Virtually all civil lawsuits stemming from the Rampart Division police scandal have been settled for a total of $70 million, Los Angeles officials are set to announce today, five years after an anti-gang officer blew the whistle on widespread corruption and brutality.
The announcement marks the resolution of most remaining legal issues from a scandal that caused more than 100 criminal convictions to be overturned and more than a dozen officers to leave the force -- some fired, others resigning amid investigations.
Police Chief William J. Bratton said he suspected that some officers who committed misconduct related to the scandal remained on the job.
“Knowing is not necessarily proving,” he said.
The Rampart debacle also set the stage for the federal government to impose a consent decree on the Los Angeles Police Department, requiring extensive reforms. A blue-ribbon commission headed by civil rights attorney Constance L. Rice is still studying the scandal.
The city was sued more than 200 times, mostly by drug dealers, gang members and other criminals who said they had been framed, shot, beaten or otherwise mistreated by the police.
All but eight of the suits have been resolved, according to city lawyers. The expected expenditures in the eight cases are included in the $70 million, said Jennifer Roth Krieger, chief financial and administrative officer in the city attorney’s office.
Despite the criminal backgrounds of many of the plaintiffs, city lawyers concluded when reviewing the records of the officers involved that more than three-fourths of the cases were too risky to let them proceed to trial.
“When you have a problem officer, it’s very difficult to go forward,” said Chief Deputy City Atty. Terree A. Bowers. “This has got to be a wake-up call for the city. It could have been worse.”
The payout total was considerably less than the $125 million projected by then-City Atty. James K. Hahn in the early days of the scandal.
In the cases that resulted in payouts, the average settlement was $400,000. For many of the plaintiffs, the newfound riches have translated into luxury automobiles, large homes and investments in the stock market.
Convicted felon Roberto Candido, one of the plaintiffs, received an $860,000 settlement in 2000. He said the windfall inspired a spiritual awakening.
“I’m not telling you I’m a saint, but I’m trying to get closer to God,” he told The Times. “I know he does everything for a reason, and I know I’ve got to repay him.”
In all, 30 people have received settlements of $500,000 or more. In many of those cases, the LAPD had exonerated some or all of the officers involved before the city attorney decided to settle.
The Rampart scandal began in September 1999 when Officer Rafael Perez pleaded guilty to charges that he had stolen three kilos of cocaine from LAPD evidence facilities.
In exchange for a five-year sentence, he promised to tell authorities about a case in 1996 in which he and his partner shot a young Javier Francisco Ovando then planted a gun on him to justify the shooting. Perez also pledged to identify other corrupt police.
In the end, he and seven other officers from the Rampart Division’s CRASH -- Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums -- anti-gang unit were convicted of corruption-related offenses as a result of information he brought to light. A judge overturned three of the convictions on procedural grounds.
Bowers of the city attorney’s office said one of the main lessons learned from Rampart was the need to identify and track problem officers.
To that end, he said, the office’s lawyers must now inform him of any instance in which they believe that a police officer has lied or committed other misconduct. Bowers then sends that information directly to the police chief, which has happened fewer than 10 times since 2001, he said.
The largest settlement, for $15 million, was paid in 2000 to Ovando, a member of the 18th Street gang whom the shooting left paralyzed.
He had been sentenced to 23 years in prison after Perez and Officer Nino Durden testified against him in court, insisting that he had been armed. His conviction was eventually overturned.
“The Rampart scandal was a stain on our otherwise outstanding Police Department,” City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo says in a statement prepared for release today. “I know I speak for all the city leaders and our fine police officers when I say that we are thankful to put this chapter behind us.”
On Wednesday, city leaders hailed the development as good news for both taxpayers and the victims of police abuse.
“The reality is, regardless of who the plaintiffs were, there was evidence of wrongdoing. That’s what we had to recognize,” said Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, chairwoman of the council’s Public Safety Committee. “Civil rights are civil rights, and they apply to everyone across the board.”
Councilman Jack Weiss said it was premature to “close the books” on the Rampart scandal.
“It doesn’t mean that when the ink is dried on the last check that the department has been cured,” he said, while adding that he was pleased at the litigation’s resolution. He said he eagerly awaited the findings of Rice’s independent panel.
Attorney Gregory Yates, who won nearly $20 million in settlements for his clients in Rampart-related cases, said he was disappointed that none of the major lawsuits went to trial in front of a jury.
A trial, he said, “would have exposed how massive and widespread the corruption was.”
He called the settlements part of the city attorney’s strategy to “sweep this under the rug.”
The city dragged the cases on for so long that many of his clients were “worn down” and simply settled to get the matters resolved, Yates said.
“The net result is the city got these settlements without letting the truth come out,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”
His disappointment was shared by others.
“For the victims and the city, it’s a good thing to have it resolved,” said Duke University law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who has studied the Rampart scandal. “But there is also a loss here that we didn’t learn things that we might have, had we had a trial.”
Rice called it smart to settle from both the city’s and the plaintiffs’ perspective. City officials do not want the publicity that would accompany a trial, she said, and the victims probably realize that public outrage over the scandal has dissipated.
“It’s a gamble for both sides to go forward,” she said.
She also believes that trials might have shed more light on the corruption.
“What’s stunning to me is how little the city really knows about Rampart,” she said. “How far did it go? Did it spread to other divisions?”
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Rampart, by the numbers
Former Officer Rafael A. Perez, prosecuted for stealing cocaine from an evidence locker, turned informant in 1999 and implicated others from the LAPD’s Rampart Division in abuse. Alleged victims of the police filed hundreds of claims and lawsuits against the city. All but eight cases have been resolved.
214 claims resolved*
3 on appeal
Lessons learned, according to the city attorney’s analysis:
* Improve tracking of complaints against officers.
* Investigate all uses of force.
* Bolster civilian oversight of LAPD.
* Increase supervisor-to-officer ratios.
* Improve screening and training of officers.
Source: Los Angeles city attorney
Los Angeles Times
* Some cases involve more than one plaintiff.