Panel Urges Gates to Retire : Report on Police Cites Racism, Excess Force : Investigation: The Christopher Commission blames a failure of leadership. It calls for the formation of a new and stronger Police Commission.
Depicting a police force plagued by tacitly condoned racism and rogue officers, the blue-ribbon panel charged with investigating the Los Angeles Police Department on Tuesday blamed police leadership for failing to stop brutality and urged Chief Daryl F. Gates to step down.
In a sweeping and disturbing report issued after 100 days of unprecedented review, the Christopher Commission also called for the formation of a new Police Commission that would have stronger powers to better control a department where discipline was often lax and racist-tinged behavior often tolerated.
Gates, as he has for the last four months in the face of unrelenting criticism, vowed to remain in office. Mayor Tom Bradley, ignoring Gates’ stance, ordered a nationwide search launched for the chief’s replacement. Two key members of the Police Commission resigned.
“I say to those who would block the road to change: stand aside or we will leave you behind,” Bradley said. “We cannot, we will not, rest until the Christopher Commission has changed the way we police our city.”
The recommendations in the 228-page report are among numerous reforms aimed at ending the “repetitive” unjustified use of excessive force by a “problem group” of officers--an abuse that the commission concluded was “aggravated by racism.”
The 10-member commission, chaired by former Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, was formed in the wake of the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney G. King by four white officers. The videotape shocked the nation, threw Los Angeles’ leadership into turmoil and opened a wide-ranging probe into the use of excessive force in the department.
Most dramatic was the commission’s suggestion that Gates begin taking steps to turn his job over to a successor. The commission recommended a police chief be limited to two five-year terms. Gates has served 13 years.
“We’ve said we think the time has come for a transition because we think the 10 years is an appropriate period of time,” Christopher told a packed news conference as he released the report. “We think . . . term limits are desirable so we can have an infusion of new leadership, . . . so there is not a time when the chief of police outlives his effectiveness, his creativity.”
The unanimous report stops short of singling out Gates for specific blame. But page after page of damning evidence strongly suggests that the tone set at Parker Center was one that allowed dozens of miscreant police officers to act with impunity on the streets of Los Angeles.
The theme that recurs throughout the document is that supervising officers, aware of abuse by their personnel, did little to stop it. Use of excessive force and racially motivated brutality were tolerated, and that tolerance seemed to be institutionalized.
The strongest evidence came from officer-to-officer computer messages that were laced with racial epithets and vulgar and violent comments about women. Christopher, in an interview, said he was stunned at the “crudeness” of the messages.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Among the panel’s findings:
* A “problem group” of officers who repeatedly use excess force and racially motivated violence exists within the department, taints the actions of the police force as a whole, and is apparently tolerated by supervisors.
* The system of disciplining officers has suffered a debilitating breakdown.
* An unwritten “code of silence” among officers acts as a barrier to citizen complaints, and an ethnically diverse city is increasingly alienated from the police force.
Among the recommendations:
* Revamp the Police Department’s citizens’ complaint system and create offices of inspector general, ombudsman and community relations liaison.
* Overhaul the Police Commission, giving it a larger staff and new powers to oversee the police chief and authority to terminate him or her.
* Limit the police chief to two five-year terms, and require that the appointment be made by the mayor.
* Shift to a more “community-oriented” policing with more emphasis on restraint and prevention rather than physical force.
* Require officers to undergo psychological screening, not only when they are hired but periodically throughout their service with the department.
* Set up cultural awareness courses for officers.
Ultimately, some of the recommendations contained in the Christopher Commission’s report cannot be implemented without at least six City Charter amendments and approval from the City Council, which in the past has backed Gates. But that support showed signs of erosion Tuesday; eight of 14 council members, in a straw poll by The Times, indicated that the 64-year-old Gates should retire.
Flanked by about 100 supporters chanting “Chief! Chief!” Gates said in a news conference that he was not startled by the report’s findings but said he was disappointed to see emphasis placed on the actions of “a few officers” who may be “touched with racism” or who may have violated policies on the use of excessive force.
He defended the department as rightly aggressive when it comes to crime-fighting and offered to implement some of the commission’s recommendations--but not the one that would have him retire.
“The support that I have within this organization and the community has been outstanding, and I’m not going to just run away,” Gates said.
Racism and Violence: a ‘Cavalier’ Attitude
The report depicted a department woefully out of touch with the changing ethnic demographics of Los Angeles, one that emphasized crime control over crime prevention, “professionalism” over community relations, force over restraint.
Moreover, it offered a rare and disturbing glimpse into the overt racism, sexism and other biases that color the action of some police officers.
In examining over 100,000 pages of computer traffic, the commission discovered racist epithets and vulgar references to women being exchanged between police officers communicating on their car computers. Without a context being provided, one exchange reads:
“We’re huntin wabbits.”
“Actually, Muslim wabbits.”
Often, the racism seems to re-enforce physical brutality.
“I was (busy) for awhile,” messages one officer. “But now I am going to slooow it down. If you encounter these negroes shoot first and ask questions later.”
Writes another: “I would love to drive down Slauson with a flamethrower. . . . We would have a barbecue.”
The remarks, the report said, were made by officers who apparently had little fear of reprimand. In fact, supervisors rarely took action to prevent or discipline the behavior, the report concluded. In a seven-year period from 1984 to 1990, only two personnel complaints were upheld for “transmission of an improper message” on the car computer terminals.
In one of the few incidents where an officer was punished for improper messages, a white male officer transmitted an obscene sexual and racial remark to a black female officer, who used her computer to respond with angry profanities, according to the report. A commander recommended a four-day suspension for the white male officer and a two-day suspension for the black female officer. Gates reduced the penalties to one-day suspensions for each, the report states.
Retired California Supreme Court Justice John A. Arguelles, vice chairman of the commission, said in an interview the messages had particular impact on the commission.
"(The messages) affected us with the impression that racism and a cavalier attitude towards the use of force was not something that was being particularly concealed by at least those people that were speaking.
“And, of course, there were many many many such episodes. . . .”
Asked if the Police Department leadership was aware of the tone of the computer messages, Arguelles said, “I’m not so sure . . . but they should have been.”
The racism even filtered into the treatment by some officers of their colleagues. Minority officers are often subjected to racist comments and slurs and discriminatory treatment, the report stated.
The report noted that the Police Department “has made substantial progress in hiring minorities and women” since 1981. However, it pointed out that 82% of African-Americans and 80% of Latinos and Asians hold the lowest ranks.
And many officers who were interviewed by the commission said they feared retaliation from their colleagues for breaking a code of silence that prohibits discussing internal bias. One, after testifying before the commission, reported finding a hangman’s noose on a telephone he used daily.
Excessive Force: Leadership Problem
The commission found that the pattern of excessive force at the Police Department was “fundamentally a problem of supervision, management and leadership.”
Commission members identified 63 officers who had 20 or more excessive force filings. One officer had 36 such filings.
Moreover, the commission estimated that 3% to 5% of the Police Department--or about 420 officers--make up a “problem group” that is engaged in varying degrees of excessive force.
“We know who the bad guys are,” former Assistant Chief Jesse Brewer told the commission, adding that police supervisors know which officers are getting into trouble but don’t reign them in.
The commission was especially critical of the department’s laxity when it came to disciplining officers guilty of brutality. Indeed, the panel found that some officers were promoted even after being cited repeatedly for using excessive force. Often, the complaints were left out of their personnel files.
The problem was “systemwide,” according to Commission Executive Director John W. Spiegel.
One officer, for example, received six complaints for excessive force in a one-year period, yet his performance reviews made no mention of the complaints. Instead, his supervisors spoke of his “consistent high quality” and “truly caring attitude.”
In a slap at the system of discipline employed in the Police Department, Assistant Chief David Dotson told the commission “we have failed miserably” to hold supervisors accountable for excessive force by officers under their command.
The report detailed several dramatic instances in which the Police Department meted out light punishment to officers accused of brutality. Out of 36 cases in which handcuffed suspects were abused by officers, the department removed only two officers and the rest resulted in brief suspensions.
“In one incident,” the report said, “an officer, while sitting on his motorcycle, balanced himself by placing his boot on the face of a handcuffed suspect lying on the ground.”
The officer received a 15-day suspension.
In analyzing the scope of excessive force in the department, the commission took note of one of the most notorious cases of police misconduct in recent years--the vandalizing by police of apartment units at 39th Street and Dalton Avenue in South-Central Los Angeles. The panel called the case a “prime example of inadequate management and supervision of officers with respect to the use of force.”
In the Aug. 1, 1988, incident, more than 80 police officers destroyed the interiors of four apartments in the 3900 block of Dalton Avenue during what was supposed to be a search for drugs. The commission report noted that during the raid, in which there were 127 acts of vandalism committed, there was no officer present higher than a sergeant.
The report said few of the officers in the chain of command were held accountable for the raid, adding: “Moreover many of the officers have been promoted.”
Some of the most damning testimony came from Gates’ own chief aides. They suggested that the Police Department’s style of policing may lead to a “siege mentality” in the department that can create conflict and confrontation.
Assistant Chief Dotson, for example, told commissioners that the department has a “1950s approach” to law enforcement that pits officers against the communities they patrol. He said officers are rewarded for “hard-nosed, proactive police work” which puts pressure on officers to create pretexts for arresting people.
Brewer, the highest-ranking black at the Police Department before his retirement in February, said he could not indict the whole department on charges of racism, but that “a few (racist officers) tend to stand out.”
“It is the culture we must deal with,” Brewer said in an interview Tuesday, “the culture of ‘us’ against ‘them.’ It’s unhealthy. The Police Department is supposed to provide service to the public.”
The report concluded that the us-against-them mentality and the Police Department’s aggressive style has permitted a professed “war on crime” to spill over into larger communities.
“Because of the concentration and visibility of gangs and street drug activities and the higher rates of violent and property crime in Los Angeles’ minority communities, the department’s aggressive style--its self-described ‘war on crime'--in some cases seems to become an attack on those communities at large.
“The communities, and all within them, become painted with the brush of latent criminality.”
The Police Commission
The report calls for an overhaul of the Police Commission, whose power to hold Gates accountable is termed “illusory.” All members were urged to resign en masse, to be replaced by a stronger board with more duties.
Only hours after the report was released, acting President Melanie Lomax and longtime Commissioner Sam Williams announced they would step down. Lomax, who led the unsuccessful fight to oust Gates, called on the chief to follow suit.
“The thing that I think is most compelling about this report,” Lomax said, “is the vindication that it brings to the minority community (after) years of compliant suffering, knowing that there was a racist, brutal element of the department and not being able to prove it or have public acknowledgement of it.”
Lomax and Williams were unpopular with the City Council, and there was speculation that their resignations may make it easier for Mayor Bradley to negotiate other Christopher Commission recommendations with the council.
Bradley, calling the report “profoundly disturbing,” urged Gates to reconsider leaving his post voluntarily.
Critics of Gates were quick to praise the report as an honest if brutal assessment of problems within the Police Department and as an indictment of the embattled police chief.
“It (the report) demonstrates a total failure of his (Gates’) leadership,” said Ramona Ripston of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It proves once and for all (that the) Rodney King incident was not an aberration, but occurred regularly under Gates’ command.”
But Gates had his supporters, too.
“Since Chief Gates has done nothing wrong in his management of the LAPD, except for some management flaws, this call for him to find a successor is really scandalous,” said Eric Rose, a reserve officer and longtime supporter of Gates.
For gay and lesbian community leaders, the report seemed to corroborate longstanding allegations of discrimination, harassment and brutality.
“To be honest with you, I thought this would be more middle of the road, on the fence,” said David Smith, a spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in Hollywood. “It’s something we’ve been asking for for years.”
In testimony before the commission, the report stated, “both gay and heterosexual officers have noted that police are far more aggressive in enforcing minor infractions against suspected homosexuals than against presumed heterosexuals.”
Both gay and heterosexual officers testified that their colleagues often take “gay calls” lightly, particularly domestic disputes between gay men, the report said. One gay officer testified that he had witnessed officers attempting to dissuade victims of “gay bashings” from pressing charges by threatening to arrest the victims and place them in the same cells as the perpetrators.
“Bias against gays and lesbians also contributes to excessive use of force,” the report continued. “As one LAPD officer put it: ‘It’s easier to thump a faggot than an average Joe. Who cares?’ Another officer said that gay people tend to get beaten more frequently than straight people because ‘they love it. They want to get hit.’ ”
The commission also noted that “some of the most offensive comments” in the computer transmissions concerned lesbians and gay men. One example is this exchange:
“I’ll c u at County Jail bun-boy. . . .”
“If I was a bun-boy you’d be asking to sleep over my house homo.”
Hostility toward homosexuals within the department is reflected by the paucity of openly gay or lesbian officers, the commission said. More than 50 gay and lesbian officers were interviewed by the commission staff, virtually all of whom said they could not reveal their sexual orientation without jeopardizing their careers, and many of whom voiced fears that their physical safety would be endangered.
In recent weeks, the report noted, a small number of gay and lesbian officers publicly disclosed their sexual orientations and initiated a Police Department recruitment effort at a gay pride festival in West Hollywood.
Roger Coggan, director of legal services at the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in Hollywood, said he was surprised and pleased by the commission’s findings.
“It’s a vindication of what we’ve been saying for 15 year and the computer tapes are certainly the smoking guns we’ve been looking for,” he said.