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Alarming Predictability

May 21, 2000

Once again, there are serious questions about whether some officers in the Los Angeles Police Department abused the power of the badge. This time, the allegations came not out of the Rampart Division but from the Metro Division. With the latest reports of misconduct and violation of police regulations emerges an alarming predictability. The alleged victims consistently are poor, their skin is black or brown, they are not well connected, they had past trouble with the law or they were homeless.

Larry Betts fell into all of these categories.

Betts in 1998 was by his own admission a homeless drug addict. He is now drug-free for a year, he says, and working. Betts at the time of his arrest on suspicion of drug possession and parole violation was on the wrong side of society's fence. His misfit status was similar to that of the gangbangers and others who were wrongly convicted in cases now collectively known as the Rampart scandal. After Times revelations and the LAPD's own investigation into officers' planting evidence, lying in court and even bad shootings, 84 convictions have been overturned.

In the Betts case, multiple witnesses contradicted not only the circumstances of the arrest but its location. Betts and several credible witnesses put it downtown near skid row. The arresting officers, Patrick McCarty and Chris Soldo, say the arrest took place more than nine miles to the west. McCarty and Soldo said in their police report that they arrested Betts when he jaywalked across South La Cienega Boulevard and that they found a crack pipe laced with rock cocaine residue in his sock and three rocks of crack in his pocket. Betts claimed the officers planted a crack pipe and cocaine on him.

Deputy Dist. Atty. John Gilligan, who oversaw the handling of the case, and Deputy Public Defender Ellie Schneir had investigators who found at least four witnesses who disputed McCarty and Soldo's account. That's why prosecutors dropped the Betts case. Schneir filed a complaint with the LAPD, asking the department to investigate. A sergeant from Metro Division, not members of the LAPD's internal affairs office, looked into the Schneir and Gilligan findings. An LAPD spokesman said internal affairs wasn't called in because Police Chief Bernard C. Parks in 1998 changed the system for investigating officers, resulting in a threefold increase in complaints that internal affairs couldn't handle. That's no excuse.

There is no indication that the sergeant assigned to investigate the Betts case made much effort to contact the witnesses found by the Schneir and Gilligan investigators. The LAPD claimed that one didn't seem credible and that the department couldn't find another. Yet the public defender's investigator offered to escort the LAPD sergeant to the witnesses; the sergeant declined. Metro Division Capt. Rodger K. Coombs later said the complaint was classified as "unfounded." The implication was that everyone who contradicted the officers' official version of events was lying.

Strange how the LAPD didn't think that one witness was credible when both the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney found the witnesses convincing.

Internal affairs investigators are now on the Betts case, about two years too late.

If true, these allegations again point to a system in which the police cannot be trusted to police their own. Worse than that, if the allegations are true they point to a strain of cowardice in the LAPD that suggests that it's OK to step over the line of normal police rules as long as the victims aren't likely to fight back.

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