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Commentary

The City Attorney Is Failing the City

LAPD: Taxpayers are paying millions in settlements--and defending bad cops.

May 12, 2000|R. SAMUEL PAZ | R. Samuel Paz is national vice president of the American Civil Liberties Union

Los Angeles City Atty. James Hahn is required by law both to prosecute misdemeanor police misconduct and to defend the city from civil liability. He may also recommend felony prosecutions. But there are serious ethical misconduct questions about Hahn's handling of thousands of civil cases that allege misconduct by LAPD officers causing injuries and deaths. There has been, and continues to be, a purposeful failure by the city attorney to either report these allegations for internal investigation or to recommend prosecution.

As we can see from many of the Rampart cases, the city does not and should not represent officers when it is likely that the officer may have committed a crime. Thus, once a city attorney representing an officer is confronted with evidence that rises to the level of probable cause that a crime may have been committed, there is an appearance of a conflict of interest. At that moment, it is ethical and legal for the attorney to withdraw and advise the officer to obtain his own counsel. If the information about a crime does not come from a confidential communication, then the city's attorney should report the matter to the LAPD or recommend a prosecution.

Over the past 10 years, the city has paid out many millions of dollars to people injured by LAPD officers. An examination of those cases where substantial money was paid will reveal just how often, even before the Rampart disclosures, the city attorney turned a blind eye to his ethical duty to defend the city. He did this by providing a defense to officers whose misconduct--usually in such areas as falsifying a police report or using excessive force--should have disqualified them from a free defense. To continue to defend cops who act questionably places the city attorney squarely in the middle of an ethical conflict. The dirty cop gets a free ride when the city pays for the defense. At the settlement, the city pays with tax dollars for the consequences of potentially criminal behavior.

Moreover, the officer is comfortable that the potentially criminal behavior cannot be prosecuted by the city attorney because of the conflict of interest created by being represented by the same counsel who will now prosecute. And the truth of the officer's bad acts can't be disclosed by the city attorney because of the attorney-client privilege. In short, the consequences of Hahn ignoring his ethical obligations has made his office a partner in covering up a continuous stream of misconduct that has cost this city millions and has subjected thousands of Angelenos to injury and death. Recent hearings by the Police Commission leave no doubt that the burden of the police misconduct falls most frequently and with greatest impact on the African American and Latino communities.

To avoid the present quagmire and still be fair to accused officers, the city should hire private counsel or set up a pool of lawyers to which the officer may be assigned. Of course, an officer always may select his or her own attorney. Carefully reviewing civil actions for potential misconduct when they come in the door will allow the city attorney to defend the interests of the city as well as prosecute officers who have violated the public trust.

These ethical dynamics are not new. And fixing the paralysis of the city attorney in failing to respect these fundamental ethical obligations and in abandoning the obligation to prosecute dirty cops is not the sole answer to the current crisis in law enforcement and the mistrust created by years of unchecked police misconduct. It is, however, a piece of the puzzle that needs to be squarely addressed if Los Angeles is serious about bringing integrity back to its criminal justice institutions.

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