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LAPD Still at Risk of Scandal Despite Reform, Panel Says

A task force urges the department to add officers and replace `warrior policing' with methods that are community-friendly.

July 12, 2006|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

Despite extensive reform in the seven years since the Rampart Division police corruption scandal, Los Angeles is at risk of similar crises unless the LAPD is significantly expanded and trades its "warrior policing" model for a more community- friendly problem-solving style, a city task force warned today.

The Blue Ribbon Rampart Review Panel set out to provide a final accounting of what city officials characterize as one of the most serious police corruption scandals in American history.

Nine officers were criminally charged and 23 were fired or suspended, 156 felony convictions were invalidated due to suspected police misconduct and the city paid $70 million to settle civil rights lawsuits brought by victims.

Yet even now, the panel found, police supervisors fail to provide adequate oversight and control of officers -- a key problem in the Rampart scandal. And the panel faulted the criminal justice system in Los Angeles for lacking sufficient checks to prevent officers from lying or fabricating evidence.

The panel was appointed in 2003 by the city's Police Commission at the request of Chief William J. Bratton to examine the LAPD's response to allegations of widespread abuse by officers from the Rampart Division's Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) unit, which was formed to crack down on street gangs.

The report represents a major challenge for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is already struggling to increase the police force by 1,000 officers over the next five years -- but would have to hire three times that number to meet the goal set by Bratton's Plan of Action, which is endorsed by the report.

The findings -- a three-part document including 117 pages of narrative and recommendations, plus a half-inch thick appendix -- will be discussed in a special Police Commission meeting Thursday.

The panel of legal experts interviewed 270 witnesses, including current and former police officers, civil rights leaders, defense attorneys, prosecutors and police experts, according to Chairwoman Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney.

Perhaps the group's most surprising discovery, the report said, is that the Rampart Division has performed a dramatic transformation. Supervisors dismantled the gang unit, imposed strict standards and pioneered "a promising, community-backed crime-fighting model."

A new division captain began installing "the smartest, most seasoned and mature officers he knew from across the department." And intimidation tactics were replaced with "problem-solving" ventures with businesses and community leaders with the specific goal of cleaning up crime-plagued MacArthur Park. Within six months, crime in the park plunged 45%.

But turning that new Rampart model into a department standard could prove daunting, the panel said.

"The verdict from scores of officers is in: Most post-scandal reforms currently being implemented are useful, but they will be insufficient to lock in current successes, prevent another CRASH crisis, resolve LAPD's long-standing problems or begin to close the public-police trust gap in high crime areas," the report concluded.

"A significant number of LAPD's most knowledgeable commanders, officers and leaders of the rank-and-file interviewed by this panel concur with outside critics that these goals will require much deeper changes within LAPD -- and a complete overhaul of the city's deficient 'thin blue line' public safety model," the report said.

If the LAPD and city leaders maintain the status quo, the panel warns, the city will be "on peril's edge" whenever there is a police controversy.

In an interview, Rice said the LAPD remains at risk of additional police abuse, corruption and even unrest in minority communities unless immediate action is taken to change the course for the department.

South Bureau, a district that abuts Rampart and extends south from the Santa Monica Freeway to the Port of Los Angeles "is hanging by a thread," she said. "I would not be surprised if something were to blow there this summer."

The panel was appointed after city officials and critics voiced frustration over the inadequacy of the department's own internal investigation.

The six-member panel was harshly critical of the LAPD's internal probe, saying that it failed to provide a comprehensive picture of what misconduct occurred in the CRASH unit.

"Due to inadvertence, incompetence and/or intent, LAPD did not design investigations capable of determining the true extent of corruption," the report found, faulting the City Council for twice rejecting calls for an independent investigation.

In response, one of the panel's 28 recommendations is that an outside group be given the task of investigating any future police abuse.

Other recommendations include overhauling the police disciplinary system, expanding the size and independence of the commission's inspector general office, conducting a performance audit of the county's criminal justice system and creating a task force to push police reform in the LAPD.

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