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Recent Cases Suggest Code of Silence Is Fading

July 22, 2002|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two months before Inglewood Police Officer Jeremy Morse was indicted in the videotaped beating of a 16-year-old boy, an officer in neighboring Manhattan Beach was charged with assaulting a young suspect.

But unlike the incident in Inglewood, there were no videotapes, no rallies demanding justice, no mayors calling for felony charges and no allegations of racism. What spurred the criminal investigation in Manhattan Beach was other officers, who told supervisors they believed their colleague, Eric Eccles, had used excessive force. The police chief reviewed their reports and called the district attorney's office that day.

The Manhattan Beach case, though it did not draw attention comparable to the Inglewood incident, illustrates the responsibility that officers have to watch one another--and to report to authorities when they see apparent misconduct by their colleagues.

"I did what I did because it's the right thing to do, even though it's a very difficult thing to do," said Sgt. Rob Cochran, a 12-year veteran who saw the incident and reported it. "But I have a responsibility, and I take my responsibility wholeheartedly."

The Los Angeles County Grand Jury indicted Eccles, a three-year Manhattan Beach police officer, in May on charges of assault by a public officer and filing a false police report. He was one of six law enforcement officers in the last two years to be indicted by the grand jury in connection with an assault or shooting, according to the district attorney's office.

Eccles, who has pleaded not guilty, could face three years and eight months in state prison if convicted.

Eccles' attorney, Bill Seki, said his client is innocent on both charges, maintaining that the police report is accurate and that Daniel Chance resisted arrest. Seki cited grand jury testimony from another officer, Sgt. Mark Mason, who saw the end of the incident and described it as a struggle.

"We believe that when we go to trial, the full facts of the case will come to light," he said. "It will become clear that what occurred that night was not unlawful conduct on my client's behalf."

Seki said he believes the other officers misperceived the incident and that Eccles was the only one in a position to see exactly what happened.

Because of controls put in place after the 1991 Rodney G. King beating and other high-profile shootings and beatings by officers across the country, police experts say, officers now usually report the use of force. In Inglewood, officers reported that the boy had been punched, though they did not include the fact that he had been slammed against a patrol car.

But many police still aren't as willing to take the next step: to say they believe the force used by colleagues was inappropriate or excessive, experts say. That is changing, slowly, they add, because of stricter policies, harsher discipline, tighter supervision and the use of dashboard video monitors.

Increasing ethnic and gender diversity in police forces has also cut away at the solidarity and old boys networks that used to prevail in many departments, experts add. And of course, there is the lingering fear that any action may be videotaped or observed by a neighbor, and that an officer may be targeted in a misconduct probe.

"[Reporting] is becoming more common for many reasons, most significantly because it's much harder to cover up," said William Geller, a criminologist who worked for the U.S. Department of Justice studying police use of deadly force. "Nobody knows when they might be on candid camera.... Even if you don't have a video camera, you have a public that has a heightened sensitivity."

LAPD Capt. Gregory Meyer, who testified before the grand jury in the Manhattan Beach case, said some officers are inspired to do the right thing, while others just don't want to lose their jobs. "When push comes to shove, people act in their self-interest," said Meyer, who often serves as an expert witness on the use of police force. "But they are also realizing that it is in their self-interest to cooperate with investigators."

Departments still have a long way to go, some say, before it becomes business as usual for officers to report unreasonable use of force.

"The code of silence is real," said Assistant Head Deputy Dist. Atty. John Gilligan, who presented the Eccles case to the grand jury. "We've certainly seen people who have been retaliated against for stepping forward."

The Manhattan Beach incident occurred just after midnight Dec. 29, when Eccles and another officer pulled over a car on Rosecrans Avenue, according to testimony given to the grand jury.

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