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THE RAMPART SCANDAL

LAPD Probe Fades Into Oblivion

The investigation that gripped the city is all but over, though far from done.

August 11, 2003|Matt Lait and Scott Glover | Times Staff Writers

Nearly four years after Rafael Perez told investigators that corruption and brutality had become commonplace at the LAPD's Rampart Division, authorities acknowledge that they did not get to the bottom of his allegations and that officers suspected of committing crimes remain on the job.

Feuding among top officials, cursory investigations by some detectives and a pervasive police "code of silence" all helped to undermine the Rampart probe, a Times investigation found.

Asked if he was satisfied that the LAPD had thoroughly investigated the scandal, Police Commissioner Rick Caruso, until recently president of the commission, responded: "No -- quite the opposite."

Bill Hodgman, a top prosecutor on the D.A.'s task force, said his "greatest frustration is that I don't feel like we got to the bottom of it."

Newly obtained confidential law enforcement documents, internal correspondence from the Los Angeles Police Department and the district attorney's office and interviews with more than a dozen prosecutors and detectives have shed new light on the efforts to unravel the Rampart scandal and on the reasons why those efforts fell short.

They reveal that:

* Police and prosecutors, who were supposed to be working together, instead fought almost from the start. More than a year into the investigation, relations had deteriorated to the point that prosecutors called LAPD detectives before a grand jury to determine whether they or their superiors were intentionally hindering the prosecution of fellow officers. No indictments were ever issued.

* Over the objections of prosecutors, LAPD detectives routinely forced officers suspected of committing crimes to cooperate with administrative investigations. The practice made criminal prosecution of those officers all but impossible because statements they made in departmental proceedings could not be used against them in court.

* At the request of prosecutors, judges overturned the convictions of more than 100 defendants because of alleged criminal conduct by police. But the officers responsible were charged in only a handful of those cases and, in more than 30, prosecutors dropped the cases without any public explanation.

* Last year, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley disbanded his Rampart task force with a report that minimized the extent of the scandal and failed to address many of Perez's allegations. Cooley, for example, made no mention of eight out of 10 shootings by police that Perez alleged had been unjustified and had been covered up.

The Rampart scandal began in September 1999 when Perez pleaded guilty to charges that he had stolen three kilos of cocaine from LAPD evidence facilities. In exchange for a five-year sentence, Perez promised to tell authorities about an unarmed man whom he and another officer had shot and subsequently framed. He also promised to identify corrupt officers.

Since then, Perez and seven other officers from the Rampart Division's so-called CRASH anti-gang unit have been convicted of corruption-related offenses as a result of information he brought to light. Three of those convictions were overturned by a judge on procedural grounds in a case that remains on appeal.

More than a dozen officers who were under investigation either resigned or were fired. The city has paid $42 million in civil settlements to defendants allegedly victimized by police misconduct and expects to pay tens of millions more.

As the scandal unfolded, officials from the Police Department and the district attorney's office vowed, not only to investigate Perez's claims, but also to provide a full public accounting.

The LAPD has never produced such a report, despite repeated requests from the Police Commission, the civilian panel that oversees the Police Department.

As a result, the commission and Chief William J. Bratton recently agreed to have a panel of outsiders, headed by civil rights lawyer Connie Rice, review the LAPD's handling of the Rampart investigation.

Cooley, who inherited the scandal when he took office in December 2000, sought last November to fulfill his pledge to account for his office's role in the investigation. He released memos by prosecutors that analyzed the evidence in 82 Rampart-related cases and explained why criminal charges had not been filed against police officers.

Press releases accompanying Cooley's report seemed to cast doubt on Perez, referring to the "so-called Rampart scandal" in which the ex-officer had "told tales of evidence-planting, false police reports and, in some cases, assaults and shootings of gang members."

A Times review, however, found that the district attorney's report had addressed only a fraction of the cases in which Perez claimed to have witnessed criminal acts by fellow officers.

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