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Message Inquiry Affects Dozens of L.A. Officers : Police: They are being asked to explain why they sent allegedly offensive comments over patrol car computers. Their defenders call the interviews ‘overkill.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dozens of Los Angeles police officers throughout the city, perhaps more than 100, are being called into interviews with Internal Affairs Division investigators to explain why they sent allegedly racial or sexually offensive computer messages that were later discovered by the Christopher Commission, officials said Thursday.

With some patrol stations now reportedly interviewing 40 to 60 officers, the sessions are the first step in what is seen as a widespread move by Los Angeles Police Department administrators to discipline patrol officers and ensure that the Mobile Digital Terminal computers are not abused.

Police defense representatives said this week that they are being inundated by requests from officers for assistance in defending themselves against the allegations. And they blame the furor over the beating of Rodney G. King last March for the department’s sudden strong stance, after administrators for years had looked the other way on computer abuse.

“This is an overkill,” said Sgt. Harry Ryon, who already is defending four officers and expects to handle a dozen more.

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“The department never got overly sensitive about enforcing these before. The messages were periodically audited and it never was a big thing. But now they are trying to retroactively enforce the rules and I don’t think we can do that.”

Ryon and other police defense representatives--who defend fellow officers on administrative discipline matters--said that officers are being summoned en masse to meetings with Internal Affairs Division investigators.

The officers are given an opportunity to explain why the computer messages they sent are not offensive. If their explanations are not satisfactory, the officers are being advised that they will be punished. And the defense representatives said the discipline can range from suspension to termination.

They also said that what began with just six officers being interviewed last week for sending improper messages now has mushroomed into dozens of officers being questioned throughout the LAPD’s 18 patrol divisions.

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For instance, the defense representatives said they have been told that as many as 40 officers are being interviewed in the Wilshire Division, while up to 65 are undergoing questioning in the Pacific Division.

Capt. Julius I. Davis, who commands the Wilshire station, said 40 interviews “is not an accurate number.” But he declined to discuss how many officers are being called in for interviews and disciplined.

“There are a significant number here,” Davis said. “But I don’t want to get into too many details because we are dealing with personnel matters here.”

Capt. John R. Wilbanks, who commands the Pacific Division, could not be reached for comment.

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It is difficult to determine exactly how many officers ultimately might be disciplined for sending offensive messages.

The Christopher Commission, in its study of brutality and discrimination in the LAPD, highlighted about 700 MDT messages that it believed were inappropriately sent between Nov. 1, 1989, and March 4 of this year, the day after the King beating.

In addition, the LAPD, in its own review of computer printouts from the last 12 months, found 345 allegedly offensive messages.

Police administrators have vowed to punish any and all offenders, but they are declining to detail the breadth of their investigation until after Police Chief Daryl F. Gates is briefed on the number of disciplinary cases.

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“I think a lot of people are throwing numbers around that they’ve heard,” said Lt. Fred Nixon, a department spokesman. “But until the chief of police has been provided with all this information, it would be inappropriate for us to release it publicly. I think he gets to see it first.”

Sgt. Don Westfall, who oversees the police Employee Representation Unit, said that each officer who is accused of misconduct for sending an offensive message could take his case to an administrative Board of Rights hearing. If all of the officers exercised that option, Westfall said, the entire disciplinary system at Parker Center would collapse on itself.

“I’d pull my all my hair out if they all went to boards,” he said. “If that happened, I’d probably be completely baldheaded.”

Despite the high number of allegedly offensive messages, some can be explained away, according to the defense representatives.

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For example, one message read “Hi . . . just got mexercise for the night"--which the Christopher Commission took as a slur against Mexican-Americans.

But a defense representative said the officer told investigators during an interview that the message was a typographical error. After chasing a group of suspects, the officer was driving a patrol car and typing on the computer, and meant to type “Hi . . . just got my exercise for the night.”

Other examples, the defense representatives said, were references to “jacking up” a civilian--which is police jargon for booking a suspect--and “kicking” a civilian, which is police slang for “kicking loose” or releasing a suspect.

One defense representative, who said he is carrying a caseload of about a dozen MDT-related incidents, referred to a message that read, “Don’t cry Buckwheat, or is it Willie Lunch Meat.”

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The Christopher panel considered that message to be an insult to blacks. But the defense representative said it actually was a personal joke between two black officers.


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