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Police Are Rarely Prosecuted Unless Case Is Bulletproof

Legal protections set the bar high. But critics say reluctance to go to trial can erode public confidence in the system.

December 09, 2005|Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writer

The fatal shooting by a Los Angeles police officer of 13-year-old car-theft suspect Devin Brown is the latest in a string of controversial law enforcement cases that Los Angeles County prosecutors have declined to prosecute.

Of 442 officer-involved shootings reviewed since January 2001, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley has not brought a single criminal case. And only three of 314 alleged excessive-force cases examined in the same period spurred criminal charges, according to office spokeswoman Jane Robison.

Critics say Cooley and other district attorneys have undermined public confidence by shying away from prosecuting officers who cross the line.

"It's true you can't always second-guess police officers, but when you don't file any cases it doesn't promote confidence in the justice system," said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California.

But experts say broad legal protections, as well as the public's admiration, make prosecuting law enforcement officers extremely difficult. Police are allowed to use deadly force if they reasonably think their lives are in danger, a factor Cooley's office cited in deciding against charges for Los Angeles Police Department Officer Steve Garcia in Brown's shooting in South Los Angeles earlier this year.

The few criminal cases prosecutors have unleashed against police met with near or total defeat.

Rioting followed a Simi Valley jury's 1992 acquittal of four LAPD officers in the beating of motorist Rodney King. A second jury eventually convicted two of the officers in federal court of violating King's civil rights.

Cooley earlier this year dropped charges against an Inglewood police officer after two juries deadlocked on excessive-force charges for slamming a teenager against the trunk of his patrol car.

"It's an easy out for them, but it happens to be true," said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor. "Who's going to want to be a police officer if every action can be second-guessed and land you in jail? These are controversial cases, and people are disturbed by use of force, but it doesn't make it criminal."

The last Los Angeles police officer convicted of criminal charges was Ronald Orosco, who pleaded guilty to shooting an unarmed motorist in 2000 during a dispute over a traffic citation. Orosco was sentenced to five years in state prison.

Some of the other cases considered by Los Angeles prosecutors include:

* Stanley Miller: In a case that drew comparisons to the King beating, television news helicopters captured footage of Officer John J. Hatfield pummeling African American car-theft suspect Miller along the bank of Compton Creek. The incident occurred June 23, 2004, at the end of a 21-mile car chase.

After Miller raised his arms in apparent surrender, several officers tackled him. Hatfield then delivered 11 blows with his metal flashlight and kneed him several times.

Prosecutors declined to press charges, citing insufficient evidence that Hatfield acted without "lawful necessity." In evaluating the incident, prosecutors said several officers believed that Miller had a gun. Prosecutors also said Miller's injuries were not serious.

Then-Mayor James K. Hahn and activists were critical of the decision. LAPD Chief William J. Bratton announced that the department would phase out large metal flashlights. Hatfield eventually was fired.

* Donovan Jackson: On July 6, 2002, Inglewood police Officers Bijan Darvish and Jeremy Morse asked 16-year-old Jackson to sit in a squad car outside a gas station convenience store while officers issued his father a ticket for expired tags. When Jackson, who was developmentally disabled, failed to comply, Morse was captured on video wrestling the teen to the ground, handcuffing him, punching him in the face and slamming his body onto the trunk of a patrol car. Morse said he resorted to force after Jackson grabbed his testicles.

The incident sparked a nationwide outcry and claims of police brutality, as well as criticism from then-U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft. Morse, who is white, was indicted by a grand jury on a state charge of assault under the color of authority. After two separate juries deadlocked on the charge, Cooley's office dropped the case

A civil jury later awarded the Inglewood officers $2.4 million, finding that they had been unfairly disciplined by the Inglewood Police Department. The Jackson family settled its federal civil rights lawsuit against the city.

* Anthony Dwain Lee: LAPD Officer Tarriel Hopper responded to a noise complaint at a Halloween party in a Benedict Canyon residence Oct. 28, 2000. Hopper, who said he thought he saw a man pointing a semiautomatic handgun at him, fired nine times, fatally striking Lee, a 39-year-old actor, once in the head.

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