LAPD Unit on Trial for Allowing Sunland Robbery : Law enforcement: Court battle pits safeguarding the public against the need to gather evidence, experts say.


A controversial Los Angeles police squad is set to defend itself in court again today, this time against claims that it allowed robbers to hold up a McDonald’s and jeopardize a restaurant manager’s life so it could build a case against the men.

Robbin L. Cox, a former manager at a McDonald’s in Sunland, has sued the Los Angeles Police Department and the city of Los Angeles for unspecified damages, saying that officers in the Special Investigations Section had been staking out the robbers for hours, including the moments before they committed the late-night robbery on Feb. 11, 1990.

Cox alleges the officers recklessly allowed the robbers to terrorize her at gunpoint while they monitored the scene from undercover cars parked nearby.


“They had an overwhelming amount of manpower there. They could have easily stopped the whole thing,” said her lawyer, Christopher Hiddleson. “But they chose to allow the robbery to go forward and be completed. . . . She is fortunate she wasn’t shot or raped or anything.”

Cox, 26, and her lawyer claim that SIS officers were negligent because they told patrol officers not to respond to a 911 call she made as the robbers broke in at closing time. Cox said she has suffered emotional trauma that led to long-term unemployment and that the robbery has ruined her chances of continuing a promising career at the fast-food chain.

Cox, who was unavailable for comment, said when she filed the suit in 1990 that she wants at least $1 million in damages.

Jury selection is set to start today, and testimony could start the same day, including questioning of former LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates.

Los Angeles police Tuesday had no comment on the trial, one of many cases against the unit, whose role is to monitor and apprehend dangerous career criminals. The SIS has drawn controversy in recent years because of its high number of shootings and incidents in which officers allowed crimes to take place and victims were threatened or injured.

The unit already has lost one suit in the widely publicized McDonald’s case, when a federal jury found that the officers acted without cause when they fired on the robbers 35 times, killing three and wounding a fourth as the robbers fled the scene.

Although the men had pellet guns, police believed they were armed with pistols.

The jury awarded $44,000 in damages to the families of the dead men and the lone survivor, Alfredo Olivas, who later pleaded guilty to 10 counts of robbery and is serving a 17-year prison sentence.

The jury also found that Gates, a key witness in the federal case, fostered and condoned the use of excessive force in the department.

The current Glendale Superior Court trial, legal experts said, will raise issues of how police must balance protecting the public with the need to gather evidence against dangerous criminals.

Professor Julian Eule, associate dean at the UCLA law school and an expert in constitutional law, said the case raises myriad issues. Among them: whether the “good faith” immunity usually given to police officers as they perform their duties--even when they act negligently--will protect them from liability.

Also, Eule said, jurors may have to delve into the complex issue of whether the U.S. Constitution mandates that police have an ironclad obligation to protect citizens from harm. Most successful lawsuits against police and other government agents focus on just the opposite--cases in which they actively did something they should not have, such as invade someone’s privacy or violate their civil rights, Eule said.

“It becomes very tricky when you argue that the government has an obligation to do something that it hasn’t done.”

The FBI said Tuesday that it is continuing to investigate possible civil rights violations in the Sunland shooting.

The LAPD and the city have tried to get the case dismissed, saying the officers acted in the best interests of everyone concerned, including Cox.

“They made a tactical decision, based on sound police work. That’s what we believe,” said Deputy City Atty. Don Vincent, supervising attorney for the city’s police litigation unit. “I don’t think it’s negligence.”

Cox already has received $95,000 in workers’ compensation benefits from the state for emotional distress and disability, Vincent said. Cox has returned to college in Pasadena and is training for a new career.

She has said in court documents that she was so traumatized by the incident that she has been unable to work. Cox has said she was alone in the Foothill Boulevard restaurant at about 11:45 p.m. when she saw two suspicious-looking men and called 911.

At least 18 SIS members were watching, and an SIS leader canceled the 911 response, saying everything was under control.

“When Robbin Cox was in the restaurant with the suspects, police had no control of the situation whatsoever,” Hiddleson said. “They completely lost control of it. . . . They let the whole thing go down so they could have an excuse to charge them with a more serious crime.”

Cox was taken to the back of the restaurant, blindfolded, handcuffed and placed on the floor and threatened with death if she didn’t open the safe, Hiddleson said. “She was under the impression she was going to be killed at any second,” the attorney said.

Vincent said police didn’t apprehend the robbers sooner because their modus operandi in previous holdups was to wait for managers to exit a restaurant before accosting them. Nor had they held other store managers hostage. Officers also had orders to apprehend the four men before they entered the McDonald’s if they were together, but the men fanned out around the building and entered from a side not visible to the SIS officers, Vincent said.

After that, he added, the best response was to wait it out.

Former Chief Gates agreed in a deposition taken by Cox’s lawyer in 1992: “They might walk into a situation that could result in a hostage situation and perhaps a shootout and your client could have been injured. It was her interest at heart that they didn’t answer the call.”

But Hiddleson countered that the SIS officers clearly violated department policy. He cited the LAPD manual, which states: “No arrest, conviction or piece of evidence can outweigh the value of human life.”

In addition, Hiddleson said, police had an obligation to respond to Cox’s 911 call, especially after the dispatcher told Cox that help was on the way. He also said he would argue during the trial that the case is part of a larger problem in which the SIS has allowed people to be robbed and assaulted before acting.