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The Crack in the LAPD Wall of Silence Widens

April 08, 2001|Joe Domanick

The press-conference venue, the body language and the announcement all seemed to point to a long-overdue shift in the balance of power in L.A.'s criminal-justice system. And perhaps the beginning of the end of the Los Angeles Police Department's 50-year domination of the city's law-enforcement establishment.

Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, U.S. Atty. Alejandro N. Mayorkas, LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks and the FBI's James V. DeSarno Jr. had all gathered to announce what could prove to be a significant turning point in the year-and-a-half-old investigation of the Rampart corruption scandal. Ex-Officer Nino Durden, former partner of Rafael Perez, whose revelations sparked the scandal, had pleaded guilty to four felonies in exchange for a relatively lenient sentence. Most important, he'd agreed to tell all he knew about possible crimes and abuses committed at Rampart.

Just days earlier, two of three other Rampart cops arrested and charged with beating a suspect in 1998 had also agreed to fully cooperate in the investigation, bringing to four, including Perez, the number of officers willing to breach the department's wall of silence. That is reason enough to hope that the days of the district attorney's office being just another division of the LAPD might be ending. For if Cooley and Mayorkas are serious, they now have three additional opportunities to pursue a host of new indictments and to conduct a full investigation into how high and wide the corruption and cover-up went at Rampart.

All this represents a stark departure from the state of affairs existing at the time Cooley took office last January. Then, the Rampart investigation seemed headed nowhere. Park's own probe of the scandal had focused almost exclusively on the Rampart Division, stopping any wider investigation in its tracks. A Police Commission inquiry had followed his lead. Perez's credibility was so suspect that he was not put on the stand at the trial of four officers he had accused of crimes. One of those officers was acquitted, and the convictions of the other three subsequently overturned by the judge presiding over their trial. The indictment of Durden for attempted murder, which was also based largely on Perez's testimony, seemed in serious jeopardy. We seemed destined never to know about the police abuse that many believed had occurred in a significant number of other LAPD divisions.

Although then-Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti seemed reluctant to pursue the Rampart investigation for political reasons, Parks, it's now apparent, was the main stumbling block. It is he who decided whether or not to send a case of alleged police criminality to the DA. And even before then, such a case had to pass through three different, ascending levels of filtering and review. The procedure was explicitly laid out in a 1998 memorandum from the LAPD's Internal Affairs Group [IAG] regarding the referral of allegations of criminal misconduct by LAPD officers. "Under no circumstances," it read, "shall any complaint investigation investigated by IAG personnel or other department entities [that involves police officers] be presented for district attorney review without the recommendation of the commanding officer, IAG and the concurrence of the chief of staff and chief of police."

It thus took a long time for police-misconduct cases to reach the DA--time enough for leads to grow cold and memories of the scandal to fade. In compelling statements from suspected officers, moreover, Internal Affairs was creating self-incrimination problems down the line for a DA mulling possible criminal indictments.

A big reason why Parks enjoyed monopolistic power over the Rampart investigation was that the district attorney's office had no formal, written protocols with the LAPD, no written agreement on the rules of the game when dealing with alleged criminal misconduct by LAPD officers. In fact, before the Rampart scandal, the DA's office had no formal internal protocols instructing prosecutors on how to proceed should they uncover evidence or suspect a police officer of lying or framing a suspect.

Since taking office, Cooley has moved to change this situation. He has nearly completed negotiations on such a protocol with the Police Department. In a memorandum to the judge overseeing the federal consent decree regulating the department, Cooley explicitly criticizes the LAPD for its handling of criminal police-abuse cases and its failure to turn over records of accused police officers to defense attorneys in a timely manner, if at all. He's also said, when asked, that he is proceeding with the investigation of the Rampart scandal, is in it for the long haul and will follow the probe "as high, wide and deep as the facts indicate."

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