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U.S. Reiterates Threat of Police Reform Suit

September 12, 2000|TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the Los Angeles City Council prepares today to consider the police reform package its negotiators have worked out with the U.S. Department of Justice, federal officials informed key lawmakers that Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has resolved to obtain a binding agreement to enforce the reforms--and is willing to sue if one is not agreed upon.

Justice officials also told council members that they want quick approval of a package of improvements aimed at remedying what Washington alleges is a "pattern or practice" of civil rights violations by officers in the Los Angeles Police Department.

"If the city fights this, then it's the worst of all possible worlds," said one source. "If the Justice Department files suit, then all bets are off. Whatever is handed down in the way of an order by a federal judge will be much more exacting" than the negotiated decree.

Although a majority of the 15 council members have said they are open to a binding legal agreement--a consent decree--with the federal government, three of them have expressed strong opposition to the prospect and at least four are regarded in City Hall as undecided.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 16, 2000 Ventura County Edition Metro Part B Page 2 Zones Desk 2 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Civil rights official Lee--Three recent stories about reform proposals for the Los Angeles Police Department incorrectly referred to Bill Lann Lee as acting head of the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Lee was "acting" in that capacity from December 1997 until last month, when President Clinton used a recess appointment to make him the assistant attorney general for civil rights.

The differing opinions among city lawmakers have sparked concern that the council ultimately will approve a settlement, but not with the 10 votes required to override the mayoral veto that many in City Hall anticipate.

In fact, Mayor Richard Riordan and Police Chief Bernard C. Parks are urging the council to fight the decree, pushing instead for a less confining memorandum of understanding--which would not require the involvement of a federal judge.

City Atty. James K. Hahn, however, said he believes that a consent decree filed with the court is needed to ensure that reforms are finally made in the Police Department. Hahn also said he supports collecting data to determine the extent of "racial profiling" by the LAPD and would like to see an outside monitor appointed to oversee the reforms.

Arguing that the city has no chance of winning a lawsuit against the federal government on this issue, Hahn is set to meet with the council today to urge the lawmakers to approve a settlement with the Department of Justice.

Bill Lann Lee, acting head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, flew to Los Angeles from Washington over the weekend to meet with council members.

"He made it clear that there would be no backing down on the Justice Department's part," said Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, with whom Lann Lee met Monday morning. The federal official also told Ridley-Thomas that the department would "not allow this negotiation to go on indefinitely."

"They want this wrapped up by . . . the end of the month," a City Hall source said.

Working behind the scenes, Riordan and Parks in recent weeks have launched an intense lobbying effort aimed at persuading council members to oppose the decree.

Early last week, City Hall sources said, the mayor and the chief expressed their opposition to a decree in a telephone call to U.S. Assistant Atty. Gen. Eric Holder. On Friday, Riordan reinforced his sentiments in a letter to Holder.

According to sources, Holder responded with a letter reaffirming his department's insistence on a consent decree and the possibility of litigation.

On Monday, a number of council members--including Ridley-Thomas, Cindy Miscikowski, Mike Feuer, Jackie Goldberg and Laura Chick--said they would be willing to support a consent decree.

"I don't see this as a horrid thing," Miscikowski said. "What this is all about is a sense of accountability. Our department has said we have a problem, we uncovered it, and we are making changes. Instead of viewing this as an outside takeover, we should see it as an outside monitor confirming that we are on the right track."

Those who have expressed strong opposition to the consent decree are Nick Pacheco, Nate Holden and Rudy Svorinich.

"I'm convinced that Chief Parks wants to do a good job," Svorinich said. "He has a 30-year career on the line here. Let's give him a chance. What we don't need is federal cooks in the LAPD kitchen."

Federal officials have spent more than four years investigating allegations that the nation's second-largest police department routinely employs excessive force and infringes on the rights of minorities.

The inquiry accelerated last fall, as accusations of corruption in the department's Rampart division came to light.

The Rampart scandal involves allegations that officers shot, beat and framed innocent people. So far more than 100 criminal convictions have been overturned and five officers have been charged with crimes ranging from planting weapons to attempted murder.

On May 8, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division formally told city officials of its intention to sue over the alleged abuses, prompting the council to open negotiations with federal attorneys.

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