Police Brutality Claims Are Rarely Prosecuted : Law: Vast majority of more than 300 cases in L.A. County since 1980 were dismissed, Times study finds.
For three miles, the police officers chased the car, sirens blaring. When the suspect finally stopped, as the officers would explain it later, he ignored their orders and tried to bull his way past them.
Five bystanders told a starkly different story: the policemen beat and kicked an unarmed black man as he lay on the street.
It was not Rodney G. King whom the witnesses saw being pummeled that night in 1988, but a suspected auto thief named Tyrone Demetri Carey. Unlike the King case, no one videotaped Carey. And, unlike the King case, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office never filed assault charges against the policemen Carey encountered.
“It is the opinion of this office,” a deputy district attorney wrote, “that the evidence in this case is not of such a convincing nature that it would warrant conviction.”
The vast majority of police brutality allegations referred to the district attorney’s office over the last decade have ended in like fashion--with no charges filed.
Since 1980, a study by The Times has found, the district attorney’s office has declined to prosecute at least 278 police officers and sheriff’s deputies accused of assaulting civilians with fists, clubs, flashlights, leather-covered steel saps, pistol barrels, scalding water and an electric stun gun, district attorney records show.
At least 41 other officers--13% of the total--have been prosecuted on excessive force charges, according to the district attorney. About half were convicted.
In contrast, 77% of all civilians arrested last year in Los Angeles County for felony assault were ultimately prosecuted on felony or misdemeanor charges, according to California Department of Justice figures. Of those, nearly three-quarters were convicted.
A key reason for the disparity, The Times found, is that the district attorney’s office commonly accords accused officers a benefit of the doubt when debating whether to file police brutality charges.
In making their decisions, record show, prosecutors rely almost exclusively on reports given them by the police themselves, while employing policies that routinely result in rejection of all but the most overt cases of excessive force.
“They’re asleep at the switch,” said attorney E. Thomas Barham Jr., a former Los Angeles County sheriff’s lieutenant whose clientele includes alleged victims of police brutality.
Without aggressive prosecution, Barham and other critics complain, there is little to deter officers from abusing citizens again and again.
Los Angeles police officials and Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, who was elected in 1984, declined to be interviewed on the issue of excessive force pending outcome of the case against four officers indicted in the King beating.
Prosecutors, however, said they treat police suspects no differently than civilians when deciding whether to file assault charges. “There is no double standard,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Roger J. Gunson, who supervises 13 lawyers assigned to the Special Investigations Division (SID) responsible for prosecuting police officers and public officials.
The filing rate against police officers is relatively low, Gunson and others said, because officers accused of using excessive force usually have legal justification for their actions, or because there is little evidence to substantiate the allegations.
Others contend that police officers are given a break when facing possible criminal action for comparatively minor violations of the law.
“You can’t prosecute your cops a lot--who’d want their job?,” said James A. Albracht, a Superior Court judge and former deputy district attorney assigned to SID. “If they were prosecuted every time they made an error in judgment, it would undermine their morale and the willingness of people to do (police) work.”
Although the district attorney’s office sends prosecutors and investigators to the scenes of police shootings--even when a civilian is barely grazed by an officer’s bullet--The Times found that allegations of beatings do not receive nearly the same scrutiny. SID members usually do little more than review the police reports when a suspect is beaten or otherwise injured by officers while in custody.
The district attorney’s office also does little to independently ferret out acts of police brutality, according to interviews and records.
Hundreds of allegations of police misconduct are lodged as legal claims each year with the Los Angeles city attorney’s office, but prosecutors assigned to SID say that they are too busy with other more pressing matters to review these claims.
Nor do prosecutors review civil lawsuits filed against police, even though Los Angeles paid a record $11.3 million last year in jury awards and settlements in police misconduct cases.
Records show that some instances of alleged brutality deemed justified by police administrators and not subject to review by the district attorney’s office ended up costing taxpayers considerable sums.
In 1988, for example, members of an East Los Angeles family were awarded $90,503 by a U.S. District Court jury after Los Angeles police officers ransacked their house, broke the owner’s nose and roughed up his children while looking for a gun used in a gang killing. No gun was found.
The same jury later held Police Chief Daryl F. Gates accountable for his officers’ actions and ordered Gates to personally pay the Jessie Larez family $170,000 in punitive damages after Gates suggested publicly that Larez was lucky he only had his nose broken by the officers.
There is no record of SID prosecutors ever having reviewed the case for possible criminal action against the officers, files show.
Although they may occasionally glean cases from the news media or field citizens’ complaints of excessive force, SID prosecutors generally leave it up to individual law enforcement agencies to investigate their own officers and decide which cases to present to the district attorney for review.
“If our evaluation is that this force was completely justified under the circumstances, that it was appropriate force . . . , then it probably would not go to the D.A.'s office,” said Sheriff Sherman Block, who heads an 8,000-member department.
That apparently was the case with Deputy David Blitz, who was accused of kicking and beating a motorist after a routine traffic stop in 1988 in Carson. After an internal review, his supervisors concluded that Blitz had lawfully defended himself when he pulled over Timothy Cundiff.
But three independent witnesses who saw the incident were so outraged that they complained to a local newspaper. The witnesses said the deputy had struck Cundiff with a baton after handcuffing him, rammed him head-first into a fence, shoved him into a patrol car and slammed the car door on his legs.
After the story appeared, SID prosecutors filed assault charges and Blitz resigned. He eventually was convicted, placed on three years probation and ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service.
Prosecutors complain that they already have more cases than they can handle and are unable to review hundreds of civil actions that do not normally cross their desks. They also note that private attorneys whose clients allege police brutality can submit their cases directly to SID for criminal investigation.
However, several private attorneys said they rarely, if ever, contact the district attorney’s office because they are convinced that prosecutors do not aggressively explore allegations against police.
“The D.A. is worse than useless,” said attorney Stephen Yagman, who specializes in filing federal civil rights lawsuits against police. “They lull others into believing that they are doing something when, in fact, they don’t do anything.”
To be sure, the district attorney’s long-term record in prosecuting police officers is comparable to that of prosecutors in most other large cities, where trials involving law enforcement personnel are a rarity. Miami, where more than 100 officers have been charged with various crimes in the last five years, is perhaps the most notable exception.
“Even assuming a prosecutor is highly motivated, he has to make a judgment about spending scarce taxpayers’ money while understanding that juries traditionally are extremely unlikely to convict a police officer,” said William Geller, associate director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank.
To evaluate the district attorney’s handling of excessive force cases, The Times examined internal documents filed whenever SID declines to prosecute cases. The files provided brief explanations of incidents of alleged brutality and the justifications used to reject the filing of charges.
About two-thirds of the 278 cases rejected since 1980 involved Los Angeles police officers or county sheriff’s deputies.
SID prosecutors in 1990 declined to file brutality charges against at least 27 officers and deputies. At the same time, the division also reviewed about 160 officer-involved shootings and, according to Gunson, more than 1,000 other cases, including allegations of political corruption and wrongdoing among government workers.
With so many cases, priorities must be established, prosecutors say.
“If it’s, ‘Hey, look, I got beat up and got a black eye,’ that’s not going to get the same priority as a (controversial shooting),” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Gilbert Garcetti, who headed SID from 1978-1982.
The Special Investigations Division was created in the mid-1960s to explore the causes of the Watts riots, but its role later expanded.
In 1979, after a series of officer-involved shootings and subsequent public outcry, then-Dist. Atty. John K. Van De Kamp instituted “Operation Rollout.” Prosecutors and district attorney’s office investigators began responding to the scenes of police shootings to ensure that the incidents were reviewed fairly.
The Rollout program was scaled back when Robert H. Philibosian became district attorney in 1983. Philibosian insisted that the program was wasteful and redundant to police investigations.
Under Reiner, many of the cuts were restored, and SID built a reputation of zealousness in prosecuting officers accused of murder and other high-profile crimes.
“They lie, they cheat and it isn’t fair,” said former Los Angeles Police Officer William E. Leasure, whose trial on two counts of murder for hire ended in June with the jury deadlocked. “They get an idea in their head and they pursue that idea even when they find evidence to the contrary.”
Other critics, however, charge that SID has not been as aggressive when tackling lower-profile cases, including most alleged police beatings.
“They will not prosecute vigorously when they prosecute at all,” said attorney Hugh R. Manes, who frequently sues law enforcement agencies.
Last year, two Los Angeles police officers were charged with use of excessive force in the death of a drunken transient arrested in MacArthur Park.
Paramedics and firefighters at the scene reported that the officers, Stephen Geon and Jose Salazar, beat and kicked the man, shoved him into a wall, caused him to fall after being handcuffed, then stuffed him head-first into a shopping cart.
But before the case was to go to trial, SID Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph D. Shidler dropped charges after other transients were located and reported that the police struck the man only after he lunged at them with a large radio.
“It changed the complexion of the case,” Shidler said.
California law forbids police officers to strike or kick any person “without lawful necessity.” An officer found guilty of “assault under color of authority” can be fined as much as $10,000 or imprisoned for as long as one year for each violation.
But the law also allows officers to use “reasonable force to effect the arrest, to prevent escape or to overcome resistance” of anyone who the officer believes has broken the law. The more resistance an arrestee puts up, the greater the force an officer can legally use to overcome it.
As a result, unless an officer’s use of force is blatantly excessive and confirmed by credible, independent witnesses, it is virtually impossible to establish what is unreasonable, prosecutors say.
Consider the case of Los Angeles Police Officer Diane Powe, who, while helping to arrest a robbery suspect in March, 1990, ended up allegedly brutalizing a bystander, Cynthia Ginn.
Ginn, according to reports, was attempting to “make contact” with the robbery suspect, Edna Tucker, who was sitting in the back of Powe’s police car. When Ginn became “verbally belligerent,” Powe told her she was under arrest and attempted to handcuff her. In the process, the officer allegedly punched Ginn three times in the face.
Powe said that she struck Ginn only after Ginn pinned Powe’s arm against the police car, exposing Powe’s gun. Ginn denied pinning the officer’s arm.
“Given the extent of Ginn’s aggressiveness and belligerent behavior (and) the lack of independent witnesses . . . it cannot be reasonably anticipated that a trier of fact would conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Powe was not acting out of necessity,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas R. Wenke wrote.
The district attorney’s office policy also significantly influences decisions on whether to file criminal charges against accused officers.
The stated policy is to charge suspects only when the evidence is so convincing “that it would warrant conviction . . . by an objective fact finder after hearing all the evidence available to the prosecutor . . . and after considering the most plausible, reasonably foreseeable defense. . . .”
Translation: With rare exception, prosecutors will only file cases they are virtually assured of winning, and will reject cases in which the evidence is contradictory or less than overwhelming.
In the 1988 case of Tyrone Carey, five witnesses disputed assertions by police officers that Carey had run at them after crashing his stolen car into a parked vehicle in the mid-city area of Los Angeles.
Of four officers at the scene, one admitted that he inadvertently struck Carey on the head with a flashlight when he allegedly tried to flee; another officer acknowledged that he repeatedly punched Carey while trying to subdue him.
Residents of the neighborhood insisted that Carey had been dragged from the car, but they could not agree on how many officers actually beat and kicked him. Most said he was struck with batons and kicked. Some said Carey appeared to have been struck after he was handcuffed. None of the witnesses could identify photographs of any officers present at the scene.
Carey sustained lacerations to his right eyelid and ear, forehead and the back of his head.
When presented with the case by the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division, Deputy Dist. Atty. Reid A. Rose speculated in his final report that a jury might conclude that some of Carey’s injuries resulted from the car crash, not police batons.
Rose wrote: “The numerous and conflicting statements of the suspect, civilian witnesses and expert witnesses, couple(d) with the absence of a thorough initial investigation, would create serious, if not insurmountable, obstacles to proving that the amount of force was not unreasonable under the circumstances”
In determining whether to file brutality charges, prosecutors try to anticipate whom a jury is more likely to believe--the accused officer or the alleged victim.
More often than not, prosecutors point out, the officer’s accuser has been taken into custody on criminal charges and may have a prior arrest record, both of which can be used in court to impugn his integrity.
Frederick Broussard’s criminal record was a factor in dismissing allegations he raised after being arrested by Los Angeles police in November, 1984, on suspicion of robbery.
While being driven to jail in a patrol car, he was allegedly dragged out and had his face “ground into the pavement” by Officer Leonard Mora. Records showed that Broussard, who had 16 assumed names, had been arrested 30 times on charges ranging from murder to rape to carrying a loaded gun.
“A review of reports and addenda including (Broussard’s) criminal background reveals that the admissible evidence is not of such convincing force that it would warrant conviction beyond a reasonable doubt,” wrote Deputy Dist. Atty. James E. Koller.
Unless a person can prove that he received demonstrable and lasting injury at the hands of the police, the chances of winning an assault case against an officer are slim, prosecutors say.
But even when injury is apparent, it usually must be more than diminimus --minor--before SID prosecutors will file charges, records show.
Take the 1983 case of Bryant Nelson, who was being held on misdemeanor charges in the North Hollywood police station when he began to argue with jailer Segundo S. Ronquillo over the lockup’s no-smoking policy.
Ronquillo, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert L. Cohen’s report, “decided to move Nelson to another cell as (Nelson) was disturbing the other prisoners.” Ronquillo entered the cell “with a towel in his hand or loosely wrapped in his hand” and struck Nelson once. The blow chipped a front tooth and cut the inside of Nelson’s lip.
Ronquillo was later suspended for eight days.
“Although the striking of Nelson was not justified,” Cohen stated in his report, “the injury was diminimus. Officer Ronquillo is being suspended for eight days, a punishment that likely exceeds that which might be meted out should prosecution be brought.”
The tendencies of jurors also play a significant role in decisions by the district attorney’s office.
Americans traditionally have been taught as children to respect authority and that “the policeman is your friend.” Those lessons, prosecutors and plaintiffs’ attorneys say, can be difficult to shed when the typical citizen steps into the jury box and is asked to objectively pass judgment on a police officer.
“Most jurors would like to believe that police officers are fundamentally reasonable and ethical in the discharge of their duties . . . ,” said attorney Richard A. Levine, who has represented dozens of law enforcement personnel accused of wrongdoing.
This patina of goodness that comes with a police officer’s badge can prove impenetrable--even when an officer concedes guilt.
As a prosecutor assigned to SID in the early 1980s, James Albracht brought assault charges against two sheriff’s deputies for allegedly beating a suspected car thief who was cornered in a cul-de-sac and handcuffed by other officers. Complaints by a civilian witness prompted SID to charge the deputies with assault.
The case went to trial and the jury deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of conviction.
A second trial was held. This time, according to Albracht, defense attorneys depicted the deputies as Vietnam War heroes being maligned by the legal system. At the same time, the deputies’ wives and children began appearing in court each day.
“So here are these two handsome, upstanding young crime fighters and their families--all these spic and span, bright, healthy, young people,” Albracht recalled, “and here’s my client--tattooes, scars, long greasy hair. The deputies get up on the stand and admit they did it--they admit it! ‘Something snapped,’ they say. They were in fear of their lives.”
It did not take long for the jury to reach a verdict: not guilty.
Albracht said: “It’s very hard to convict a cop.”
Since 1980, Los Angeles law enforcement agencies and private citizens have referred at least 319 cases of alleged excessive force by police and sheriff’s deputies to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office for possible prosecution.
Reviews by the district attorney’s Special Investigations Division resulted in the prosecution of 41 deputies and police officers--about 13% of the total. Here is a breakdown of the reasons the district attorney refused to file felony charges: Lacked sufficient evidence to prove that a crime occurred or to connect the suspect to the crime: 235
Victim was unavailable or declined to testify: 21
Declined prosecution in the interest of justice: 14
Witness was unavailable or declined to testify: 3
Referred to city attorney for prosecution as misdemeanor: 3
Pursued other cases against suspect: 1
Needed further investigation: 1
Here is a breakdown of the cases, by department: Department & Number
Los Angeles Police: 102
Los Angeles County Sheriff: 86
Long Beach: 22
Huntington Park: 6
Hermosa Beach: 2
Redondo Beach: 2
Signal Hill: 2
Other departments: 14
* Unknown: 19
* Department not identified
SOURCE: Special Investigations Division of district attorney’s office