Christopher Panel ‘Problem’ Officer Alleges Brutality
Even Hank Cousine admits that he’s not the sort of fellow you would expect to find suing the Los Angeles Police Department for excessive force.
On the other hand, having been labeled as one of the department’s 44 “problem” officers by the Christopher Commission several years ago, perhaps he is something of an expert on the topic.
“I’ve never been on this side of the table before,” Cousine said in an interview this week, noting the irony in his status as victim and plaintiff. “The establishment did me wrong.”
In a case that has LAPD observers shaking their heads, a judge is expected to decide soon whether Cousine was--as he contends--unnecessarily roughed up and deprived of his civil rights during a traffic stop by fellow officers four years ago.
While the judge continues to weigh the evidence from the three-week trial, which concluded last month, the LAPD has issued a verdict of its own: Cousine was fired last week for an unrelated misconduct violation involving his participation in an illegal pyramid investment scheme.
“They’ve been trying to do me [in] for years,” said Cousine, who is appealing his termination. “Who wants a 38-year-old, has-been gunfighter. I’ve got to start over.”
To hear Cousine tell it, he has never been able to put the stigma of making the Christopher Commission list behind him. That list identified officers who had been the subject of six or more complaints of excessive force or improper tactics between 1986 and 1990. It was the notoriety that flowed from that, he contends, that got him into trouble March 23, 1994.
Heading home that night from a department football team practice, Cousine, who was off duty, was stopped by LAPD Officers Diane Ponce and Arturo Koenig for allegedly running a red light and throwing a candy wrapper out of his car, attorneys said.
Cousine said he was trying to cooperate with the officers who pulled him over. The officers, however, alleged that he was belligerent and starting cursing them, using the “F-word” numerous times. Cousine said he used the obscenity only once, when he asked if they were playing “a [expletive] joke.”
During the traffic stop, Cousine was told to discard a candy cane he was eating, attorneys said. When he bent over to pick it up off the pavement moments later, Cousine said, he was pushed and shoved by Koenig.
Attorney Patricia Kinaga, who represents the two officers, said candy canes and other mints are sometimes used by motorists to try to mask the smell of alcohol on their breath. Koenig, she said, was only trying to control the situation and prevent Cousine from eating the candy again.
“His behavior was inconsistent with his being a police officer,” Kinaga said. “There was no physical contact. He wasn’t pushed or touched in any manner.”
Cousine’s attorney, Lawrence J. Hanna, disputed that contention and said internal department records show that Koenig was found guilty of pushing his client.
Although Ponce recognized Cousine as an LAPD colleague, both said they were unaware he was one of the 44 problem officers, Kinaga said. Once they realized they were dealing with a fellow officer, they summoned a supervisor because they were concerned with Cousine’s behavior, Kinaga added.
“That’s when I knew I was going to get hammered,” Cousine said. “It was going to snowball and I was going to get hammered.”
LAPD supervisors brought Cousine back to the department’s Southwest station, where they tried to sort out what happened. They also conducted sobriety tests and determined that Cousine was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Cousine and his attorneys allege that his three-hour detention was a violation of his civil rights and amounted to false imprisonment.
“The department supervisors were really thinking of his best interest,” said attorney Augustin Jimenez, who is defending the supervisors. “They were trying to prevent rumors from flying around about Hank.”
After the incident, the department launched an internal affairs investigation into the allegations that Cousine made improper remarks to his colleagues. The LAPD investigator on the case was unable to substantiate the claim, in part, because a civilian witness to the traffic stop supported Cousine’s version of events.
The complaint against Cousine was his 24th at that time. Of the 23 previous ones, five had been for off-duty behavior, including one for fighting with an officer from another department.
During the recent trial, which was heard by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Judith C. Chirlin, Hanna alleged that witnesses for Cousine were being intimidated by LAPD internal affairs investigators who sat in the courtroom monitoring the proceedings.
Hanna also contends that the city would have settled the case were it not for Cousine being on the Christopher Commission list.
Cousine, a former Army Ranger, said he was not a “rogue cop,” but rather one who took care of what he considers business. He once told a reporter that the officers who beat Rodney G. King swung their batons like “little girls.”
Even before his career ended, he was relegated to desk work, sitting at the information booth at the entrance to police headquarters at Parker Center. It was an assignment that he blamed on the Christopher list. Other officers on the list suffered similar fates, he said.
Coincidently, Michael Falvo, another officer on the list, is now in a trial over a lawsuit charging excessive force in the 1995 fatal shooting of a Lincoln Heights teenager who allegedly pointed a gun at him.
After 15 years on the force, Cousine finds himself out of work and waiting for the judge to issue a ruling in his lawsuit, which seeks $200,000 in damages. The divorced father of three girls said he is trying to make ends meet by doing security work and other odd jobs.
“I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do,” Cousine said. “The [LAPD] brass is trying to do me. I’ve got to fight back.”