The Los Angeles Police Department’s probe of former Det. Mark Fuhrman consumed so much time and resources that it compounded chronic delays in the Internal Affairs Division, leaving other serious complaints against officers to hurried, last-minute scrutiny and prompting police officials to seek to expand the division.
The Fuhrman inquiry, which involved a dozen detectives, more than 12,000 hours of labor and cost about $400,000, placed nearly 70 other cases last year in jeopardy of exceeding a one-year statute of limitations, police sources said. The department had a scant three months to adjudicate those cases, and a few ultimately exceeded the one-year limit--meaning the officers under investigation could get a maximum punishment of a reprimand regardless of the violation.
Today, as the Fuhrman case winds down, the division still faces a crippling number of cases that are close to their statutory deadlines, department officials have acknowledged, although they declined to say exactly how many.
Internal Affairs’ delays affect not only the department and its officers but the criminal justice system as well. Criminal cases are sometimes held up by allegations of police misconduct, forcing defendants to wait in jail and complicating already backlogged court dockets.
For example, in November a Superior Court judge feared that a defendant’s claims of police theft would fall victim to delays and stymie a three-strikes case. The judge took the unusual step of ordering Police Chief Willie L. Williams and Internal Affairs Cmdr. Margaret A. York into his courtroom to explain the delays. Not satisfied with the explanation provided by a city attorney on their behalf, he then demanded answers from Katherine Mader, the Los Angeles Police Commission’s inspector general. Mader oversees department’s disciplinary system for the commission.
“Internal Affairs personnel are harried, overworked, and totally consumed with what they term ‘statute’ cases,” Mader wrote Judge Michael R. Hoff in response. “In fact, nothing generally gets investigated that is not close to the one-year statutory deadline. This situation has caused untold anxiety among accused officers and is extremely detrimental to morale.”
The delays also affect the civil rights of officers under investigation, and can keep fully paid officers off the streets for months while their misconduct cases languish.
In one recent Internal Affairs case, an officer was given no time at all to respond to a misconduct report, as required by law, because his case had reached its statutory deadline, a union lawyer said.
In another, an officer against whom rape charges were dismissed by a judge last fall remains at home with full pay while Internal Affairs completes its investigation. Still another officer was given a reprimand rather than the five-day suspension for battery recommended by his supervisors because the statute on his case--one of the 70 backed up last year--had expired.
Department officials say that the Fuhrman case did receive special attention, despite his retirement in 1995.
“The Fuhrman investigation was a lengthy investigation and it did impact the number of cases that were statute-threatened,” said Cmdr. Tim McBride, a department spokesman. “I think you had to do that with the Fuhrman case. You couldn’t leave these allegations out there . . . that we beat suspects and put people in jail because they were black or brown.”
Internal Affairs commanders refused to be interviewed for this article.
But other LAPD officials acknowledge that they are reeling from the exhaustive examination of Fuhrman, whose claims of routine beatings and racist acts were aired during the O.J. Simpson criminal trial. Internal Affairs investigators have since concluded that the allegations were mostly unfounded bravado, and a final report to the Police Commission is expected soon.
McBride and other police officials also said that Internal Affairs suffered from a backlog long before the Fuhrman case developed, in part because its caseload has been increasing. Internal Affairs handled 392 of the 482 complaints investigated by the LAPD last year. In 1990, by comparison, Internal Affairs handled 179 of the 664 complaints reviewed by the department.
The unprecedented backlog caused by the Fuhrman case prompted the department to seek 38 new Internal Affairs positions for several branch offices--the largest request for any single division--in its budget proposal for next year, police officials acknowledge privately. Officials also are trying to meet a key Christopher Commission recommendation that the division handle only the more serious cases, leaving lesser allegations to be investigated by supervisors at police stations.
The increased number of cases being investigated under deadline pressure also has prompted the police union to seek intervention by Mader. If she can’t help break the logjam at Internal Affairs, the Los Angeles Police Protective League would consider taking more formal, legal action on behalf of officers who have been denied adequate time to respond to misconduct charges, said its attorney, Hank E. Hernandez.
“They’ve had to put everything aside because of Fuhrman,” Hernandez said. “You can’t just ignore others until the last minute, but that’s what is happening.”
In the three-strikes case, Judge Hoff, a retired LAPD captain, learned last summer that the suspected drug dealer facing trial had accused the arresting officers of stealing $22,000 in cash from his car. The defendant’s lawyer also alerted Internal Affairs about his client’s claims, but by the fall they still had not been reviewed.
“This is very frustrating,” Hoff said, according to court transcripts. “I think the Police Department is not serving the community well, and it’s foolish.”
Appearing before the judge, Assistant City Atty. Byron R. Boeckman warned that other Internal Affairs investigations would be compromised if Hoff’s case received priority. Boeckman also said a review of the officers’ conduct would be completed by Feb. 1. It still hasn’t been, court records show. The alleged drug dealer’s trial is on hold, pending the Internal Affairs investigation’s outcome, and the defendant remains in jail. Last week, because of his correspondence with police officials, Hoff recused himself from the case to avoid any perception that he was not being impartial.
“There’s a lot at stake in this case,” said the defendant’s attorney, Bruce C. Hill. “And it wasn’t going anywhere fast--until the judge became involved. I expect it to be resolved soon even though at one point I was told the investigation would take 10 months.”
When Internal Affairs completes an investigation, the report returns to the local police station, where the officer and his supervising captain review its findings--lately without much time to do so. Police union attorneys say they have streams of cases in which officers have just hours or a single day to review Internal Affairs findings.
“ ‘Round about month 11, the department goes gangbusters,” said one union attorney. “The officer has to jam to get a defense representative . . . and in the end, the officer is the one that gets crammed against the wall in terms of time.”
Some department critics suggest that the delays are no accident but part of a deliberate effort to avoid the unpopular business of disciplining most officers.
“If they want to go after an officer, they do it fast,” said Larry Hanna, a Van Nuys attorney who represents many LAPD officers. “If they want the person, even for a petty thing, they’ll put every investigator they can find on it. Otherwise, they’ll leave you twisting in the wind.”