Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, continuing his testimony Tuesday in a police shooting trial, defended his department's policy of first questioning officers involved in shootings and then tape-recording their statements.
Gates acknowledged that when civilian witnesses are questioned about police shootings they are usually tape-recorded from the start in order to "lock in" their accounts of the incident. In contrast, police officers are not recorded until they have already discussed the incident at length with investigators, he said.
Gates testified as a defendant in the three-month-long trial of a lawsuit filed by the families of three men who were shot to death and a fourth man who was wounded by police following a robbery at a McDonald's restaurant in Sunland on Feb. 12, 1990.
The plaintiffs are seeking $5 million in damages and contend that nine officers with the department's Special Investigations Section opened fire on the men without cause. They contend that Gates has fostered a custom in the department where such shootings are sanctioned and subsequent investigations are improperly conducted.
The plaintiffs' attorney, Stephen Yagman, questioned the chief at length about his disciplining of officers and the policies regarding shooting investigations. Yagman frequently read from the Christopher Commission report, which was highly critical of the department following an independent investigation prompted by the Rodney G. King beating.
Gates testified that he is a strong disciplinarian who has had no tolerance for officers who use excessive force. "In fact, I think everyone believes my discipline to be too harsh," Gates said.
Yagman asked several questions seemingly aimed at showing a double standard in which officers involved in shootings are allowed to "get their stories straight" before being formally tape-recorded about the events surrounding a shooting.
"We do not tape them immediately," Gates said of officers. "It makes no sense in terms of acquiring facts."
Gates said that after a shooting, "there is a lot of excitement, and they are not ready to give their best response . . .. There is an examination of facts, a discussion with the officer, then the tape recorder is turned on."
Gates acknowledged that the same procedure is not done with civilian witnesses but said that they are usually taped immediately because they may not be available later.
Gates acknowledged that the Christopher Commission recommended that the policy of not initially taping officers be changed, but he said he did not know whether the change has been made because the recommendations are under review.
The defense, headed by Deputy City Atty. Don Vincent, rested after Gates' testimony.
Times reporter David Freed testified briefly as a rebuttal witness after U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts overruled objections by the newspaper and Vincent. Freed testified that he conducted a lengthy investigation of the SIS in 1988, resulting in publication of stories that were critical of the unit. However, Letts did not allow Yagman to introduce the stories as evidence.