period of time. For this reason, there are indications that Chief Parks wants to fight the lawsuit. Unfortunately, there is no indication that Mayor Riordan would stand up to the chief on such an important matter.

Therefore, the responsibility falls to the City Council to step forward and act to settle the Justice Department's suit. Under both the existing and the new charter, the council can approve a settlement on its own, but now it needs only eight votes because the mayor has no veto power, while after July 1 it would take 10 votes if the mayor objects. The City Council should instruct the city attorney to begin settlement negotiations immediately and act to resolve the matter before the new charter takes effect.

Settlement of a Justice Department lawsuit would not implement all of the needed reforms. There still would have to be a thorough review of the criminal justice system in Los Angeles to identify the causes of the problem and provide solutions to ensure that a scandal like Rampart never happens again. But a consent decree can establish many essential reforms and assure the public that policing in Los Angeles really is undergoing a change for the better.

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