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Roots of a Breakdown

August 14, 2003

Conventional wisdom holds that, after nearly four years, the public may never learn how widely the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart scandal extended beyond that division's since-disbanded anti-gang unit. So the city's civilian Police Commission has moved on to the next question: Why not?

The LAPD is not the only department that should be asking itself that. A story in Monday's Times traced some of the Rampart scandal's still unanswered questions to the office of Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley.

The revelations that emerged in September 1999, about a largely unsupervised anti-gang unit in which officers allegedly beat suspects, planted evidence and covered up unjustified shootings, have resulted in more than 100 overturned convictions. They have cost city taxpayers more than $40 million to settle claims by victims of police abuse.

To be sure, Cooley inherited the scandal and an already fraying investigation from his predecessor, Gil Garcetti. Confidential documents and internal memos uncovered by Times reporters Matt Lait and Scott Glover show that prosecutors and police fought rather than cooperating, to the point that prosecutors, convinced that detectives were withholding information, had them questioned by a grand jury.

Cooley swept into office after making Garcetti's handling of the Rampart probe "the issue of this campaign." Yet, once elected, he seemed eager to end the investigation. His final report on why his office hadn't filed further charges addressed only a fraction of the claims made by disgraced cop Rafael Perez.

Monday's Times story disclosed missed opportunities. With time to press charges already running out, Cooley lost more time by assigning new prosecutors to take over the investigation and failing to tap the expertise of Garcetti holdovers.

Cooley has instituted some needed reforms. He created a special unit to prosecute corrupt cops and developed new guidelines for prosecutors to follow in police misconduct cases. But he largely dismissed two dozen other recommendations made in April by a Los Angeles County Bar Assn. panel that looked into how the criminal justice system contributed to the Rampart scandal.

The suggestions ranged from simply making sure that defense attorneys had a place to interview their clients in private to requiring the district attorney to keep a database of problem cops.

The Police Commission has asked civil rights lawyer Connie Rice to investigate the LAPD's investigation, to see why it didn't get to the bottom of the Rampart scandal. Cooley should answer the same question, not to assign blame but to understand the roots of the breakdown.

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