With all the vitriolic back-and-forth in the closing arguments of the O.J. Simpson murder trial last week, there was one issue on which all the attorneys agreed: Retired detective Mark Fuhrman was the worst LAPD had to offer.
And there was another issue left in doubt: Why Fuhrman--despite his avowed racism and penchant for violence--was allowed to remain on the force.
"Nobody," defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. declared, "did anything about it."
Indeed, Fuhrman's racist attitudes and boasts of violence were no secret to city officials. While requesting a stress disability pension in 1983, Fuhrman graphically described torturing suspects and conning internal affairs detectives investigating whether he and other officers engaged in a bloody beating rampage.
"I answer everything with violence," Fuhrman told the city Board of Pension Commissioners. "Just seems like I can't tolerate anybody or anything anymore."
But rather than grant Fuhrman's pension application--or bounce him from the force for his attitude or self-described acts of misconduct--officials said they didn't believe him. At the time, dozens of officers each year were seeking lucrative stress pensions, many claiming to be "walking time bombs."
In Fuhrman's case, one LAPD psychiatrist recommended that he not be allowed to carry a weapon again. Fuhrman, though, was back on the streets in the West Los Angeles patrol division within months of his startling admissions.
Psychiatrists and pension board members who evaluated him say that, in hindsight, a thorough LAPD investigation of his claims could have prevented much of the controversy sparked by the Simpson case.
"He expressed these thoughts, and the department was aware of them," said psychiatrist Ronald R. Koegler, who evaluated Fuhrman in 1982 and sent a report to LAPD officials recommending that he be re-educated. "The problem is with the department: If they got this report and didn't do anything. . . . All I can say is they must have liked him there and wanted him back."
LAPD officials, who say they are conducting a "biopsy" of Fuhrman's entire career, refuse to discuss why he was allowed to return to patrol duty less than a year after he was denied the stress disability pension in 1983. They also decline to say whether Fuhrman was counseled or monitored once he was back on duty.
"That would be confidential personnel files," said Cmdr. Tim McBride, the LAPD's chief spokesman.
But Fuhrman's pension records--available for public scrutiny on the dusty shelves of the county court archives--offer a case study of how one officer seemingly fell through the cracks. Fuhrman's case also raises troubling questions about the LAPD's response to evidence of racist attitudes and alleged misconduct among its rank and file.
Former pension commissioner Karl Moody, who thought Fuhrman was exaggerating at the time and still believes so, concedes that the board's action may also have sent a bad signal to the former detective and any others of his ilk.
"Maybe we made a mistake," Moody acknowledged in a recent interview. "If he was telling the truth, maybe we validated that it was OK to be a racist."
A Quirk of Fate
In the end, the denial of Fuhrman's pension was as much a "quirk" as anything else, said a former city attorney assigned to the pension board at the time.
"His case was not any more flimsy than any other cases," said retired Assistant City Atty. Siegfried O. Hilmer. "If he had gotten his pension, maybe it would have been better because he . . . may have just gone to Idaho and have been forgotten about."
Fuhrman, a native of Eatonville, Wash., joined the LAPD in 1975 after serving several years in the Marines. He described his military experience in racist tones as far back as December, 1981, in a psychiatric interview for his workers' compensation case. Fuhrman, who was granted workers' compensation in 1981, remained on paid leave through mid-1983 when the Pension Board denied his request for the permanent disability pension by a 6-0 vote.
During his last six months in the Marines, Fuhrman told Dr. John Hochman, he "got tired of having a bunch of Mexicans and niggers that should be in prison, telling [him] they weren't going to do something."
The chilling statement was one of dozens Fuhrman made to psychiatrists and the pension board, offering rich details about his attitude and alleged misconduct as an LAPD officer. All became publicly available when Fuhrman filed a 1983 Superior Court appeal of his pension rejection. The appeal was denied.
Fuhrman "bragged" to Koegler in late 1982 about breaking suspects' hands, faces, arms and legs "if necessary." And, lacing his comments with racial epithets, he told Koegler, as he did Hochman, about his problems with minorities in the Marines.
"He is preoccupied with violence, and this theme frequently entered into his remarks," Koegler concluded.
Fuhrman, an avid weightlifter who bulked up his 6-foot 2-inch frame to 204 pounds and boasted of bench-pressing 320 pounds, said his hands were his weapon of choice when beating people. "I liked using my hands instead of my stick," he told commissioners at his pension hearing.
"It wasn't a problem I always had," Fuhrman continued, asserting that his anger was intensified by the very violence he was sworn to fight as an officer. "I was a good policeman. Something happened to me."
Asked how he took out his hostility on suspects by then-commissioner Moody, Fuhrman replied: "I tortured them. . . . When I would choke out somebody, I would try to break their neck, period."
In speaking with Hochman, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, Fuhrman talked of "choking, kicking and punching a man after he was unconscious." He said he "was afraid that he would kill someone if he continued to work the streets."
Finally, he told Hochman about the investigation surrounding "what happened to four guys" he and his partner caught after two fellow officers were shot. The limited facts he related to the psychiatrist seem to square with an Oct. 18, 1978, incident at a Boyle Heights housing project, also apparently described in Fuhrman's now-infamous audiotaped interviews with aspiring screenwriter Laura Hart McKinny.
Fuhrman told McKinny that he and his partners pounded the suspects' faces to "mush," pushed one of them down the stairs and left their blood-splattered apartment in ruins.
Fuhrman said he was the prime suspect in an internal affairs investigation launched after the beating. But he said he was cleared of any wrongdoing--even though officials suspected he was guilty. "They knew damn well I did it," Fuhrman told McKinny.
Fuhrman believed that he was "smarter than the people who investigated this incident," Hochman's December, 1981, report says.
"You don't see, you don't remember and it didn't happen," Fuhrman told the psychiatrist. "Those are the three things you say and you stick to it."
However, no evidence has been disclosed that department officials ever took a second look at the Boyle Heights case as a result of what Fuhrman told the psychiatrists.
Then, as now, all such psychiatric reports were sent to the LAPD's medical liaison officer, who also attended and testified at Fuhrman's pension hearing.
At the time, several psychiatrists recommended that Fuhrman be removed from police duty.
Dr. Ira M. Brent said Fuhrman suffered from "a highly narcissistic character disorder" and "many aspects of paranoia, underlying hostility and rage."
"I would consider Mr. Fuhrman to be unsuitable for return to police duty of any sort," Brent concluded at the time, "and would also consider him to be unsuitable to perform, or work, in any occupation in which dangerous weapons are utilized." He estimated that work stress accounted for about 20% of Fuhrman's overall "rage and aggressive impulses." The rest stemmed from other experiences in Fuhrman's life, the doctor said.
Susan Saxe-Clifford, a psychiatrist working for the LAPD at the time, was the one who recommended that Fuhrman not be allowed to carry a gun.
Saxe-Clifford said last week that she could not recall the Fuhrman case. But she did acknowledge that any weapon-removal recommendation "was very serious . . . because it puts someone's career on the line."
In evaluating Fuhrman, two other psychiatrists, Hochman and Koegler, said they thought he was exaggerating.
"In observing and talking to this man, it is hard to conceive that he is being considered for total disability and is applying for a pension from the police force," wrote Koegler. "It appeared to me during the evaluation that he was deliberately exaggerating his preoccupation with violence in order to make himself appear unsuitable for police work."
But Koegler agreed with another psychiatrist that Fuhrman was "emotionally unstable" and concluded that if he returned to police work "his casual attitude toward violence will have to be evaluated by his superiors in terms of assignment." The psychiatrist also recommended that Fuhrman receive counseling and education regarding his violent attitude.
Hochman, who said Fuhrman's statements were "self-serving," conceded that they may also have been "a cry for help."
Hochman refused in an interview to speak specifically about Fuhrman. But he emphasized that the LAPD's medical liaison's office receives copies of every psychiatric evaluation of an officer making a workers' compensation claim.
In the LAPD's defense, Hochman and others said, the early 1980s were a period when scores of officers were seeking stress disability pensions, in which they can earn up to 50% of their salary tax-free for the rest of their lives.
"There was a time when getting a worker' stress claim was kind of like raiding the candy store," he said. "The board was overwhelmed. You had piles and piles of reports.
"People would come in and say, 'I'm a walking time bomb,' " Hochman continued. "I think the people in the medical liaison's office would look at reports and say, 'Oh, here's another time bomb. Let's take him to the watch repair store.' "
City records show that the city pension board was granting 30 to 57 psychiatric-related disability claims each year from 1980 to 1984, said Ed Griffiths, manager of the city's disability retirement division.
In the last five years, after a new state law took effect prohibiting ex-officers with psychiatric disabilities from carrying concealed weapons, pension seekers have slowed to a trickle of no more than half a dozen a year.
At the time Fuhrman filed for a pension, about 80% of police pension requests were being approved, according to city statistics.
That Fuhrman's request was denied was largely a matter of whim, said retired Assistant City Atty. Hilmer. "He could have got it," Hilmer recalled. "It's one of the shortcomings of psychiatry, I guess. It's just an art, not a science.
"It depends on who examines you and if he believes what you're saying. Then you are home scot-free with your allegations that you're disabled. And if you're not believed, and it's just as easy, you're out of luck."
Nonetheless, psychiatrists said the violent nature of Fuhrman's statements was unlike that voiced by most officers filing stress disability claims. "I've seen it [violence] expressed, but it is not common," said psychiatrist Koegler, who has evaluated about 300 stress claim cases. "Most involve complaints of unfair treatment by superiors."
Those handling the Fuhrman case also emphasized that it wasn't up to them to do anything about Fuhrman's racist attitude.
"The fact that he has these ideas does not mean that we are going to pension him off as disabled," Koegler said. "He in fact may have had these attitudes when he came on the force."
Longtime pension commissioner Sam Diannitto agreed that expressions of racism and violence do not necessarily constitute a disability. "If you look at racial hatred and violence, that's really a mind-set," said the assistant fire chief. "It's not disabling, in my opinion."
Diannitto said the six-member board was bound by the city charter, which stipulates that applicants be declared disabled only if they cannot do any job they are assigned. Department officials, he pointed out, told the commission they could put Fuhrman behind a desk in a lower stress job.
"Our hands are pretty much tied," said Diannitto, who has served on the board for 23 years.
At Fuhrman's pension hearing, Sgt. Larry Palmer testified that the "department had a variety of light duty, low-stress jobs available for Officer Fuhrman. Gun, uniform and public contact would not be required," transcripts show.
Fuhrman remained in the department's personnel division for a few months but was back on duty as a patrol officer in West Los Angeles in May, 1984.
Within five years, he was working as a training officer. In late 1989, he was promoted to a coveted detective post in the West Division, where he was named as a defendant in at least four brutality lawsuits.
Fuhrman remained in the West Division--where he wound up on the world stage as a central figure in the Simpson case--until he retired in August. Jury deliberations begin today.
As the Fuhrman furor boiled over, Chief Willie L. Williams declared that officers with racist attitudes are subject to being fired.
"We will not tolerate any type of racist or violent behavior," Williams said last week at an Eastside community meeting. Discrimination based on racial or gender bias "is viewed as just as critical as if you robbed someone with a gun or if you're an officer dealing drugs."
While the LAPD refuses to comment on the specifics of the Fuhrman case, psychiatrist Hochman noted that social mores have evolved over the past 15 years.
"What's a bad cop, and what's a good cop? The definitions have changed," he said.
Times staff writer Jim Newton contributed to this story.