Closer Eye on Police Conduct : Long Beach Sting Prompts Inquiries Into Brutality Charges
Twenty years later, Bud Huber still remembers his shipmates’ warnings on the day their submarine made a port call at Long Beach. Nice town, they told him, but don’t mess with the cops.
After Huber left the Navy, he decided he liked Long Beach well enough to settle there, and today he heads an influential homeowner association in the seaside Belmont Shore neighborhood. Nevertheless, Huber is convinced that the old warning still rings true.
“There have been people who have testified--black, Latino, sometimes white yuppie people--about being pulled out of their cars without probable cause and beat up, roughed up, all kinds of things happening to them,” he said.
He was referring to hearings in 1987 and 1988 on whether to establish a civilian review board over the Long Beach Police Department. Black, gay and community groups complained about brutality by the department, but the alleged victims generally were unable to produce witnesses or solid evidence to back their complaints and the City Council rejected the proposal.
Now a videotaped confrontation is prompting a new look at the conduct of the 632 officers who patrol California’s fifth-most populous city.
An NBC television crew secretly recorded a white police officer rattling off obscenities as he ordered a black man, Don Jackson, to submit to a pat-down during a traffic stop. Then, when Jackson balked, the officer appeared to push Jackson’s head through a plate glass window.
Although the union representing Long Beach officers complained that the confrontation was provoked by Jackson--a Hawthorne police sergeant on disability leave who has conducted periodic sting operations to test how police around Los Angeles treat minorities--the incident quickly sparked investigations by the local Police Department, the district attorney’s office and the FBI, along with renewed calls in Long Beach for a strong oversight board.
The scrutiny came just weeks after the city’s retired police chief had brought into question the honesty of the force. Charles B. Ussery, who headed the department from 1979 to 1986, testified in a police misconduct civil trial last month that he believed 25 to 30 of his officers would lie to cover up involvement in acts of brutality.
“They wouldn’t lie all the time, but in a shaky arrest situation where force was used or excessive force was used . . . I felt that they would lie,” Ussery said in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, where an Oregon man had filed suit alleging that he was mistreated by Long Beach officers when they arrested him for alleged indecent conduct at a beachside restroom.
Ussery said he reached that conclusion after noting that his officers’ reports often made no mention of what he suspected were well-founded brutality complaints from civilians.
Ussery’s successor, Lawrence L. Binkley, a 24-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, went to Long Beach 22 months ago intent on imposing more discipline. Along these lines, he instituted a series of procedures to guarantee that citizen complaints would be better documented--helping produce a record 116 “undue force” complaints against officers in 1988.
Binkley, however, has encountered considerable resistance from rank-and-file officers who say he is too much of a disciplinarian. Last year alone, he ordered the dismissal of 10 officers, the suspension of another 25, and other sanctions, such as formal reprimands, in 68 cases.
On the Alert
When he was asked whether his Police Department is more abusive than others, Binkley paused before answering. “No, I don’t think so,” he said finally, adding, “I watch that very closely.”
But Los Angeles attorney Stephen Yagman, who has become controversial for his frequent lawsuits against police departments, said Long Beach has one of the most brutal forces in Southern California.
“It’s a kick-ass type police department,” said Yagman, who this week was ordered suspended from practice for six months by the California Supreme Court after a series of disputes with former clients. “It’s one where officers demand instant compliance with their demands and if (people) don’t comply, they bang people around.”
Yagman filed suit in June against the Long Beach Police Department, alleging that 61 officers--including the one who arrested Jackson, Mark Dickey--dispersed an overcrowded ballroom of teen-agers by striking them with night sticks, causing welts on their legs and backs.
This month’s videotaped incident and comments such as Yagman’s are not well received by members of what is an unusually close-knit police force, said Sgt. Mike Tracy, president of the Long Beach Police Officers Assn., who led picketing of NBC studios in Burbank last week to protest the participation of a network television crew in Jackson’s sting.
“We are the most compassionate police officers in California. We grew up here and we live here,” Tracy said. He said that more than half the force was born, educated or lives in Long Beach.
Added Sgt. Terry Holland, “If they call us aggressive, it’s because we’re protecting the community where we live.”
Indeed, the police force generally has the support of local residents, according to a Los Angeles Times Poll conducted in May. Of the Long Beach residents surveyed, 69% said police were doing a good job of fighting crime, 13% said police were not doing a good job and 18% had no opinion.
Changes in Policy
But Binkley clearly believed the department needed a bit more work in community relations when he went on the job. He said he quadrupled the amount of refresher training, including sessions on the proper use of force, and asked that complaint procedures be posted in the city’s 13 public libraries and throughout the two police stations and jail.
In addition, officers are required to file a report anytime they are involved in a violent altercation. At first there was little compliance, Binkley said, but a review recently found that about 75% of the incidents were being logged.
After the new procedures were instituted at the end of 1987, the department logged 437 complaints from citizens last year, while another 73 complaints were brought against officers by police administrators--both figures considerably up from recent years.
Comparative statistics are hard to come by because most law enforcement agencies will not release complaint records. But the Los Angeles Police Department--with more than 11 times as many officers as Long Beach--reported 772 complaints from civilians during 1987. Figures for 1988 are not yet available.
In defense of his department’s record, Binkley noted that only three of 116 brutality allegations were sustained last year by the department’s internal affairs investigators.
Some Efforts Reversed
But Binkley also has complained that efforts to discipline offending officers too often are undermined by the city’s Civil Service Board, which has the power to overturn or reduce the punishment imposed by the police chief. About 10% of the disciplinary actions against officers from 1983 to 1987 were reversed, while the punishments were reduced in another 40%, Carol E. Moss, the city’s Civil Service executive director, said.
In one “undue force” case handled in 1987, the commission reduced from 20 to 15 days the suspension of an officer accused of breaking the arm of man in an altercation in the man’s home, then splitting the lip of a sailor in a bar fight the next day.
Citizens whose complaints are rejected by the city still can turn to the courts, and many do. About 50 to 100 lawsuits are filed against the city annually alleging police misconduct, said Assistant Long Beach City Atty. Robert Shannon.
Shannon said the case in which Ussery testified was one of only three in the last five years in which there was a judgment against the city after a trial. A jury awarded $40,000 to the Oregon man, who alleged that officers used excessive force and lied in their reports when he was arrested in August, 1987, on suspicion of lewd conduct. The man, who was later acquitted, said officers knocked him to the ground and twisted his arms behind his back even though he pleaded with them to stop because he had cerebral palsy and could be injured.
Payments by City
Other cases have been settled out of court, including one last week in which a man received an as-yet undisclosed amount after complaining that he was wrongfully arrested and roughed up in the back of a police car.
In all, the city paid out about $75,000 in the 1988 fiscal year because of lawsuits against the Police Department, Shannon said.
Yagman’s case is still pending.
In the wake of the “Today Show” broadcast of the Jan. 14 Jackson incident, the city’s Public Safety Advisory Commission--a citizens group that now only advises the police and fire departments--held a special hearing last week and voted to research various forms of civilian review boards with powers to investigate police misconduct and set police policy.
Such a board has been advocated by the Long Beach chapter of the NAACP for years. “We get constant complaints” about police conduct, chapter president Frank Berry said.
About 17% of Long Beach’s population is black, according to the latest census figures, but blacks lodged 30% of the “undue force” complaints against police last year.
Although the city until recently had a black police chief, Ussery, only 4% of the city’s police officers are black, while another 10% come from other minority groups.
Berry believes that city officials will be more likely to believe the complaints now. The videotape, he said, gave “citizens who have not been the victims of police abuse . . . an opportunity to see what happens on a fairly regular basis in this city.”
COMPLAINTS AGAINST LONG BEACH POLICE
FROM POLICE FROM CITIZENS (UNDUE FORCE) ADMINISTRATION* TOTAL 1983 227 (76) 11 238 1984 332 (86) 11 343 1985 333 (85) 15 348 1986 254 (60) 40 294 1987** 222 (67) 53 275 1988*** 437 (116) 73 510
*Police administrative complaints are for abuse of sick time and departing from proper standard of conduct. **1987 statistics cover the first ten months only. *** New procedures instituted to encourage the filing of complaints. BREAKDOWN OF 1988 COMPLAINTS
Nature of Complaints Neglect of responsibilities. . . 119 Sexual harassment . . . 7 Personal conduct. . . 268 Excessive use of force . . . 116 Disposition of Excessive Use Of Force Complaints* Sustained. . . 3 Not sustained (not proven). . . 39 Exonerated (acted properly). . . 37 Unfounded. . . 22 Invalid. . . 7 Pending. . . 8 * Reflect complaints filed with the city, not court cases Race of Citizens Alleging Excessive Use of Force White. . . 59 Black. . . 35 Latino. . . 22 Source: Long Beach Police Department