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THE RAMPART VERDICTS

L.A. Will Feel Ripple Effect of Corruption Case for Years

Reform: Prosecutors are expected to pursue more criminal charges against officers following Wednesday's verdict. Some say numerous civil lawsuits could threaten the city's financial well-being.

November 16, 2000|MATT LAIT and TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The guilty verdicts against three Los Angeles police officers carry immediate and potentially profound ramifications that transcend the men convicted Wednesday of framing gang members.

The verdicts breathe new life into a 14-month-old investigation that, at times, has run aground. They probably will embolden prosecutors to bring cases that they might otherwise have shied away from. And they have given police officers suspected of wrongdoing new incentives to cut deals.

"There could be a race to be the first one in the door," said attorney Ira Salzman, who represents some officers implicated in the corruption scandal. "I firmly believe this will energize prosecutors, both state and federal, and they'll be looking to roll somebody."

The verdicts also deliver a measure of vindication for Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who has been criticized for his handling of the case and was overwhelmingly defeated in his bid for a third term. At the same time, the credibility of former Rampart Division Officer Rafael Perez--who provided the blueprint for the prosecutions--has been bolstered. Defense attorneys repeatedly have said that he falsely sacrificed good officers in exchange for a lighter sentence.

As for city officials, they greeted the verdicts with mixed emotions. Had the officers been found not guilty, city lawyers may have had a better chance of defending the city against nearly 100 lawsuits alleging police abuse. Now, they are braced for the worst.

"It isn't a good day for the city of Los Angeles and more specific, the Los Angeles Police Department," said City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas. "Justice is not always pleasant. But it does fuel the need for reform."

In Future Cases, Police May Plea-Bargain

Sources said Wednesday that investigators currently are considering charges in connection with at least two on-duty incidents--unrelated to each other--involving multiple LAPD officers. The U.S. attorney and the FBI, meanwhile, expect that they will have criminal cases against LAPD officers ready to go to court by next year, a source familiar with the investigation said.

In light of the convictions, some officers who are charged in future cases may be forced to consider plea bargains rather than risking conviction. Police Chief Bernard C. Parks long has argued that the best way to push ahead with the police corruption probe is to bring some officers to trial and force them to choose between cooperating or facing time in jail.

Lawrence J. Hanna, a lawyer who represents four officers implicated in the scandal, said he doubted police would turn on each other in the criminal cases. But he predicted that prosecutors will step up their efforts in light of Wednesday's convictions.

"Now that they have tasted blood, they probably will come after other officers," Hanna said. "I hope that they don't. The evidence is so weak that, in the interest of justice, these should never be brought forward."

The spectacle of the city embroiled in controversy over its police force is hardly a new one for Los Angeles.

Since the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King, Los Angeles has paid the price for a department often distrusted by the public. Police morale has suffered, city taxpayers have been burdened and the judicial system as a whole occasionally has groaned from the effects of a public that lacks faith in its police to tell the truth.

Indeed, the 1995 acquittal of O.J. Simpson--whose defense relied largely on the argument that police bungled or even deliberately compromised evidence--vividly demonstrated how far public confidence in the LAPD had slid.

The Simpson case--and particularly the inflammatory tape-recorded comments of former LAPD Det. Mark Fuhrman about racism and criminal acts by police--helped draw the attention of the Justice Department to possible civil rights violations by LAPD officers. That followed the King beating and the public revulsion it triggered.

On Wednesday, the verdicts in the first Rampart-related corruption case to go to trial gave one particularly foreboding sign: In some eyes at least, police today enjoy little more credibility than the gang members who testified during the nearly monthlong trial. The verdicts also show the importance of the continuing investigations, which are proceeding on several fronts.

Federal and local authorities are trying to assess possible criminal prosecutions. The U.S. Justice Department has just resolved its "pattern or practice" case against the city and the LAPD by striking a comprehensive reform document in the form of a consent decree agreed to by the city and the federal government.

It is the criminal investigation that sits at the center of those various investigations, threatening to put more police in jail and ratcheting up the pressure on any officer facing possible charges.

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