Favors for sex at the LAPD alleged

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said Thursday that an internal investigation has been launched into allegations that a former deputy chief gave preferential treatment -- and helped secure promotions -- for female officers with whom he had intimate relations.

The accusations against Michael Berkow, who headed the LAPD's internal affairs division before leaving the department last month to become police chief in Savannah, Ga., were made in a civil lawsuit filed in May. Ya May Christle, a sergeant in internal affairs, alleged in her suit that Berkow and the city of Los Angeles retaliated against her after she complained about the deputy chief's conduct.

Berkow, 51, who was Irvine's police chief before coming to the LAPD, told a Savannah television station Thursday that he was limited in what he could say about the pending litigation, but was confident the suit would ultimately be thrown out. People in Georgia, he said, "will judge me by my actions and by my conduct."

Clint Robison, an attorney representing Berkow and the city in the case, said there was no wrongdoing.

He said Berkow "is confident that when the truth comes out ... he will be vindicated." Robison said the case was dismissed earlier this year after a judge ruled that it had failed to make the case that Berkow had acted improperly against Christle, but the lawsuit has since been expanded, rewritten and refiled.

Bratton said Thursday that the lawsuit's allegations were being investigated internally and there will be no comment "at all on any of it" because the matter involved a personnel complaint.

"It's all being handled," Bratton told The Times. "It's all being investigated."

The chief defended his former deputy chief, describing him as a good cop. The internal affairs unit Berkow directed was in charge of investigating possible wrongdoing by police officers. "He's an outstanding police officer, hardworking, dedicated," Bratton said.

In the lawsuit, Christle alleged that Berkow had a sexual relationship with a female captain under his supervision and that the woman was subsequently allowed to remain in her post beyond a three-year limit set by the federal consent decree imposed after the Rampart scandal. Reached Thursday, the captain denied any romantic or intimate relationship with Berkow.

The deputy chief also was accused in the lawsuit of having had sexual relations with another female officer, who was under investigation by an outside law enforcement agency.

Christle's attorney, Bradley Gage of Los Angeles, said that Berkow and department personnel retaliated against her by confiscating her computer, which contained information about an internal affairs investigation into the police investigation of the slaying of Notorious B.I.G.

Gage is one of several attorneys suing the city of Los Angeles on behalf of the family of the late rapper, whose real name was Christopher Wallace, alleging that two former Los Angeles police officers orchestrated his fatal shooting in 1997 on Wilshire Boulevard.

The federal court judge presiding over the case, which is pending, ordered the city to pay $1.1 million in sanctions last January after finding that the LAPD failed to turn over evidence.

Los Angeles Police Commission members said Christle's allegations should be thoroughly investigated.

"The nature of the allegations would be serious for any rank, said Commission Vice President Alan Skobin, "but they are of even greater concern when it's a person in charge of internal affairs."

In 2003, Berkow became the first high-ranking sworn officer other than the chief to come from outside the ranks of the LAPD when he was hired from the Irvine Police Department.

The Syracuse University law school graduate, whose friendship with Bratton dates back decades, had earned a reputation as a reformer who targeted municipal and police corruption.

As head of the Coachella Police Department, Berkow arrested the majority of the City Council, and his boss, the city manager, who was later convicted of misuse of public funds.

When he came to the LAPD, Berkow was charged with streamlining the department's much maligned disciplinary system, which was criticized at the time for being slow, burdensome and failing to target the most egregious cases of police corruption.

During his tenure, Berkow initiated undercover stings and investigations that resulted in dozens of officers being fired from the LAPD for misconduct.

He also presided over a number of high-profile use-of-force cases, including the Stanley Miller flashlight beating and the fatal shootings of 13-year-old car theft suspect Devin Brown and toddler Susie Pena.

Although Berkow won the respect of some civil rights attorneys and activists, he also drew the ire of union officials and others in the department, who criticized him for what they perceived as heavy-handedness.

In her lawsuit, Christle alleged that she saw two of the deputy chief's female subordinates leaving a department office that had been outfitted as a bedroom for Berkow. Soon after, the suit alleges, Berkow was seen leaving the third-floor room dressed in a white T-shirt and pajama bottoms. After she complained, Christle said she was transferred and demoted.

Department sources said that, after days at the office that could stretch to 18 or more hours, Berkow sometimes slept in an unused room at the internal affairs offices, in the Bradbury building at Broadway and 3rd Street.

A former member of his staff, who asked not to be named because of the pending litigation, said the room was the size of a closet with an air mattress on the floor and a sign on the door that read "reserved for Chief Berkow."

"The Bradbury building has security 24-7 and there are LAPD personnel coming and going 18 hours a day," the staffer said. "The idea of this being some den of iniquity is ludicrous."

Police sources said an investigation into Christle's allegations was launched by Andre Birotte, the inspector general for the Police Commission. The probe has since been taken over by the department's Consent Decree Bureau because internal affairs has a conflict of interest, according to LAPD sources.

Officials in Savannah said Thursday that Berkow told them about the allegations when he was being considered for chief.

"Chief Berkow fully cooperated with investigators during the search process," said City Manager Michael Brown. "The chief has impressed the city and the public during his short time here with his professionalism and on-the-street approach to leading this department."

andrew.blankstein@ latimes.com

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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