With the federal government this week formally launching a civil rights investigation of former Detective Mark Fuhrman, two of the nation's foremost law enforcement agencies again are warily circling each other, their leaders pledging cooperation at the same time they weigh the implications of a new federal inquiry involving the Los Angeles Police Department.
According to sources, Police Chief Willie L. Williams, in Washington this week for an awards ceremony, sought an audience with Justice Department officials to sound them out about their intentions. Federal officials agreed to the session, sources said, only to have Williams abruptly cancel the meeting late Tuesday after police commissioners in Los Angeles expressed reservations about the chief going alone to a session that would involve him speaking to the very people who could bring legal action against his department.
The dance between the LAPD and the Justice Department, particularly the FBI, is hardly new: Relations between the two agencies historically have been marked by long periods of mutual animosity, exacerbated by flare-ups such as a turf battle over the 1984 Summer Olympics and by the aggressive federal probe of the police officers who beat Rodney G. King.
But the latest issue brings a special host of problems.
They range from the practical--statutes of limitations make it unlikely that the federal government could prosecute Fuhrman for civil rights violations discussed on tapes made by an aspiring screenwriter--to the political--a drawn-out legal battle between the city and federal governments may harm both without doing much to eliminate their common foe of racism and excessive force within the LAPD.
One thing is certain: Sources say a formal civil rights investigation officially was launched by the FBI this week and has been assigned to Michael J. Gennaco, an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles who formerly worked for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in Washington.
Although the FBI generally confirms the existence of civil rights investigations, John Hoos, a spokesman for the FBI's Los Angeles office, declined comment, referring questions to the Civil Rights Division. Officials at the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles also said they could not comment, and a Justice Department spokesman would say only that Atty. Gen. Janet Reno had made clear her commitment to thoroughly reviewing the concerns raised by the Fuhrman tapes.
At least for now, the FBI investigation, according to sources within the Police Department, appears to be focused only on Fuhrman and whether he committed civil rights violations that might still subject him to prosecution. No broader inquiry into the Police Department appears under way at this point, though that does not mean one could not grow out of the current efforts.
Prospects for a federal prosecution of Fuhrman, however, are clouded by problems. Most of the Fuhrman tapes are eight to 10 years old, meaning that even if authorities could prove that he committed the acts he describes on the tapes, they could not prosecute him because the legal statute of limitations for civil rights violations has expired.
"That's going to be a real problem for them," law professor and former federal prosecutor Steven D. Clymer said of the federal investigation.
Charges growing out of more recent conduct, including the possibility of a perjury prosecution for Fuhrman's testimony in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, would not face a statute of limitations problem. But perjury would be a state charge, not a federal one.
Despite the limits on the federal Fuhrman investigation, some city officials have welcomed that inquiry. Deirdre Hill, president of the Police Commission, said the Police Department would cooperate with any federal investigation, though she stressed that she believed local officials should conduct their own probe.
Inside the Police Department, however, some officials are less comfortable with the federal government's entry into the fray. Still fresh on their minds are the LAPD's bruising confrontations with the FBI that characterized the King civil rights investigation.
In that case, FBI agents angered many police officers by showing up at police roll calls to conduct interviews and by confronting some officers at their homes. In one case, FBI agents turned off a police officer's power when he did not come to the door.
The King investigation left a bad taste in the mouths of many police officers, who watched angrily as two colleagues were sent to federal prison. Since then, however, the two organizations have worked hard to patch up their differences, successfully cooperating in federal-local task forces that have produced large numbers of arrests.
Those successes have led to a thaw in FBI-LAPD relations, but that detente would certainly be broken if the Justice Department expanded its efforts beyond looking at Fuhrman and conducted a broader investigation of the Police Department.
Under the crime bill passed by Congress last year, governmental agencies, not just individuals, were specifically barred from engaging in systematic deprivations of constitutionally protected rights. If federal authorities concluded that the LAPD demonstrated a pattern of racial discrimination or of excessive force, the federal government could seek injunctions against the department or even move to take over some of its operations.
That law is so new and untested that the federal government's powers under it are hard to determine. Unclear, for instance, is what would constitute a "pattern or practice" of discrimination or excessive force. How many examples would be needed? And what remedies could the Justice Department seek if it persuaded a judge that such a pattern existed?
Clymer, a law professor at Cornell University who successfully prosecuted Los Angeles police officers for violating King's civil rights, said that if the Justice Department could establish such a pattern, it theoretically could take over the LAPD's Internal Affairs Division and review all civilian complaints against police officers.
But, Clymer and others noted, the Fuhrman tapes may not demonstrate any larger pattern in the Police Department. And a federal takeover of any part of the LAPD would come at a high cost, Clymer added.
"I don't know if LAPD morale could get any lower," Clymer said, "but if it could, that would be the way to do it."
Police Commissioner Raymond C. Fisher said local officials are prepared to cooperate fully with any federal probe. But he expressed reservations about a broad inquiry into LAPD practices, warning that it could divert the department from its own efforts to address those problems.
Although a narrow Fuhrman probe and a broad "pattern or practice" investigation represent the extremes of the Justice Department's options, at least one expert suggested that federal officials should choose a middle course.
Former U.S. Deputy Atty. Gen. Philip B. Heymann, now a professor at Harvard Law School, said Justice Department officials should demand action against Fuhrman's immediate supervisors on the theory that they should have known of his activities and that their failure to act against him effectively sanctioned his racism.
If action were taken against those supervisors, Heymann said, the federal government could then step back; if not, it could seek an injunction against the LAPD by arguing that it had engaged in precisely the pattern of conduct that federal law prohibits.
"The Civil Rights Division ought to say: If there's evidence that the Los Angeles Police Department is demanding that its supervisors act when they find a Fuhrman, then we believe that there's no pattern or practice, and we will not seek an injunction against Los Angeles," Heymann said. "However, if it looks to us like the Police Department is not insisting that its supervisors take action, then there is a pattern, and we will proceed."
Heymann described that approach--of holding supervisors accountable for the actions of their subordinates--as the "magic bullet" to eliminate racism.
In fact, his position closely resembles that of Mayor Richard Riordan, who has urged Police Department officials to focus on supervisors as they tackle the issue of racism within the ranks. Riordan has stressed, however, that he believes racism--far from being the LAPD's "practice"--is isolated to a very few bad officers.
That is not a view shared by some members of the community, where cries for state and federal prosecution of Fuhrman have erupted since excerpts from his explosive interviews with an aspiring screenwriter began leaking out in August.
On Wednesday, a small demonstration outside the Downtown Criminal Courthouse reiterated the continuing controversy over the detective, now retired and living in Idaho.
"Nothing short of the credibility of the criminal justice system in L.A. is at stake here," said Rocky Jaramillo Rushing, of state Sen. Tom Hayden's office, at the protest. The Santa Monica Democrat's office has collected about 100 signatures from church and community leaders to support Fuhrman's prosecution on perjury charges, Rushing said.
"Many of us out here have sons in jail," said Theresa Allison, co-founder of Mothers Reclaiming Our Children, a South-Central-based group that sponsored the rally. "Just last night in my neighborhood, I saw a white officer tell a youngster, 'If I don't have proof that you did something, I'll make a case against you.' That has got to stop."
* Times staff writer Erin Texeira contributed to this article.