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Case Not Closed Yet for LAPD

Despite progress since the Rampart scandal, the department still falls short of goals that would end U.S. oversight.

April 20, 2006|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

In the five years since the Rampart Division corruption scandal stunned the city and voided more than 100 criminal convictions, the Los Angeles Police Department has struggled to reform itself under a controversial court decree.

Officers today face more rigorous training and supervision, confidential informants are monitored more closely, and use-of-force incidents are more thoroughly investigated.

Yet, by its own admission, the department has fallen short in important areas.

As a result, U.S. District Judge Gary A. Feess is expected as early as May 15 to extend the five-year federal consent decree for at least two more years, a move that would not only embarrass city officials and LAPD brass but serve as a costly and continuing distraction.

LAPD officials say the city has substantially complied with 149 of the 191 consent decree mandates agreed to under threat of a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice. And beyond the strict requirements of the decree itself, the LAPD has tallied other signs of improvement -- use of force has declined relative to arrests, and crime has dropped year after year.

A federal monitor assigned to review the progress also credits the LAPD with gains but paints a less rosy picture. Monitor Michael Cherkasky puts the number of mandates met at 121.

And left undone, Cherkasky says, is the single reform that could make the biggest difference: a computer system -- dubbed TEAMS II -- that would track vast amounts of performance data, from the number of times officers fire their weapons to the number of citizen complaints they incur.

The city is already spending more than $10 million per year and dedicating 110 officers and civilians to the task of bringing the LAPD into compliance. And the current costs include an $11-million, five-year contract with risk consultants Kroll Inc., Cherkasky's firm.

In addition to the Rampart decree, the LAPD operates under nine other court orders struck to ward off lawsuits either threatened or filed, some dating to 1980. Two, for example, prodded the department to reshape its once-lily-white ranks into a force more reflective of the city's racial diversity.

But Police Chief William J. Bratton says it may have been unrealistic for the city to have agreed to achieve all the Rampart reforms in five years.

"In hindsight, it might have been an overly ambitious calendar goal for what proved to be an incredibly complex set of initiatives, all of them depending on the crown jewel of the TEAMS II computer system," Bratton said. "When it was created, nobody fully understood the complexities of what they were creating."

Some city officials and civil rights leaders say they are baffled as to why the department has failed to comply across the board.

"It's just unacceptable," said City Councilman Jose Huizar. "Five years is more than enough time to get this done."

Catherine Lhamon, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the LAPD's failure to meet all requirements "bespeaks a lack of full commitment."

Although the cost of extending the decree could make it tougher for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to balance a budget already facing a roughly $270-million shortfall, he said he remains committed to living up to the agreement.

"Complying with the consent decree and reforming our department is essential, and we are going to work real hard to meet those requirements," Villaraigosa said.

The 93-page decree requires the city to improve how police officers are trained, supervised, transferred, investigated and disciplined, and how they use informants, handle drug contraband, process citizen complaints and fight street gangs.

In the Rampart scandal, members of the LAPD's Rampart Division anti-gang unit were accused of shooting and beating suspects, planting evidence and using confidential informants without registering them with the department, leaving their reliability unchecked.

One officer, Rafael Perez, admitted that he and a partner obtained an assault rifle from an informant and shaved off the serial number before planting the weapon on a wounded man. In another case, officers were accused of providing crack cocaine to an informant in exchange for information.

A review of cases handled by the rogue officers caused more than 100 criminal convictions to be overturned, and about a dozen LAPD officers resigned or were fired. The city also paid $70 million to settle lawsuits by more than 200 people, many of them suspected drug dealers and gang members who alleged that they were shot, beaten or framed.

Jeffrey Eglash, who was inspector general for the Los Angeles Police Commission when the decree was signed, said one of the most important reforms implemented involves the department's handling of serious use-of-force cases, including officer-involved shootings.

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