Too Close for Justice
Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti’s reaction to the Los Angeles Police Department’s scandal-plagued Rampart Division has been as curious to watch as it is, at first glance, hard to understand. The mounting allegations of criminal wrongdoing--murder, evidence planting, beatings, perjury--are unquestionably worse than any offenses committed in the 1991 police beating of Rodney G. King. Indeed, Chief Bernard C. Parks has, so far, asked for the dismissal of 99 cases and has estimated the potential damages from civil suits at $125 million. More than 70 officers are under investigation, more than 30 of them for conspiring to incarcerate innocent people and to cover up unjustified beatings and shootings. In the face of all this, the D.A.'s office has been playing, at best, a reluctant second banana to the LAPD. Garcetti, to be sure, has been saying all the right things. Last November, for example, he declared: “We are aggressively pursuing every lead,” and noted that the Rampart investigation was “absolutely critical . . . to every police agency and the criminal-justice system as a whole.”
The problem with Garcetti’s pronouncements is that they come after the Rampart revelations. Would we, for example, ever have known about the abuses of the anti-gang Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, or CRASH, unit at Rampart if one dirty cop had not been caught stealing cocaine from a police-evidence locker and started to sing to get a lighter sentence? Probably not.
That possibility spotlights a critical choice that every district attorney has to make: whether to be a watchdog or a lap dog of the police department. In dealing with the LAPD over the past 50 years, L.A. County district attorneys have usually chosen the latter, for understandable if ignoble reasons.
The modern subservience of the D.A.'s office to the LAPD goes back to the transforming presence of the tough, tenure-protected, politically astute Chief William H. Parker, who, from 1950 to his death in office in 1966, reigned almost unchallenged in Los Angeles. He knew where all the bodies were buried and used his power to keep “outsiders,” including the district attorney, out of LAPD affairs. The idea that the department, and only the department, should monitor itself became a nonnegotiable principle passed on to Parker’s successors. Chiefs Edward M. Davis and Daryl F. Gates kept the office of chief of police the most potent and most feared political post in the city.
They were not alone in keeping it that way. The LAPD’s rank-and-file union, the Police Protective League, and the Command Officers Assn. both used their influence and financial clout to punish or reward local politicians during election campaigns. They wanted high pay and benefits, but they also didn’t want D.A. investigations and officer indictments. And the last thing a D.A. wanted in the months leading up to reelection was for the chief, the league or the officers association to point at him and say that he’s anti-cop.
The best example of the power relationship between the D.A. and the LAPD is that of officer-involved shootings. From the mid-1950s until 1977, the LAPD, by design, had no shooting policy. Such a policy would limit officer actions and expose the city to civil lawsuits. Whenever an officer shot someone, the LAPD investigated the incident and came to its own, nearly always self-serving conclusions. It then reported the results to the D.A. End of story.
That changed in 1979, when a series of LAPD shootings of unarmed civilians culminated in the slaying of Eulia Mae Love over an unpaid gas bill. Love’s death created an uproar. Except for an indictment filed the same year in an unrelated case, the district attorney’s office had not filed any charges against any officer involved in a shooting during the previous eight years. In response, Dist. Atty. John K. Van de Kamp established a special D.A. unit called Operation Rollout to investigate police shootings. A furious Gates reacted with a vengeance.
Almost immediately, Rollout members complained that the LAPD Officer Involved Shooting team (OIS) and its leader, Lt. Charles A. Higbie, were deliberately interfering with their investigations. Deputy D.A.'s charged that OIS members were directing civilian witnesses out the back doors of police stations, making it impossible for them to be interviewed. Some said they were denied access to shooting scenes.
Garcetti, who then headed the Special Investigations Division of the D.A.'s office, accused Higbie of withholding “information for hours, days or weeks [and] impeding our investigations.” To which Higbie replied: “I do not welcome these people with open arms. Our dealings with them are purely professional. I don’t serve tea or cookies at these unfortunate occurrences.”
When Robert H. Philibosian became D.A. in 1983, funds for Rollout were drastically cut. The LAPD itself continued to investigate officer-involved shootings, but the district attorney stood passively by. From 1977-87, LAPD officers were involved in 571 shootings; many victims were unarmed civilians. But only officer was indicted.
Prosecuting police officers isn’t easy, to be sure. Cops are trained in how to testify, have lots of witness-stand experience and make great impressions with juries. Furthermore, because prosecutors want convictions, they are reluctant to antagonize officers whom they may need in the future to help make their cases. Consequently, it’s rare that police officers are challenged.
As if to underscore that reality, Garcetti dismantled the Rollout unit in 1996. He blamed county supervisors for not giving him the money to run the unit, even though his overall budget was growing by tens of millions of dollars. Only if the police department requested that his office voluntarily review a shooting, would his office do it, said Garcetti.
The D.A.'s see-nothing attitude toward LAPD shootings continued until last September, when, in the wake of the Rampart revelations, Garcetti asked and received funds from a skeptical Board of Supervisors to revive the unit. “What’s the point if you’re blocked by law enforcement?” asked Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “It’s your [the D.A.'s] obligation to go out to the chief of police and raise hell with him. Now’s the time to do it.”
But given the LAPD’s power, a politically conscious D.A. in Los Angeles is not going to launch an independent investigation of police wrongdoing unilaterally. He would quickly earn the enmity of the Police Protective League and lock horns with Parks. The LAPD credo that the department is its own best monitor has been passionately embraced by the chief. He has steadfastly fought against strengthening the Police Commission and strongly resisted an empowered inspector general. He has enervated a community-policing strategy that would have involved community leaders and cops making decisions about law enforcement in their neighborhoods. Moreover, the D.A.'s office knows that convicting the cops recommended for prosecution by the LAPD may be difficult if they all decide to take the 5th Amendment, leaving the D.A. with only the word of one dirty officer to be corroborated by victims, many of whom are gang members. Garcetti hardly needs to lose another big case after O.J. Simpson’s acquittal.
The district attorney has thus followed tradition and ceded control of the Rampart investigation to the LAPD. Even granting Parks the best of motives, he can simply limit the information the public can receive. He can blame it all on dirty cops, demand their quick indictments and get the scandal out of the headlines. But since 1994, Parks has been either in charge of the department’s Internal Affairs or chief of police. Who will look into how he or his top command staff may have contributed to the situation? Since Parks has become chief, for example, he has changed the LAPD manual so that he and a high-ranking command officer must pass on any recommendation that an LAPD officer be indicted before it goes to the D.A. Before the change, internal affairs did that job.
A D.A. has an obligation to enforce all laws. But he can choose what to focus on and what to downplay. He can shape policy at the investigatory, charging, case-settlement and sentencing stages. If, over the last 50 years, there had been an attitude emanating from the top of the D.A.'s office that it was an independent agency, and that if police officers did something wrong, they would be investigated and let the chips fall where they may, perhaps the alleged crimes so routinely carried out at Rampart might not have happened. It’s not enough to just blame the CRASH unit or the LAPD. There are others culpable, too.
Regrettably, nothing will change until the institutional power of the LAPD is curbed. To do that, the Police Commission must begin to vigorously carry out its statutory oversight duties and support a powerful, independent inspector general’s office. Better, an office of civilian complaints independent of the LAPD, with its own investigators and subpoena powers, should be established. Short of that, the district attorney’s office must start to investigate all civilian complaints in which an officer’s actions are potentially criminal, as is done in many municipalities. Finally, the city attorney’s office, which regularly pays out tens of millions of dollars in police-abuse settlements without any public complaint, should not escape attention. The city attorney cannot simultaneously defend the LAPD against civil suits and play an influential role in reducing the shootings and brutality cases that Los Angeles has witnessed.
City politicians, for the most part, have been eerily silent in response to the unfolding Rampart scandal. Other than expressing sticker shock over the potential civil damages stemming from the alleged police abuses, the City Council has mostly been mute. Mayor Richard Riordan steadfastly backs his chief of police, believing the LAPD remains its own best disciplinarian. In Los Angeles today, it is not only the D.A. who’s decided to be a lap dog.