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Law and order in L.A. County

The LAPD won't investigate cops who tamper with recording units. A Santa Monica High wrestling coach shouldn't be messed with. A head-scarf phone case rocks Glendale.

April 08, 2014|Steve Lopez
  • Lena Khan was given a traffic ticket in Glendale for talking on her cellphone, which was tucked into her head scarf, while driving. She's fighting it.
Lena Khan was given a traffic ticket in Glendale for talking on her cellphone,… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

In Los Angeles, patrol officers are caught disabling recording equipment that was in place to keep them honest.

In Santa Monica, a high school student demonstrates why the wrestling coach is the last faculty member to mess with.

And in Glendale, a young woman challenges the definition of "hands-free" driving after getting a ticket for talking on a phone tucked into her head scarf.

These three police blotter tales have little in common, except that I've assembled them in a nice spring bouquet, along with a prickly observation or two.

First the LAPD.

Two weeks ago, my colleague Joel Rubin reported that LAPD Chief Charlie Beck suspended a cop despite a disciplinary board recommendation that he be fired for off-duty transgressions and for lying about them to Los Angeles Police Department investigators. Now Beck has taken aim and shot himself in the other foot just before his contract comes up for renewal.

On Tuesday, Rubin reported that Beck chose not to investigate a case involving officers who disabled voice recording equipment in roughly 50 patrol cars.

So why would cops disable the audio systems? I'm not a detective, but I'm guessing they didn't want anyone to hear how they conducted themselves on the job.

Well, here's the problem with that:

Using the recording devices isn't optional. They're in place to discourage police misconduct as well as to protect cops against false claims by citizens, and they were one of the safeguards established when the U.S. Justice Department lifted its oversight of the department.

Not to mention that most of the patrol cars in question were based in the Southeast Division, where there's been a history of complaints against police and years of work by Beck and others to rebuild community trust.

So how could the LAPD justify anything short of a top-to-bottom investigation into such widespread insubordination?

Police say they warned cops to shape up and put new protocols in place to prevent further tampering. But so many officers had used the cars that were tampered with that trying to find those who sabotaged the equipment would have been futile.

"There were literally hundreds of officers in those cars," LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith told me, adding that it was impossible to know whether "one person or three people or 33 people" might have messed with the equipment. Smith said that rather than spend countless hours investigating who was responsible, it seemed prudent to prevent future abuses.

Understood, but that's a dangerous admission. If someone breaks into my house, are the police going to tell me there are so many potential perps that they won't investigate?

"If someone is tampering with [police] cars, that in itself is a crime," said Rob Saltzman, a member of the Police Commission. "OK, it's difficult to do an investigation. I understand that. But to me, that doesn't mean you don't do an investigation."

Even more disconcerting, Saltzman said, was that Beck's command staff kept the commission in the dark after learning of the tampering last summer. He intends to demand an explanation.

Ten-four that.

::

Now, on to SaMo.

It's not clear exactly what led to the physical altercation last week at Santa Monica High between a teacher and student who may or may not have been in possession of drugs. The scrum between science teacher/wrestling coach Mark Black and a student was captured on video, and there was no shortage of opinions about whether Black — a pretty good wrestler — was a hero or a hot-head.

Black's behavior was "unacceptable," said the district superintendent, who later backed off her assessment.

Others sided with the popular teacher, saying he was trying to protect students and the school from a bad element.

It may be a while before we know the whole truth. But Santa Monica-Malibu Unified school board member Oscar de la Torre, a former student and employee of the school, describes a culture of alcohol and drug abuse that's just plain unacceptable, even if it's not unique among high schools.

"I would say that last year we probably had between nine and 12 expulsions and suspensions" for possession or sale of drugs, said De la Torre, who runs the Pico Youth and Family Center near the school and said he hears kids talk about how easy it is to buy drugs in an alley near campus.

De la Torre told me that Black — who was placed on administrative leave — was his marine biology teacher 15 years ago, and he defended him as a "good and fair person" who had been "a father figure to a lot of young men." He said he thought Black was trying to subdue rather than hurt the student, who was arrested along with a classmate after the altercation. But De la Torre said the district has to establish clear policy on when a teacher can "put a hand on a student" rather than call school security.

Seems to me it needs, first and foremost, to get on top of the drug and alcohol problem De la Torre describes.

::

And finally, on to Glendale, which just can't help serving up column fodder.

It was Feb. 20, and Lena Khan, a young director, was leaving a meeting with a producer in Glendale. She dialed her husband as she walked to her car, and then — as is her habit — stuck the phone into the folds of her hijab, or head scarf, and talked as she drove.

Until a Glendale cop pulled her over.

She was hands-free, Khan argued. Tell it to the judge, the cop said.

And she has, in a trial by written declaration.

"While the law only requires that the phone be used in a manner allowing 'hands-free listening and talking,' it is noteworthy that unlike a typical Bluetooth headset, my hands-free system requires far less use of one's hands," wrote Khan, a Muslim who said she knows lots of women who place their phones in their scarves.

I think I'm with her on this, and I'll let you know how the case of the hijab headset turns out.

That's it, and don't say I never send you flowers.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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