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Now Is Not the Time to Rush

It's a bad idea for the feds to enter into a consent decree with the LAPD before all the facts are aired.

May 14, 2000|STEPHEN YAGMAN | Stephen Yagman, a Venice Beach civil rights lawyer, represents plaintiffs in numerous Rampart cases

Many applauded when Bill Lann Lee, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, told the city that, unless it agrees to enter into a federal court consent decree to reform the LAPD, the Justice Department will file a so-called "pattern and practice action."

While on the surface a consent decree would appear to be caving-in by the LAPD and the city, that applause is both premature and ill-advised. Two very important considerations counsel strongly against the Justice Department entering into a such an agreement with Los Angeles.

A premature or hastily drafted consent decree will let multitudes in government off the hook but will leave on the hook--this time perhaps forever--the long-suffering citizens of Los Angeles.

The Justice Department, by its own admission, has relatively little factual information about a wide array of LAPD abuses that have raged rampant for years because the LAPD refused or failed to provide large quantities of empirical data to the Justice Department and stalled in turning over whatever the Justice Department did get. Entering into a consent decree without first having received and analyzed all of the facts of LAPD abuse would be like sentencing someone for a crime before a trial. Unless everyone in the community has the complete information about what happened, the value of any consent decree--and pressure for its enforcement when the LAPD down the line resists its reforms--will be diminished.

Most important in this regard is that the city, the LAPD and City Atty. James K. Hahn, who would negotiate a consent decree, do have all the facts, which they have not shared with the Justice Department. This puts the Justice Department at an unfair disadvantage in negotiating a consent decree and gives the LAPD a significant edge. The city and Hahn know where all the bodies are buried, who buried them and how they got there. The Justice Department has relatively very little of this information. A consent decree would have the unintended consequence and unhealthy effect of a cover-up of massive misconduct that must, in the interest of good government, be publicly aired.

It's a long way from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, and the Justice Department is an outsider here. Its U.S. attorney outpost here has had limited experience in prosecuting LAPD misconduct. Institutionally, the Justice Department simply does not have the anecdotal and idiosyncratic information required to know which LAPD abuses to reform and the best way to do it. Generic reforms will not fit a situation like the one in Los Angeles, where peculiar, long-standing and deeply rooted cultural circumstances have given rise to a police department that is not like departments in other cities where consent decrees are in place. In a department that has some level of civilian control, when police get out of control, reforms can take a different, simpler form than in a place like Los Angeles, where there really never has been any civilian control of the LAPD.

Without specific and accurate information about the real causes behind the lack of civilian control of the LAPD and the LAPD corruption and brutality that have plagued Los Angeles, the terms of any consent decree will miss the mark. Shooting and missing will be worse than not shooting at all.

A consent decree that is based on incomplete information about the LAPD will be an empty, and ultimately useless, vessel. Right now, the city has the advantage over the Justice Department, and though some of its leaders mildly grouse about entering into a consent decree, the truth is that the ones who seriously consider it and encourage it in the end will end up defeating, once again, real police reform.

Caution, patience and a public airing of all the negative facts about the LAPD must precede any agreement about what to do. After all these years, now is not the time to hurry up.

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