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Police Cases Sent to D.A. Drop Sharply

LAPD: Some officials are concerned by chief's policy that refers fewer officer incidents to prosecutors.

October 23, 2000|MATT LAIT and SCOTT GLOVER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The number of criminal cases the Los Angeles Police Department has presented to prosecutors involving its own officers has dropped dramatically since late 1998, when Chief Bernard C. Parks changed the department's policy on such referrals, a Times investigation has found.

In the four years before the policy change, the LAPD sent an average of more than 80 cases a year to the district attorney's Special Investigations Division, which prosecutes police and other public officials, according to district attorney's records. In 1999, 17 cases were referred, the records show. Through August of this year, nine cases had been submitted, not including cases arising from the Rampart corruption probe, which is being investigated by both police and prosecutors.

The sharp decline in referrals has some prosecutors and Police Commission officials concerned that the LAPD is not referring every case it should.

Under Parks' policy, cases against officers are referred when an LAPD "investigation [has] established a criminal act occurred and the department determines a criminal filing is warranted."

And, the policy adds: "Under no circumstances" should a case be referred to the district attorney's office without the approval of the LAPD's Internal Affairs commander, a deputy chief and the police chief himself. The change in policy was made without the approval of the civilian Police Commission, which, under the City Charter, is supposed to set departmental policy.

The previous policy required a referral in any case in which there was credible evidence that an officer had committed a crime.

LAPD Deputy Chief David J. Kalish said the current approach is aimed at preventing frivolous cases from clogging the criminal justice system. Deputy Dist. Atty. James L. Cosper said he was at a meeting with LAPD Cmdr. Jim McMurray, the head of the department's Internal Affairs Division, at which the change in policy was discussed.

"He said they didn't want to keep flooding us with these junk cases," Cosper recalled. "He said, 'trust us.' I still remember those words coming out of his mouth: trust us."

Since then, Cosper said, "the well's run dry."

Parks has earned a reputation as a stern disciplinarian, firing officers at a rate far higher than his immediate predecessors, Willie L. Williams and Daryl F. Gates. Since taking office in August 1997, Parks has terminated 127 officers, according to LAPD records.

Cosper said he believes the LAPD would rather quietly fire officers than have them prosecuted publicly.

"Frankly, it's a public relations issue," Cosper said. "I think a lot of the time the attitude at LAPD is, 'We got rid of a bad apple--that's enough.' "

McMurray declined repeated requests for an interview.

Cmdr. Sharon Papa, the department's spokeswoman, said the rate of prosecution had no relation to the number of cases sent to the prosecutors by the LAPD. "It looks to me like we're doing a better job of screening."

The Times identified two cases that were not submitted to prosecutors under the current policy until it was legally too late to prosecute. Allegations of excessive force and false imprisonment against one officer, and of on-duty sex with prostitutes and witness intimidation against another were withheld from prosecutors for 18 months and 11 months, respectively, after the officers had been fired from the LAPD.

Information on both cases was turned over to the district attorney's office on June 14, after The Times filed a public records request with the Police Department seeking information about the two officers. Police officials declined to discuss the timing of those referrals.

There are a number of other recent cases that were not presented to prosecutors, even though the allegations against officers were potentially criminal. For example, district attorney records show that prosecutors were never asked to review cases involving:

* An officer who was fired for filing a false arrest report.

* An officer who was suspended for 22 days for excessive use of force.

* A traffic investigator who resigned amid allegations that he made female accident victims disrobe.

* A pair of officers who were suspended for 22 days for an "illegal detention" and improper search of a man.

"Considering all the circumstances, if a police department has credible evidence that an officer has committed a crime, the allegation should be referred to this office," said Cliff Klein, the head prosecutor of the district attorney's Special Investigations Division, known as SID.

Four months ago, The Times requested information from the LAPD on dozens of other disciplinary cases in which officers were charged internally with potential crimes or serious misconduct. To date, the department has not turned over those documents, even though LAPD officials concede that the material is public information. Many of the cases were not referred to prosecutors for review, according to district attorney's records.

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