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U.S. Blames Lax Management for Abuses by LAPD

Probe: Justice Department demands reforms to address findings in four-year inquiry and threatens to sue if city fails to comply. Local leaders pledge cooperation.

May 09, 2000|MATT LAIT and SCOTT GLOVER and TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Lax management in the Los Angeles Police Department contributed to a widespread pattern of civil rights abuses in which officers routinely used excessive force, made false arrests and conducted unreasonable searches and seizures, a four-year federal investigation has found.

In a 2 1/2-hour, closed-door meeting at City Hall, Department of Justice officials threatened to sue in federal court if the city did not agree to a host of police reforms. The city's top leaders immediately pledged to cooperate in addressing the federal government's concerns and will meet with Department of Justice officials again next week.

In a prepared statement, Bill Lann Lee, acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said: "Today, we notified officials of the city of Los Angeles, the Police Commission and the LAPD that the Civil Rights Division has been authorized to file a police misconduct lawsuit. This suit alleges that the LAPD is engaged in a pattern and practice of constitutional violations through excessive force, false arrests, unreasonable searches and seizures, and that management deficiencies have allowed this misconduct to occur. Although we have concluded that these types of misconduct occur on a regular basis, we believe that the majority of LAPD officers are ethical and hard-working.

"We informed the city officials," Lee said, "that the Department of Justice is willing to defer filing suit to allow the city the opportunity to work toward a voluntary settlement."

In fact, sources say, both sides would like to negotiate a settlement in which the city would quickly implement reforms and avoid a potentially embarrassing and costly court battle.

The Justice Department is threatening to sue under a 1994 statute that was enacted after another low point for the LAPD: the 1991 beating of black motorist Rodney G. King. Its investigation of the LAPD's so-called "pattern and practice" dates back four years but has accelerated in the wake of the corruption revelations that have come to be called the Rampart scandal. The federal officials' specific allegations are contained in the lawsuit, which will be filed if no settlement is reached. The pressure being exerted marks the first time federal officials have used the law in an effort to force reforms in such a big city police department.

"This spells failure," said Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas of the federal government's findings. "It means that we don't have a credible law enforcement agency in the minds of the [Department of Justice]. It means that the problems are deeper than anyone has been willing to acknowledge. They are bigger than Rampart, in other words. Everyone has to take some degree of responsibility for that."

Justice Department officials expressed profound concerns about the recent revelations of police misconduct arising from the Rampart corruption investigation, and the department's long-standing failure to launch an adequate system to track problem officers.

Lee, a onetime Los Angeles civil rights lawyer, who summoned City Atty. James K. Hahn, Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, Police Commission President Gerald L. Chaleff and other key city officials to the meeting late Monday afternoon, declined to provide details on the specific reforms being sought.

However, in his statement, he noted that "the city has accepted our offer to begin discussions toward a resolution of this issue."

According to sources, Lee gave city officials a document more clearly stating his office's concerns.

"It's a very damning letter, which is highly critical of the department's management," said one source who has seen the document.

A key element for Justice Department negotiators in any settlement agreement would be the appointment of an outside auditor to oversee implementation of the ongoing reforms.

Parks, the department's chief since 1997 and a key member of the command staff for years before that, sat stone-faced with his arms folded across his chest during the meeting. Despite the major implications of the findings for the department, he declined comment through his spokesman.

"They've got us over a barrel," said one high-level City Hall official.

"It's like a hostile takeover," a high-ranking LAPD source said.

Paradoxically, it was the LAPD's own Board of Inquiry report, a scathing self-analysis made public in March, that the Justice Department cited as evidence of the department's many failures.

Chaleff, the Police Commission's president, sought to put a positive spin on Monday's developments.

"We share the same goal, which is to make certain that the Los Angeles Police Department is performing its duties professionally and ethically and that proper management oversight is in place," he said.

Council President John Ferraro, who also attended the meeting, seemed less optimistic. "Everyone is unhappy," he said. "We are all anxious to get this behind us as soon as possible." The council is expected to discuss the contents of the Justice Department's document today

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