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4 Bills Passed to Curb Police Abuses

Assembly OKs measures inspired by videotaped beating of Inglewood teen to reduce brutality by officers and make it easier to file complaints.

June 07, 2003|Monte Morin | Times Staff Writer

The state Assembly on Friday approved four bills, inspired by the videotaped beating of a teenager by Inglewood police last year, that backers hope will reduce officer brutality and make it easier for the public to file complaints.

The bills were written by a commission of legal experts and community activists brought together by Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City).

One bill would require police departments to create so-called "early intervention systems" to help identify problem officers by monitoring behavior patterns and offering counseling to those in need.

Proponents of the legislation say that it would foster better relations between police and residents -- relations that were frayed in Inglewood on July 6 when a bystander videotaped an altercation between police officers and a 16-year-old they were arresting, Donovan Jackson.

The gas station encounter shows Officer Jeremy Morse slamming the handcuffed youth onto the trunk of a patrol car and then striking him. The incident provoked expressions of outrage nationwide.

Wesson's 18-member panel included USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law expert, and activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the National Alliance for Positive Action, which monitors allegations of police abuse.

On Friday, Hutchinson said he was heartened to see the Legislature take action on the panel's recommendations, but said the legislation was far from a cure-all.

"It seems to be the gist of the recommendations, but it's really only the tip of the iceberg," Hutchinson said.

"The main issue has always been excessive force, and unless you address that, it's just window dressing."

Community activists also said they were pleased with the Assembly's action, but said the real test is still to come when the state Senate and Gov. Gray Davis take up the measures.

The bills were opposed by many Republican lawmakers in the Assembly as well as by some police officers' organizations that say the new requirements are not necessary.

"It's one small step, but it's a step in the right direction," said Najee Ali, national director of Project Islamic Hope, a nonprofit civil rights organization.

"The litmus test will be whether Davis signs these bills. The issue here is that the governor gets large contributions from police unions as well as prison unions, so I don't think we want to rush to judgment and say this is going to be the cure for police abuse. If he doesn't sign, it only amounts to feel-good legislation."

The measures approved Friday were:

* AB 1331, which would require the state attorney general's office to establish and monitor a whistle-blower program for police officers. Wesson's office said that officers who might otherwise report illegal behavior on the part of other officers avoid doing so because they fear harassment or retaliation by fellow officers. The bill would open harassers up to criminal prosecution, and would take effect in January 2005.

* AB 1119, which would require law enforcement agencies to create an automated early warning system that would monitor complaints and incidents involving officers and alert departments to patterns of inappropriate behavior. If approved, the measure also would take effect in January 2005.

* AB 1077, which would require police agencies to allow people to make complaints in a manner other than appearing in person at the police department, such as by fax machine, telephone or e-mail. Backers said some victims might feel intimidated about going to a police station.

* AB 1383, which would require peace officers to take cultural sensitivity refresher courses every three years instead of every five years as now mandated. The bill also would entitle law officers to one consultation every four years with a licensed mental health counselor.

"I formed this commission with a clear determination to take action, protect the civil rights of every Californian and provide additional support for the dedicated professionals who risk their lives every day to protect us all," Wesson said in a statement.

The incident that prompted the legislation also has resulted in civil and criminal charges against some officers involved and the city of Inglewood. Morse, who was fired, has been charged with assault under the color of authority. His partner, Bijan Darvish, was suspended and faces charges of filing a false police report about the incident. In February, both officers filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming that they were victims of a "witch hunt" and that "a form of hysteria swept the mayor's office and the chief of police."

The officers allege that they were punished much more harshly for their role in the arrest than a black officer, Willie Crook, who was suspended for four days even though, according to the lawsuit, he struck Jackson, who also is black, with a flashlight and failed to report it. No charges were filed against Crook.

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