Undercover LAPD officers posing as citizens trying to report police misconduct were routinely dismissed or stonewalled by fellow officers in a series of stings, according to the federal monitor overseeing reforms after the Rampart corruption scandal.
The monitor said in a report -- released this month and now on the LAPD’s Web site -- that the officers’ failure to properly handle complaints was “outrageous and discouraging.”
In one case, a sergeant who was supposed to be taking a complaint from an undercover officer posing as a juvenile took an inordinate amount of time, stretching the process beyond 10 p.m., the report said. After documenting the complaint, he detained the “juvenile” for violating curfew. In other cases, officers didn’t properly document complaints about excessive force, use of racial slurs and other offenses.
Federal monitor Michael Cherkasky said the department’s failure to adequately record citizens’ complaints, which he characterized as a fundamental element of self-policing, calls into question whether there has been “the necessary cultural shift” in the Los Angeles Police Department to comply with a consent decree.
The department entered into the consent decree with the Justice Department after the Rampart scandal two years ago, requiring the LAPD to make a host of reforms. Cherkasky, in his role as monitor, issues quarterly reports assessing the department’s compliance with the agreement.
LAPD officials acknowledged Thursday that there was a problem, but noted that it was the department that had discovered it and said the department has since moved aggressively to correct it.Overall, Cherkasky said in the report that he was pleased with the department’s efforts for the period of review between April 1 and June 30, noting that officials had made “great strides” in a number of areas.
But he was unusually critical in his report about the officers refusing to accept citizens’ complaints. His comments were based on the stings in which undercover operatives posed as citizens wanting to lodge complaints about police misconduct, either over the phone or by walking into a police station. Officers failed to properly handle the complaints in 11 of 19 cases, or 57% of the time, the report stated. Cherkasky called the results of the stings “shocking.”
Adding to the problem, Cherkasky wrote, is that disciplinary proceedings against the officers who failed to properly handle the complaints lodged in the sting operations have been stalled.
“It is incumbent upon the department and the city to ensure that these cases are dealt with as swiftly as possible,” Cherkasky wrote, “and that additional measures are undertaken in order to send the message loudly and clearly that no infringement on the public’s right to be heard and to complain about police misconduct will be tolerated.”
Deputy Chief Michael Berkow, who recently assumed control of the LAPD’s Professional Standards Bureau responsible for conducting the stings, disputes that there have been any undue delays in handling the cases. He also said that some of the officers who were targeted actually documented complaints, but made “technical” violations, such as not summoning supervisors to the scene or not completing all the necessary paperwork. Others, however, tried to dissuade citizens from filing the complaints or stonewalled them, he said.
Berkow said the stings were launched earlier this year at the direction of Chief William J. Bratton, who noticed that the number of citizen complaints was declining. The results of the operations prompted the chief to distribute a videotaped message, write an article in the police union newspaper and lecture at roll call meetings, reminding officers of their responsibilities to record citizen complaints.
“We’ve been extremely clear about the need to take complaints,” Berkow said.
A subsequent undercover sting operation started this month indicates that the message is getting through, he said. So far, there has been only one violation out of 27 sting attempts, Berkow said.
Cherkasky has yet to evaluate the most recent results.
The failure of police to take citizen complaints, or to follow up on the ones they did take, was a common criticism that emerged during the investigation into the Rampart scandal, in which officers from the anti-gang unit were accused of beating suspects, planting evidence and covering up unjustified shootings.
Investigations into the corruption allegations by the LAPD itself and outside groups found that officers routinely failed to document citizens’ complaints or gave them only cursory investigations that were sometimes biased in favor of the accused officers.
Matt Middlebrook, a spokesman for Mayor James K. Hahn, said, “We agree with the monitor’s sentiment. If the process is being abused, it needs to be quickly addressed and fixed.”
Middlebrook added that Hahn has spoken to Chief Bratton about his concerns.
Erwin Chemerinsky, a USC law professor who has studied the Rampart scandal and reform issues at the department, said he also found it “very discouraging” that complaints were going undocumented. “This really is outrageous,” he said.
If improvements aren’t made, Chemerinsky suggested that the city establish “an external” intake process in which citizens could report police misconduct to an entity independent of the LAPD. That entity would then submit the complaints to the LAPD for investigation.
In addition to the problem with documenting citizen complaints, Cherkasky was critical of deficiencies in the department’s efforts to track and periodically reassign officers working in anti-gang units -- another reform that stemmed from problems uncovered in the Rampart investigation.
The monitor also said that an aspect of the department’s disciplinary system -- internal trial boards that sit in judgment of accused officers -- must be “examined and addressed.” Potential problems with the process were highlighted, Cherkasky said, in the handling of a controversial, officer-involved-shooting in 1999. In that case, a bicycle officer shot and killed a petite homeless woman armed with a screwdriver, sparking widespread criticism that the shooting was unwarranted. The civilian Police Commission, which has the final say on whether a shooting is in or out of policy, found that the shooting violated department rules. But members of an internal LAPD Board of Rights, which is in charge of recommending discipline, later determined that the officer did nothing wrong and therefore did not deserve to be punished.
Under the city charter, both the commission and Chief Bratton are powerless to override the board’s decision. “It is this inability, coupled with the internal methods of convening and staffing the Board of Rights, which gives rise to our concern and which we recommend be examined by the appropriate city authorities,” Cherkasky said in his report. Such a review is underway, department officials said.
Among the positive findings in his report, Cherkasky said, the LAPD’s excessive force investigations have improved, and it has made progress in developing better ways to audit department operations.