THE SIMPSON LEGACY / LOS ANGELES TIMES SPECIAL REPORT : Trial & Error: FOCUS SHIFTS TO A JUSTICE SYSTEM AND ITS FLAWS : Weighing the Necessity of Change : How One Case May Reshape Criminal Justice in America : The Police / "It's not a bad apple. The barrel itself is rotten."

No part of the criminal justice Establishment took a more punishing beating during O.J. Simpson's dou ble murder trial than the Los Angeles Police Department, whose officers and technicians were charged at various times with bigotry, deceit, ignorance and garden-variety incompetence. Outwardly, however, the department displays few scars.

With its chrome equipment, well-paid staffers in white lab coats and double-locked doors, the LAPD's crime lab certainly doesn't look like a "cesspool of contamination."

Nor does West Los Angeles Division, the police station where Detective Mark Fuhrman made his last professional stop, seem like a repository of racism. It's one of the city's tidier police divisions, and although its legacy includes more than its share of sexual harassment complaints, its officers generally are well-regarded by residents--including onetime LAPD admirer O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of murder charges.

And at Police Department headquarters, the LAPD's vaunted Robbery-Homicide Division appears too threadbare to host a sophisticated police conspiracy. Old desks, beaten-up typewriters, bare tile floors and a few overworked detectives struggle to handle the most controversial, complicated and closely watched homicides in a city that registers more than 1,000 violent killings a year. Most go by with little notice--much less with charges of evidence-tampering and gross misconduct.

Yet for more than a year, the LAPD--its lab, its detectives and even its history--have stood at the center of one of the most aggressive and sustained attacks on a police department ever waged by a team of criminal defense lawyers. And long after the Simpson trial has drifted off the front page, the LAPD will be wrestling with its fallout: from the devastating critique of its investigative techniques to the explosive revelations of a rogue racist cop boasting of a career filled with brutality and deceit.

All of that has taken a toll within the department, drawing Police Chief Willie L. Williams' angry demands for an apology from the defense team and exacting a deep, numbing toll on rank-and-file officers who watched with increasing dismay as their department, still struggling with the fallout from the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King and the riots that followed, came under fire yet again.

"It has been devastating," Williams said in an interview. "Our employees have had to listen to so much and be blamed. From the beginning, it was suggested that there was a plot, the race card was played by people inside and outside the defense team and it has been talked about around the world. All that has, to a degree, been dumped in the lap of the LAPD."

Some changes are inevitable after such a humiliating courtroom defeat, according to sources within the Police Department. Tighter rules on evidence handling, for instance, might have avoided the embarrassing admission that a detective carried a vial of Simpson's blood from police headquarters to Simpson's house. Some jurors have said they viewed that suspiciously, and although LAPD officials dismiss the defense team's ominous suggestions about what happened to that blood, they concede that its unorthodox handling gave the Simpson team something to exploit.

Similarly, the LAPD is likely to ask for more resources for its underequipped crime lab and its overburdened detectives. But in a city strapped for cash and more determined to increase the size of its police force than to equip the officers already on board, the prospects for progress in those areas remain uncertain.

The verdicts barely had been delivered before demands for LAPD reform--many of them uttered many times before--were reignited by the city's political leaders.

Councilman Hal Bernson, a strong supporter of the Police Department, recommended a top-to-bottom review of police procedures, saying that the LAPD had made many mistakes in gathering and securing evidence in the Simpson case. Bernson, who said he believed that the jury's doubts about Fuhrman's credibility were key to the verdicts, also asked for an update on the 44 problem officers referred to by the 1991 Christopher Commission report on the King beating.

Similarly, Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg expressed concerns about the LAPD lab's performance in the Simpson case. She, too, called for quick action.

"There are specific steps we could take to take care of that," she said, referring to the Simpson jury's repudiation of the LAPD's work. "That's the message."

And confronted with mounting public concern about the lab and its performance, Councilman Joel Wachs released a six-point plan for improving its facilities. Implementing that plan, Wachs said, could cost $1 million upfront and another $1 million a year; not implementing it, however, could end up costing far more, according to the councilman.

Faced with all that, Chief Williams urged caution, saying it is too soon to single out the Police Department or any entity within it for the loss in the Simpson case. But Williams said the LAPD is attempting to catalogue the jurors' comments to study their responses and determine what changes, if any, are needed.

Few areas of the LAPD came under more withering attack during the trial than the department's lab. John Gerdes, a Denver-based microbiologist, testified that he had never seen a laboratory with a more serious contamination problem.

"By those standards [those used in clinical laboratories], are there remedies that accrediting agencies use when they find contamination or other quality assurance problems in laboratories?" defense lawyer Barry Scheck asked Gerdes during his testimony.

"Yes," Gerdes said.

"What are those remedies?" Scheck asked.

"They would shut the lab down with this level of contamination," he responded.

Although LAPD officials publicly have dismissed the issues raised by the Simpson team as the sniping of defense attorneys, privately they have acknowledged that the defense correctly identified some department shortcomings, especially with respect to its crime lab.

A confidential review of the department's Scientific Investigation Division obtained by The Times identifies 24 areas in which the laboratory needs improvement or needs to work with the research community to develop better crime-fighting techniques. Some of the entries, which were prepared at an LAPD "technology summit" held in the spring of 1994--before the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman--point to significant problems in the lab's operations.

"The present system for replacing outdated or irreparable laboratory equipment to maintain analytical capabilities in the forensic laboratory is cumbersome, obsolete and inadequate," the report said. It went on to identify a number of instruments that either were broken or in need of replacement.

The report also highlights an area that the Simpson team focused on, but which prosecutors contested. What the government lawyers did not say--and may not have known--is that LAPD officials privately shared some of the same doubts about the Police Department's DNA laboratory that the Simpson defense team raised.

In fact, the report implicitly acknowledges that the LAPD's DNA technology does not meet minimum industry standards--much less the leadership role that the LAPD likes to claim for itself in American law enforcement.

"Scientific Investigation Division requires space, equipment and personnel to meet and exceed the minimum standards to perform analyses which would provide for complete and rapid identification and comparison of body fluids using DNA technology," the report said. "City management should acquire space, equipment and personnel to meet and exceed minimum standards for personal identification . . . as has become standard in other criminalistics laboratories throughout the country."

Those recommendations did not spur the city to dramatic action.

The City Council, acting on the budget proposal drafted by the city's chief administrative officer--in consultation with Mayor Richard Riordan's staff--approved raises for Scientific Investigation Division employees and a modest equipment budget. LAPD officials asked for $500,000 last year for equipment, but they did not request any big-ticket items; the council approved $346,000.

Other improvements in scientific equipment have come haphazardly, if at all.

When Councilwoman Laura Chick, now the head of the Public Safety Committee, was elected in 1993, she found that a police station in her district did not even have a basic fingerprint camera. She devoted a portion of her council salary to buy the station a new one.

The crime lab is likely to get new attention in the wake of the Simpson verdicts, but an old issue has raised its head again: racism.

It was the bane of the LAPD since long before Rodney G. King made it a national debate. It was the issue that underlay the Simpson defense arguments of conspiracy. It is the charge that LAPD wrestles with every single day.

And racism has resurfaced in stark and dramatic fashion because of the Simpson case, specifically with the so-called Fuhrman tapes.

In a series of interviews with an aspiring screenwriter, Fuhrman wove an inflammatory tale of police abuse, of officers beating suspects, of manufacturing evidence, falsifying arrests and singling out minorities for harsh, brutal and illegal treatment.

Fuhrman's racist diatribe--critics of the department have called the tapes the audio complement to the videotaped King beating--came to light in the closing weeks of the Simpson trial. With the first leaks from the interviews, the LAPD again came under scathing attack for employing, promoting and tacitly sanctioning an officer who prided himself on his racism and misconduct.

Reeling from the disclosures, the Police Commission and the department's Internal Affairs Division each launched investigations. Their missions: to determine whether Fuhrman was telling the truth when he described incidents of misconduct, and, if so, to figure out whether any action can now be taken by the department to address them.

Williams has publicly vowed a thorough review, but others in the LAPD are privately skeptical that much will come of it. Many of the Fuhrman tapes were made nearly 10 years ago, and the incidents he describes are in some cases many years older than that.

"I don't think there's going to be much resolution," said one person familiar with the LAPD probe. "We'll end up with a ton of information, and there will be some embarrassments, but most of this is going to be out of statute [too old to prosecute] and Fuhrman's gone, so what are we going to do to him?"

Fuhrman identified other officers in his taped interviews, suggesting that he collaborated with colleagues in some of his most notorious acts. Those officers now may face more troubles than Fuhrman. If the department can establish that they committed acts that would qualify as misconduct--and if those acts are not so old that they exceed the statute of limitations--the offending officers could be subject to suspensions, even dismissals.

The trouble with that is that anyone accused by Fuhrman has a ready-made response: He is a proven liar.

"They'll say he's lying, and since we know he lies, that's pretty hard to argue with," one LAPD source said.

Apart from the narrow focus on Fuhrman's allegations, the department also has pledged a renewed attack on racism in the ranks.

Williams insisted that even a single officer with Fuhrman's beliefs is one too many, and he assured the public that the department will aggressively tackle the problem.

Although most close observers of the department do not doubt Williams' sincerity, some question his ability to fulfill that promise. Racism is an elusive enemy, they note, notoriously resistant to official campaigns of eradication--even by an African American police chief.

"If you've got a tired, old raggedy car that doesn't run well, just because you change drivers doesn't mean your car is going to run," said Michael Zinzun, who heads the Coalition Against Police Abuse. "Willie Williams is a new driver, but it's the same old car."

Within the Police Department, "racism runs rampant," Zinzun added. "It's not a bad apple. The barrel itself is rotten."

Senior Police Department officials say that is simply not true, and argue that the department is no more afflicted with racism than any other large, diverse organization. Nevertheless, recognizing the extent to which racism still lurks within the LAPD, the department has launched a long-awaited cultural awareness program that every Los Angeles police officer will undergo over the next 18 months.

That program was recommended by the Christopher Commission in 1992, and although officials concede that it took some time to get it up and running, they say they are pleased with the result.

Moreover, the LAPD has vowed not to bank all its efforts on its powers of persuasion. A new anti-discrimination unit has been proposed by the Police Commission and awaits funding by the City Council. That unit, backers say, would help investigate complaints of harassment and discrimination and would give greater authority to the civilian commission rather than the department itself, whose efforts have often been viewed with suspicion.

LAPD critics applaud moves such as that, but continue to harbor doubts about whether the department will deliver. Joe Hicks, executive director of the Multi-Cultural Collaborative, a nonprofit coalition of Los Angeles community groups, declined to predict how the LAPD may react, but said he at least was encouraged by the public attention that the trial focused on the need for LAPD reform.

"The Fuhrman tapes," he said, "made it very difficult for the city to run and hide from this issue."

Certainly in the verdicts' immediate aftermath, officers could not hide their sense of exposure and chagrin.

At Parker Center and in police divisions citywide after the verdicts were rendered, normally bustling hallways were somber and quiet. Officers given to banter instead seemed downcast, their mood reflective of the disbelief that Simpson could be acquitted of killing Goldman and Nicole Simpson, their amazement magnified by the comments of former jurors who blamed the LAPD for, in their view, mishandling evidence and attempting to mislead the jury.

"This has been very disappointing for people who have given their lives to law enforcement and who are trying to do the right thing," said Capt. Jim Tatreau, commanding officer of the LAPD's Newton Division. "It's especially discouraging and depressing to detectives. . . . They know in their hearts that they arrested the person responsible for these crimes."

For their part, the members of the Simpson team that launched the broadsides said they were encouraged by the public outcry. But they expressed deep skepticism that the department would ever genuinely come to grips with the issues raised in the trial.

"Rodney King didn't change the way the LAPD did its business," said Peter Neufeld, a member of Simpson's team. "The Christopher Commission didn't change the way the LAPD does business. Then people suggested Fuhrman is a racist who hates black people and no one believed it.

"Then you hear an audiotape with Fuhrman espousing racial genocide," Neufeld added. "Is the LAPD going to change now? I doubt it. . . . It will be business as usual tomorrow morning."

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