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Times reaffirms decision that Ted Rall's blog post did not meet its standards

A blog post by political cartoonist Ted Rall, and a subsequent note to readers by Nicholas Goldberg, editor of The Times’ editorial pages, have occasioned questions from readers. Below is a detailed look at the matter by Times editors. -- Deirdre Edgar, readers' representative

Rall is a freelance cartoonist and commentator whose work has appeared in The Times’ Opinion pages.

On May 11, he published a post on The Times’ OpinionLA blog in which he criticized as excessive a police crackdown on jaywalking. In the post, Rall described being ticketed for jaywalking years earlier by a Los Angeles police officer. He wrote that the officer “threw me up against the wall, slapped on the cuffs, roughed me up and wrote me a ticket.”

The Los Angeles Police Department challenged Rall’s account and provided documents and a tape recording of the 2001 encounter that indicate the officer did not use force against Rall and treated him politely. The Times interviewed Rall about the discrepancies between the police records and tape recording and his blog post.

Finding his explanations unsatisfactory, The Times decided that the post did not meet its standards. Goldberg said in a note to readers July 28 that the LAPD records and other evidence “raise serious questions about the accuracy” of the blog post, and that Rall’s work would no longer appear in The Times.

Rall has complained that The Times acted unjustly, based on flawed evidence. He has demanded that the paper retract its note to readers and reinstate him as a contributor.

In response, The Times has reexamined the evidence and found no basis to change its decision.

Among the material reviewed was Rall’s original complaint to the LAPD, written days after the jaywalking stop, when the encounter was fresh in his mind. In the letter, Rall accused the officer of rudeness but not of any physical abuse.

In published accounts years later, including his OpinionLA post, Rall added allegations that the officer handcuffed and manhandled him, that a crowd of two dozen onlookers shouted in protest at the mistreatment and that a second officer arrived and ordered his colleague to let Rall go.

The Times also had two forensic audio experts analyze the LAPD recording after Rall asserted that background voices, which he said were audible on a version enhanced for him by sound technicians, supported his account. Rall has insisted that two women can be heard objecting to the officer’s handcuffing of him.

The experts engaged by The Times, in separate assessments, said they could not hear any mention of handcuffs. Both also said they found no indication that — as Rall has asserted — the LAPD recording was edited, spliced or otherwise altered to conceal misconduct by the officer.

Rall has written repeatedly that the LAPD ignored his original complaint. Department records show that investigators looked into his allegations, questioned the officer who ticketed Rall, listened to the recording and tried repeatedly to reach Rall. Then-Police Chief Bernard C. Parks sent Rall a letter informing him that an investigation had determined his allegations were unfounded.

Following is a review of the controversy, the LAPD documents, Rall’s accounts and other information on which The Times based its decision.

The jaywalking stop

On the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2001, a motorcycle officer named Willie Durr cited Rall for jaywalking — crossing against a “don’t walk” signal — on Melrose Avenue near Gardner Street in the Fairfax District.

Twelve days later, Rall sent a complaint to the LAPD, saying he had not jaywalked and that Durr became “belligerent and hostile” when Rall asked him how to deal with the citation.

Rall said Durr refused to answer when asked if the ticket could be paid by mail and then threw Rall’s driver's license into the gutter.

In the letter, dated Oct. 15, 2001, Rall asked the department to consider dismissing Durr, whom he described as “an ill-tempered excuse for a police officer.”

Rall said Durr exhibited “vile rudeness.” He compared the officer unfavorably to Taliban fighters who he said had detained him briefly while he was on a reporting trip “near the Afghan war zone.”

In the letter, Rall did not accuse Durr of using force against him or putting him in handcuffs.

Rall’s subsequent accounts

Rall has offered varying descriptions of the jaywalking stop since then.

In 2005, in a column published in the Boise Weekly under the headline “Police perjurers — throw lying cops off the force,” the cartoonist railed against what he described as pervasive police dishonesty. He cited his jaywalking case as an example, writing that Durr handcuffed and ticketed him even though he had crossed the street legally with a “walk” signal.

He said the LAPD “repeatedly ignored my complaints about this unprofessional goon.”

In a 2006 post on his personal blog, Rall invoked the jaywalking ticket as an example of how police abuse citizens and get away with it: “An African-American cop cuffed me, threw me up against the wall and roughed me up before writing me a ticket and letting me go.”

Rall wrote: “I was polite. I didn’t resist. I’m not stupid; the guy has the legal right to shoot me. Anyway, I filed an Internal Affairs complaint. Guess what happened?

“If you’re black and reading this, you know the answer: Nada. Cops get away with murder all the time.”

Rall revisited the encounter in a 2009 column, headlined “Everyone hates the cops,” in which he wrote, “I admit it: I don’t like cops.” Rall said he couldn’t “point to a single positive experience I’ve ever had with a cop,” adding that he’d had “lots and lots of negative ones.”

He cited, among other examples, his 2001 jaywalking ticket. He wrote that Durr roughed him up and threw his wallet — not merely his license — into the sewer, and that the officer then “laughed and zoomed off on his motorcycle.” Rall again said the LAPD ignored his complaint.

This year, in his post for The Times’ OpinionLA blog, Rall wrote that Durr threw him against a wall, slapped on handcuffs and roughed him up.

In an element missing from his previous accounts listed here, Rall said the “ugly scene” drew a crowd of two dozen passersby who shouted at Durr.

In another apparently fresh detail, Rall said a second motorcycle officer drove up, rebuked Durr and ordered him to let Rall go.

Durr complied, Rall wrote, but not before throwing Rall’s license into the sewer.

Rall said he called the LAPD a few months later to check on his complaint and was told it had been dismissed. He said the department “had never notified me.”

The LAPD investigation

After the OpinionLA post appeared May 11, the LAPD contacted The Times to challenge Rall’s account.

The department had investigated Rall’s complaint in January 2002, and it is standard practice to preserve such files. The LAPD provided Rall’s letter of complaint; a report by Durr’s then-supervisor, Sgt. Russell Kilby, who investigated the allegations; and a log of calls Kilby made in unsuccessful attempts to reach Rall.

The LAPD also provided a copy of an audio recording of the jaywalking stop made by Durr. (Traffic officers are permitted to record interactions with civilians on personal devices, and many do.)

A second recording furnished by the department was made by Sgt. Kilby when he called Rall’s phone number and left a voicemail. On the tape, Kilby is heard saying he had left earlier messages to no avail.

Durr’s recording, made on a micro-cassette recorder and later transferred to a digital format, runs about six minutes and includes traffic sounds and other background noise. There are extended silences during which Durr said he was checking Rall’s ID and filling out the citation.

A conversation between Durr and Rall is audible, and it is civil. Durr is not heard being rude, “belligerent,” “hostile” or “ill-tempered,” as Rall has asserted. The officer is heard calmly answering Rall’s questions.

Neither man is heard to raise his voice at any point. Nor does Rall express any complaints about how is he being treated.

Early in the encounter, Durr asks Rall to remove his ID from his wallet. Later, after he has filled out the citation, Durr says: “I need you to go ahead and sign.... You’re not admitting guilt.”

Soon after, the officer says: “Here’s your license back.”

About halfway through the recording, faint voices can be heard in the background for about a minute and a half. The comments are unintelligible on the LAPD tape.

The recording ends on a seemingly friendly note. Rall appears to ask the officer if he can recommend any restaurants in the area. Durr responds that he is new to the neighborhood and unfamiliar with “the local eateries.”

Durr is then heard to say: “All right, have a good day.”

Here is the full LAPD transcript.

Times reporter Paul Pringle interviewed Durr in July. The officer said he remembered the encounter because it resulted in a complaint against him and an investigation.

Durr said he had not roughed up Rall or handcuffed him – in his entire career, he said, he had never handcuffed anyone for jaywalking. Durr also said that no second officer ever appeared on the scene, and that there was no crowd of shouting onlookers.

He said the encounter was free of rancor and he was surprised when Rall filed a complaint.

Kilby, now retired, said in a separate interview that his investigation found nothing to support Rall’s allegations. He described Durr as “a non-problem officer,” “a nice guy” and “a hard worker.”

Rall’s explanation

Pringle contacted Rall and sent him copies of the documents provided by the LAPD and a copy of Durr's audio recording.

In two interviews, Rall told Pringle that he stood by his May 11 blog post and that Durr was lying. He verified that the voice heard on the tape was his but asserted that the recording was of such poor quality that it could not be used to challenge his account.

He said the tape “only captures a part of what’s going on” and that Durr might have been “muffling” the recorder at key moments to conceal abusive behavior.

Rall said he left his most serious allegations against Durr out of his complaint to the LAPD because he did not “want it to become a big deal.”

“I did not want that officer, I did not want the LAPD in general, to feel that I was declaring war against them,” he said.

Rall was asked why he didn’t complain to Durr during the encounter about being mistreated. Rall said he would never complain to a policeman in such circumstances for fear that the officer might arrest him, “disappear” him in a jail cell for several days without filing charges, or even kill him.

“Did I think that guy was going to kill me right there and then?” Rall said. “I didn’t know. I don’t know.”

As to why he wrote repeatedly that the LAPD never followed up on his complaint, Rall said he did not receive any phone messages from police. He did acknowledge receiving the letter from then-Chief Parks.

Pringle also asked Rall to explain his apparently friendly exchange with Durr after the citation was issued, in which he asked the officer to recommend a restaurant in the area.

Rall said he had been “traumatized” by the incident and likened his behavior to that of “rape victims calling their rapist back, and — you know, like, days later — and wanting to get back together.”

Rall against the tape

Since then, Rall has attacked The Times in Web posts and media interviews, accusing the paper of knuckling under to pressure from the LAPD to discredit a critic.

He has taken aim at Durr’s recording, contending that the LAPD transcript is incomplete and that faintly audible background noises bolster his account.

Rall said he had Post Haste Digital, a Los Angeles company that does sound work for the entertainment industry, enhance the recording. Rall maintains that on the enhanced version, two women can be heard midway through the recording complaining that Rall was handcuffed.

Rall said the women were part of a crowd of people who protested his treatment. He has published a transcript that he says is consistent with this claim.

In a Web post, Rall and a co-author wrote that six unidentified “audio experts” — including both amateurs and professionals, according to the post — said they believed the recording had been spliced in places.

Commander Andrew Smith, the LAPD spokesman, said the department’s audio specialists analyzed the tape to determine whether Durr might have turned the recorder off and then on again to avoid recording parts of the encounter. They found no indication that he had done so, Smith said.

Smith said LAPD experts later enhanced the recording and could not hear anyone complain about handcuffs. They found no indication that the tape was spliced or otherwise altered, he said.

The Times had the recording analyzed by two leading experts in audio and video forensics.

Edward J. Primeau of Rochester Hills, Mich., has worked in the field for more than 30 years and has testified in numerous legal proceedings, including in criminal trials for both the prosecution and defense.

Primeau said that voices heard in the background on Rall’s enhanced version are mostly unintelligible, and that he did not detect any mention of handcuffs. He said Rall’s transcript was “not accurate.”

Primeau performed a second analysis to determine whether the LAPD recording had been altered. He said that by studying sound-wave patterns and other data, he concluded “beyond a reasonable degree of scientific certainty” that the tape had not been spliced or otherwise edited.

Catalin Grigoras, director of the National Center for Media Forensics at the University of Colorado Denver, also analyzed the recording for The Times. Grigoras, an electrical engineer, has consulted in criminal cases for both the prosecution and defense and has published numerous peer-reviewed articles on how to authenticate and enhance recordings.

Grigoras said his analysis detected no reference to handcuffs. He said a man and a woman can be heard speaking in the background at one point, but only a few of their words are intelligible.

Grigoras said the man and woman appear to be having a conversation unrelated to the jaywalking stop.

“It is obvious the police officer is not part of that conversation,” he said.

The Times’ conclusions

The Times continues to have serious questions about the accuracy of Rall’s blog post.

His accounts of the jaywalking stop have changed over time in significant respects.

In his letter of complaint to the LAPD, written within days of the incident, he did not say that Durr threw him against a wall. He did not say that the officer handcuffed him or roughed him up. He did not say that a crowd of protesters gathered or that a second officer interceded and ordered Durr to let him go.

No version of the recording, including Rall’s enhanced one, supports the cartoonist’s allegations that Durr was violent, hostile, rude and belligerent.

Goldberg, the editorial page editor, said that in light of all the available information, The Times stands by its note to readers and its judgment that Rall’s May 11 blog post should not have been published.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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