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More Police Tape Arrests in Fear of Claims

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s not the gun, pepper spray, baton or handcuffs on his Sam Browne equipment belt that makes Los Angeles Police Officer Jay Roberts feel safe on the streets these days.

It’s the small tape recorder he wears hidden in his breast pocket.

“I’d rather carry this,” said Roberts, patting his pocket, “than any of this other stuff. It’s ammunition.”

The 34-year-old officer is part of a growing movement in Los Angeles, and one rarely seen in other big cities: police using hidden tape recorders to protect themselves against abuse complaints. Those allegations, usually made following arrests, can keep officers temporarily desk-bound and remain permanently in their personnel files.

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The Police Commission appointed an inspector general last week to investigate misconduct complaints by residents--a move to boost public confidence and root out rogue cops.

But police officers say the tape recorders are their protection against an increasingly antagonistic public, a shield against potentially career-ending disputes. Roberts used a tape recording recently to fend off a complaint by a San Fernando Valley man who claimed Roberts and his partner had improperly entered his apartment.

“Police see themselves under attack . . . and they see the tapes as a defense,” said Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C.

The growing use of tape recorders is supported by an unusual mix of politicians, police, union officials and criminal defense attorneys. They agree that officers--as well as the public--can benefit from the devices.

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“I think it’s imperative for any police officer, particularly those in patrol, to use whatever tools are available to protect themselves--whether it’s a bulletproof vest or a tape recorder,” said Lt. Tony Alba, the Los Angeles Police Department spokesman.

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The tape recordings can also protect residents, especially when their version of events contradict police accounts.

“It’s truth in law enforcement,” said Stephen Yagman, a Venice civil rights attorney who specializes in police abuse cases. “It’s a fantastic idea. It makes good common sense and it’s good public policy.”

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Yagman said the department should require the tape recorders, rather than allowing officers to use them selectively.

Los Angeles police officers began buying tape recorders for themselves after the Rodney G. King beating case five years ago. Now, increasing numbers of supervisors are encouraging the practice. At the West Valley station, about 50 officers have asked their bosses to begin buying the machines in bulk.

“In the past, we couldn’t resolve a lot of these complaints,” said Capt. Val Paniccia of the West Valley Division. “Managers now more and more are believing that many cops are not as bad as people are saying they are. I’m putting a lot more credence in what my officers are telling me.”

Although civilians in California cannot tape-record another person without their knowledge, law enforcement officers are exempt from the law, according to recent court rulings. Judges have said members of the public cannot expect privacy when being detained or questioned by police. Consequently, it is becoming common practice for police to tape-record suspects in their homes, on the street or in the patrol car.

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Mark Kappelhoff, the ACLU’s legislative counsel in Washington, said the use of tape recorders is a troubling indication of police mistrust of the public.

“Why are we at this point where officers fear doing their jobs?” he said. “Maybe they need to look at their fellow officers who have put them in a state of concern for their own civil liability.”

But stories told by officers citywide reveal how they have used audiotapes to protect themselves:

* In the West Valley, a woman claimed she was stopped by an officer who “just wanted to get a better look,” Capt. Paniccia said. She claimed the officer leered and made passes at her. The tape revealed, however, that the woman swore at the officer and tried to hit him with a rolled-up poster. “The tape recording showed the officer being a total gentleman and the woman being a total fool,” Paniccia said.

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* In North Hollywood, two suspects arrested for possession of stolen credit cards were being secretly recorded as they sat in a patrol car. When they saw the police carrying a safe, one man tells the other: “If they open that safe, I’m f-----.” Inside the safe, police found additional stolen credit cards and stolen mail.

* In South-Central, a man complained that officers roughed him up and swore at him. The officers’ micro-cassette recording, however, refuted the claim and the man recanted.

* In Pacoima, a man claimed officers stopped him for no reason and then swore at him. The tape, which was played for the man at the Foothill police station, revealed the motorist was simply angry about the ticket--his third in two days. “Without the tape, this would have been a serious personnel investigation,” Sgt. Daryl Russell said.

* In the West Valley, police arrested a man involved in a curbside drug deal. Once inside the patrol car, the man told a companion, “Lucky they can’t get into my bedroom safe where my stash is,” according to a secret tape-recording of the conversation.

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Police in New York, Chicago and Miami do not use tape recorders, except to interview suspects. But some police departments in several smaller cities, such as Santa Fe, N.M., and Reno, Nev., allow officers to carry tape recorders.

“Basically, it’s to protect the department,” Lt. Paula Ulibarri of the Santa Fe Police Department said. Police there have been tape-recording arrests and routine calls for nearly two years.

The California Highway Patrol was one of the few law enforcement agencies in the United States to recognize the value of tape recordings when it began the practice several years ago. The CHP routinely supplies tapes as part of its standard issue, “just like pencils and pens,” CHP Sgt. Ernie Garcia said.

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The tapes received national attention when it was disclosed that a CHP officer recorded part of a Riverside chase that concluded with the beating of several illegal immigrants. That tape, lawyers say, is valuable evidence in the investigation of the sheriff’s deputies accused of misconduct.

“Tape recorders are a way of showing the world what’s true and what’s real and what’s accurate,” said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Laura Chick, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee.

Although Los Angeles police officials say the department cannot afford to equip its 8,900 officers with tape recorders, Chick and others argue the devices could save the city money. With a taped account, false claims could be weeded out before going to court.

“There’s almost a market called victimization . . . in which people are looking at cities with deep pockets to make money by claiming misconduct from police officers,” said Art Maddox, a member of the city’s Police Commission. “I think we definitely need that third-party monitoring.”

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While LAPD personnel complaints and arrests have dropped significantly since officers were captured on videotape beating Rodney King, the city continues to pay out millions of dollars in lawsuits against allegedly abusive officers.

Last year, for instance, the city spent $13.6 million for legal costs in such cases.

Personnel complaints, whether founded or not, follow officers throughout their careers. Complaints filed against an LAPD officer trigger an internal review process lasting at least 30 days and remain part of the officer’s personnel record. Officers typically are removed from their patrol jobs pending the outcome of the investigation.

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Last year, the department investigated nearly 1,700 personnel complaints, including 140 alleging excessive force.

If an officer can provide a tape recording that refutes an abuse claim, the review process is halted. Under LAPD procedures, officers using the machines are required to provide the tapes during investigations and to maintain the tapes for at least two years.

“If someone has a legitimate complaint, fine, we’d like to address that,” LAPD Sgt. Dan Maestro said. “But we also have to protect the officers who should be able to do something about people who falsely make claims.”

A new state law, in fact, makes it a misdemeanor crime to make false misconduct allegations against police, though no cases have yet been filed in Los Angeles, Deputy City Atty. Rick Schmidt said.

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The Los Angeles police union is encouraging officers to record routine traffic stops and domestic disputes, calls that can easily result in personnel complaints.

“All they’re doing is protecting themselves against what I consider unethical individuals who will take the career of a police officer and try to ruin it,” Dennis Zine of the Police Protective League said.

In San Diego last year, a woman in a complaint claimed an officer left her in a patrol car for three hours, shoved her against a wall and forcibly took a blood sample. But on the 90-minute tape recording made by officers, she is heard threatening police with a lawsuit, saying they would pay for her arrest.

One of the officers received a $33,000 settlement in a slander suit he filed against the woman, who had claimed at least two dozen acts of misconduct by the officer. The 70-year-old woman later pleaded guilty to drunk driving.

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“When you hear the abuse these guys have to take . . . it stuns me,” said Norman Perle, who runs National Audio/Video Forensic Laboratory in Northridge and is frequently asked to analyze police tape recordings. “I heard one guy getting a ticket just go off on an officer, yelling that he was going to get this cop and sue him.”

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West Valley Officer Roberts says he knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of such threats.

Recently, he and his partner helped a landlord inspect an apartment leased to a tenant who refused to open the door. Roberts accompanied the landlord into the apartment, and the next day the man complained that the officers had improperly entered his apartment and mistreated him.

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Roberts, whose partner tape-recorded the encounter, produced the tape and the complaint was dropped.

“If I’m going to make a contact with the potential to go bad, or I see something happening that could turn sideways, I’m always going to use this,” Roberts said of his tape recorder. “Time and time again you find yourself faced with the potential . . . of a dark cloud of false allegations hanging over you.”


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