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Politics Trumps Justice

November 18, 2001|JOE DOMANICK | Joe Domanick, the author of "To Protect and to Serve: The LAPD's Century of War in the City of Dreams," is working on a book about California's three-strikes law

"With every book, when you read it, you close it," said Steve Cooley after he announced earlier this month that his office will shut down its Rampart investigation by the end of the year. The L.A. County district attorney then added that he expected no new indictments in the interim.

It was a stunning pronouncement. During his hard-fought campaign to unseat Gil Garcetti, Cooley had presented himself as a reformer appalled by a district attorney's office that seemed always to look the other way when confronted with police lying, brutality and other abuses. He had promised to change the widely held perception among the public that LAPD officers could pretty much do what they wished without fear of punishment or indictment. In April, Cooley repeated his pledge, vowing to take the Rampart probe "as high, wide and deep as the facts indicate."

So, why has he stopped looking for "the facts" so soon? Despite the furor over the Rampart police corruption scandal, there still has been no official investigation of the Police Department's 17 other divisions, although scores of credible cases of police abuse were documented as far back as 1991 in the Christopher Commission report, and complaints against cops continue to be made. As for what happened at Rampart, we have only the LAPD's own self-serving inquiry, limited to the division's anti-gang unit, and one by the Police Commission that was more concerned with making recommendations than investigating misconduct.

The anterooms of civil rights attorneys, meanwhile, remain filled with victims of Rampart-style police abuse. And the implications of the cases already in the pipeline are extremely serious. They suggest that the abuses carried out by Rampart's anti-gang unit were known about high up in the LAPD chain of command and that such misconduct was widespread in the entire Rampart division. But we will never know the truth of these and other allegations because Cooley, in announcing the end of his investigation, has removed any incentive for potential or current suspect officers to disclose misconduct going on at Rampart or any other division in the department.

The reasons that Cooley has retreated from aggressively pursuing abusive cops seem to have more to do with local politics than with justice.

Since Sept. 11, public esteem for the police has shot way up, while the desire to put their conduct under a microscope has all but disappeared. Cops, after all, have become our front line against terrorists. Accordingly, there is little political advantage for Cooley to continue the Rampart investigation, especially since L.A. Mayor James K. Hahn, Chief of Police Bernard C. Parks and the Police Protective League all want Rampart assigned to the dustbin of history.

Hahn signaled his attitude toward police reform--and, indirectly, toward the Rampart investigation--with his appointments to the Police Commission of four members who have no reputation for and little interest in the kinds of reforms that would curb police abuse. (The panel's fifth member, Bert Boeckmann, whom Hahn reappointed, has displayed scant interest in the issue as well.) Hahn also owes a political debt to the city's African American community, which heavily supported his candidacy. His reappointment of Parks, who remains popular among L.A.'s blacks, as chief next year would help with that task. Finally, a continuing and expanded probe of police abuse could prove embarrassing to Hahn. As city attorney, he never pressed the hard questions about why police-abuse lawsuits seemed to have a distinctive pattern or why the LAPD never changed the policies, training and culture that many outsiders, including the Christopher Commission, believed were at the root of the department's misconduct problems. Instead, Hahn dutifully paid out some $100 million to settle police-abuse lawsuits against the city during his watch.

From the day the Rampart scandal broke, Parks has successfully limited any "outside" investigation of his department. Throughout, he decided which information would reach the D.A.'s office, and thus largely shaped the outcome of the probe. For the police chief, who's up for reappointment next June, Cooley's announcement could not have been more welcome news. Six or seven months is a long time in politics--certainly plenty of time for voters and the media to have forgotten Rampart.

Cooley, too, benefits from dropping the Rampart probe. He will be able to solidify his relationship with a still powerful and very shrewd chief of police. As important, he enhances his strong relationship with the Police Protective League. The last thing Cooley wants is to rile the league, which, with great energy and effectiveness, supported him in the last election.

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