Gates Ordered to Pay Damages in LAPD Raid
A federal court jury on Thursday ordered Police Chief Daryl F. Gates to personally pay more than $170,000 to the family of an East Los Angeles man whose nose was broken and whose house was ransacked by anti-gang officers searching for a murder weapon.
The judgment in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles is believed to be the first in which a major city police chief has been held individually liable and ordered to pay punitive damages for actions deemed to have violated the constitutional rights of citizens, according to legal experts.
City officials said they will appeal the verdict.
If upheld, it will be up to the City Council to decide whether Gates himself or Los Angeles taxpayers must foot the bill as a result of the lawsuit brought by Jessie Larez and his family.
However, Larez’s attorney, Stephen Yagman, insisted that the family will not accept any part of Thursday’s punitive award unless it comes out of Gates’ pocket.
“We want to send a message to Daryl Gates and to City Hall that this kind of lawless behavior among officers that he has ratified by his own comments and behavior will no longer be tolerated by members of this community,” Yagman said.
However, in a statement issued within an hour of the verdict, Mayor Tom Bradley urged that the decision be overturned.
“If the jury’s findings are allowed to be upheld,” Bradley said, “the result could have a chilling effect on the administration of justice and public safety in the city of Los Angeles.”
The same jury in October awarded Larez and his family $90,503 in punitive and actual damages against the six Los Angeles police officers who raided their East Los Angeles home on June 13, 1986. The officers, armed with a search warrant, were assigned to the department’s anti-gang unit, Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums.
After winning the decision in October, the family pursued the case, hoping to punish the chief personally and to show that he sanctioned the procedures used by his officers. The jury deliberated two hours before finding in the family’s favor.
Before filing the lawsuit, the family had formally complained to the Police Department that excessive force had been used. But the officers’ supervisors concluded that the raid had been properly conducted and dismissed the complaint.
Looking for Gun
The raid occurred after officers said they had been tipped that one of Larez’s sons, Edward, a purported gang member, had a gun that had been used in a murder. Police entered the house at 7:01 a.m., first breaking windows as a diversion. In the search that followed, Larez’s nose was broken, his daughter, Diane, was yanked to the floor by her hair and numerous household items were smashed.
In his closing argument Wednesday, Yagman asked the jurors for $1 million in punitive damages and depicted Gates as a “cocky, evil man.”
Jurors declined to say how they reached their decision Thursday. One of them, however, said before leaving the courthouse, “I think they got the message.”
A crucial aspect of the lawsuit came not in the courtroom, but just outside of it Tuesday when Gates spoke to reporters after testifying on behalf of his officeres. The chief lambasted the jury and the Larez family. Gates’ comments were reported the next day by The Times and other local newspapers.
U.S. District Judge Robert M. Takasugi allowed those published comments to be entered into evidence to show possible “bias maintained by (Gates) and for prior inconsistent statements.”
On Thursday, Assistant City Atty. Jeff Nelson, who defended the Police Department in the case, said Takasugi’s decision was “very, very damaging.” Nelson defended Gates’ remarks, saying that “he is entitled to fair comment just like anyone else.”
Gates had spent more than three hours on the stand, deftly deflecting attorney Yagman’s charges that the chief sets the Police Department’s “cocky, lawless” tone while giving short shrift to citizens who file complaints against officers. Under oath, Gates depicted the Police Department as empathic and insisted that it diligently examines all complaints.
But in his impromptu press conference outside the courtroom Tuesday, Gates blasted the jury’s earlier award of damages to the Larez family and suggested that Larez, whose nose was broken during the raid, was “probably lucky that’s all he had broken.”
“How much is a broken nose worth?” Gates asked reporters rhetorically. “Given the circumstances in this case . . . I don’t think it’s worth anything.”
Gates added, “People keep asking me, ‘Chief, why don’t you do something about gang killings?’ I tell my officers, ‘Why don’t you do something about gang killings?’ And we do something and then (juries) give $90,000.”
He complained that the jury had been unfairly influenced by how “cleaned up and beautiful” the Larez family appeared in court.
Larez, then 55, allegedly rushed the officers who came through the front door of his house near Lincoln High School as his family slept. After allegedly striking one officer on the chest, Larez was forced to the floor, kicking and screaming, according to testimony in the case. He was arrested for battery on a police officer and later pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace.
When his daughter, Diane, allegedly tried to scratch an officer, she was forced to the floor by her hair and handcuffed. Dishes, pots and ceramic statues were destroyed in the search that followed.
The jury Thursday awarded Larez, his wife, Armida, and Diane Larez $50,000 each in punitive damages against Gates. Four other Larez children were awarded $5,000 each in punitive damages. In addition, all seven family members were awarded $1 in compensatory damages from the city, and $2 each in compensatory damages to be paid by Gates as an individual and in his capacity as chief of police.
Gates was in Cambridge, Mass., Thursday attending a police conference. He could not be reached for comment.
But in a three-paragraph statement released by the Police Department and attributed to him, Gates said his courthouse comments entered as evidence in the case were taken “out of context” by reporters.
However, on the day his comments appeared in The Times, Gates’ spokesman, Cmdr. William Booth, called the paper to say how pleased Gates was with the story.
“It was a fair story,” Booth told a reporter. “It made (Gates) look good.”
In his statement released Thursday, Gates said he would have been “delighted to have gone back into court to personally relate to the jury, in context, all of the comments I made to reporters . . . .” However, Nelson, the assistant city attorney, did not ask Gates to take the stand again.