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U.S. Extends Probe to Suits Against Police : Civil rights: Members of Congress and a spokesman for the ACLU express fears of a whitewash.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The U.S. Justice Department will broaden its investigation of Los Angeles police brutality to review scores of private suits accusing the city’s police of mistreating suspects in their custody, a top agency official said Wednesday.

John R. Dunne, assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, disclosed the wider inquiry at a congressional hearing stemming from the widely publicized videotaped beating of motorist Rodney G. King.

Despite assurances that the Justice Department inquiry will consider evidence from about 100 lawsuits filed against Los Angeles police, members of Congress and a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union expressed fears of a whitewash by the federal government.

Dunne insisted at the hearing that the Justice Department will follow through on its promise to review about 15,000 complaints of police brutality filed across the nation during the last six years to see if there is a pattern of violent misconduct.

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“We are undertaking a unique investigation,” Dunne told the House Judiciary subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, which is looking into the national implications of the King case. Four Los Angeles police officers have been indicted on state charges for taking part in the King beating.

House Government Operations Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who put pressure on the Justice Department to launch the inquiry, said it is time for President Bush to denounce the Los Angeles officers who took part in the assault.

“Sad to say, the chief executive of this land, who wasted no time in branding the evils of a despot in a faraway land, has yet to utter a single word condemning the evils of a police force that to many Americans is engaged in brutal tactics disturbingly similar to those of an occupation force,” said Conyers.

Conyers said the General Accounting Office, a congressional watchdog agency, will conduct its own investigation of brutality complaints, partly because he views the Justice Department as a “reluctant partner” in the campaign against police misconduct in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

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Paul L. Hoffman, legal director of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, testified at the hearing that police brutality has become “part of the fabric of our daily lives, especially the lives of the African-Americans and Latinos in Los Angeles.”

Many people, Hoffman said, fear that the federal investigation will be “a whitewash, given the historical invisibility and ineffectiveness of the Justice Department’s efforts in this area.”

None of his colleagues in the civil rights field can recall a single instance of federal prosecution of a law enforcement officer in Los Angeles for violating anyone’s civil rights, Hoffman said.

“In Los Angeles, even the payment of more than $10 million in police abuse judgments in 1990 alone . . . has had no perceptible impact on these problems,” Hoffman said.

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In his testimony, Dunne cited severe limits on the federal government’s ability to deal with violations of civil rights by law enforcement officers, including vaguely worded statutes dating to Civil War days and the reluctance of juries to convict in such cases.

“We are not the ‘front line’ troops in combatting instances of police abuse,” he said, saying that the Justice Department is merely a “backstop” for a police department’s internal discipline and state or local prosecutors.

But Dunne acknowledged that the department received 7,960 complaints of police brutality and conducted 3,050 investigations while seeking indictments in only 46 cases last year.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) said Mayor Tom Bradley and the Los Angeles City Council claim that they do not have the power to oust Police Chief Daryl F. Gates.

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“You appear to have a Police Department that answers to no one,” Waters said. “What is the responsibility of the Justice Department, where police are in charge and people are getting killed, maimed and beaten?”

Hoffman told lawmakers that the attack on King is not an aberration, as Gates has insisted, but part of a familiar pattern of police behavior in Los Angeles.

“What appears on the videotape is an accurate, uncompromising vision of a Police Department at war with its own community,” Hoffman said.


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