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Make the Law Obey Laws

L.A. County's longtime reluctance to prosecute police officers accused by the LAPD calls for systemic reforms.

October 30, 2000

How could Los Angeles police officers not believe themselves to be above the law? That's the inescapable conclusion from a recent Times investigation documenting the reluctance of L.A. County prosecutors to file charges against police officers accused of crimes. Against the backdrop of the unfolding Rampart Division scandal, that finding must result in systemic reforms.

The failures are two-pronged. First, since 1995, as Times reporters Scott Glover and Matt Lait and found, the Police Department has referred hundreds of potential criminal cases against its own officers to the district attorney. But few of those officers have actually been prosecuted. Second, and perhaps related, is that the number of criminal cases involving officers that the LAPD has turned over to prosecutors has dropped dramatically in the past two years. Among the most egregious failures to prosecute: an officer who detained a newspaper delivery boy and his father at gunpoint after the morning paper accidentally was thrown at the officer's parked car, and an officer caught on videotape striking a man on the head from behind with his metal flashlight, apparently without provocation.

There are explanations for the paucity of prosecutions but no excuses. Yes, police misconduct cases are hard to win, whether in Los Angeles, New York or elsewhere. The close working relationships between police and prosecutors necessary to get courtroom convictions may work against aggressive efforts to pursue bad cops. Even the most vigilant prosecutors have a tough sell convincing jurors that police officers, often sympathetic authority figures, have broken the law. Police are also notoriously loath to impeach fellow officers on the witness stand, leaving prosecutors to rely on the word of drug dealers or gangbangers to convict an officer.

But these obstacles are not reasons to avoid pursuing crimes committed by police officers. The Police Commission, the LAPD's civilian watchdog, should direct the department to refer cases to the district or city attorney whenever investigators find facts that indicate that an officer has violated the law. Not all referrals will or should lead to prosecutions. But the decision should be up to prosecutors, not police officers.

There is also a role for the state attorney general. While Bill Lockyer is understandably reluctant to intrude on police and sheriff's departments across California, the strong local disincentives to pursuing misconduct cases compel his involvement. At a minimum, Lockyer's office should create a system for monitoring these cases statewide. There will also be some cases where the alleged misconduct is so egregious or the obstacles to conviction so great that local prosecutors should let the state handle the case. An offer by Lockyer to make his office available would send a strong and welcome signal about the seriousness of officer misconduct charges.

The police corruption unearthed in the Rampart scandal and by a federal civil rights investigation of the LAPD is the direct consequence of long-standing failures of local police and prosecutors. But the misconduct that has come to light here can occur in any law enforcement agency. Rampart should be a wake-up call to police and prosecutors statewide.

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