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Tough Talk Isn't Enough

March 04, 2003

Voters elected Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley in part because of his tough talk on his predecessor's handling of the Rampart police corruption probe and the Belmont Learning Complex fiasco. Two years later, he has delivered a reminder that campaign promises are more easily made than kept.

To be sure, Cooley didn't have to take on Belmont, the monument to ineptitude erected by the Los Angeles Unified School District just west of downtown. The unfinished high school was built on an abandoned oil field without a full environmental review. The recent discovery that it also sits on an earthquake fault most likely dooms any chance that the $175-million structure, intended to relieve desperate overcrowding, will ever be used as a school.

As a candidate, Cooley deemed former Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti's decision not to prosecute anyone for Belmont a "whitewash." After his election, Cooley laudably enough promised a new review.

But the task force's four-month deadline dragged into two years -- which might have made sense if it had uncovered anything. Released Monday, the 220-page report offered such obvious suggestions as "LAUSD must develop a more open and efficient process that promotes public confidence."

Cooley's lack of follow-through on Rampart is more disturbing. The September 1999 revelations about an out-of-control anti-gang unit in which officers allegedly beat suspects, planted evidence and covered up unjustified shootings have resulted in more than 100 overturned convictions and cost city taxpayers more than $40 million to settle claims by victims of police abuse. Then-candidate Cooley declared the scandal to be "the issue of this campaign" and rightly took Garcetti to task for not being proactive in prosecuting police corruption.

Cooley did institute some needed reforms. He created a special unit to prosecute corrupt police officers and devised guidelines for prosecutors to follow when they suspect police misconduct, all aimed toward avoiding Rampart-type scandals. Yet he was overly eager to "close the book" on the investigation itself. One wag said the district attorney must have read the Cliffs Notes version of the Rampart book.

Three months ago, he said he would not file further charges because one of the two key figures in the case, former Officer Nino Durden, implicated only himself and his partner. But a story in Saturday's Times quotes previously unpublished transcripts that show Durden in fact fingered eight other officers, three of whom remain on active duty.

Two high-ranking prosecutors from Cooley's office were present at the debriefing and now acknowledge that the district attorney's characterization was, as one put it, "inartfully written."

Translation: It was wrong.

Cooley's no-nonsense campaign talk was inspiring for voters, who elected him in 2000 as a reformer. Midway into his first term, it's time for less tough talk and more tough action.

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