LAPD Still at Risk of Scandal Despite Reform, Panel Says
Despite extensive reform in the seven years since the Rampart Division police corruption scandal, Los Angeles is at risk of similar crises unless the LAPD is significantly expanded and trades its “warrior policing” model for a more community- friendly problem-solving style, a city task force warned today.
The Blue Ribbon Rampart Review Panel set out to provide a final accounting of what city officials characterize as one of the most serious police corruption scandals in American history.
Nine officers were criminally charged and 23 were fired or suspended, 156 felony convictions were invalidated due to suspected police misconduct and the city paid $70 million to settle civil rights lawsuits brought by victims.
Yet even now, the panel found, police supervisors fail to provide adequate oversight and control of officers -- a key problem in the Rampart scandal. And the panel faulted the criminal justice system in Los Angeles for lacking sufficient checks to prevent officers from lying or fabricating evidence.
The panel was appointed in 2003 by the city’s Police Commission at the request of Chief William J. Bratton to examine the LAPD’s response to allegations of widespread abuse by officers from the Rampart Division’s Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) unit, which was formed to crack down on street gangs.
The report represents a major challenge for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is already struggling to increase the police force by 1,000 officers over the next five years -- but would have to hire three times that number to meet the goal set by Bratton’s Plan of Action, which is endorsed by the report.
The findings -- a three-part document including 117 pages of narrative and recommendations, plus a half-inch thick appendix -- will be discussed in a special Police Commission meeting Thursday.
The panel of legal experts interviewed 270 witnesses, including current and former police officers, civil rights leaders, defense attorneys, prosecutors and police experts, according to Chairwoman Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney.
Perhaps the group’s most surprising discovery, the report said, is that the Rampart Division has performed a dramatic transformation. Supervisors dismantled the gang unit, imposed strict standards and pioneered “a promising, community-backed crime-fighting model.”
A new division captain began installing “the smartest, most seasoned and mature officers he knew from across the department.” And intimidation tactics were replaced with “problem-solving” ventures with businesses and community leaders with the specific goal of cleaning up crime-plagued MacArthur Park. Within six months, crime in the park plunged 45%.
But turning that new Rampart model into a department standard could prove daunting, the panel said.
“The verdict from scores of officers is in: Most post-scandal reforms currently being implemented are useful, but they will be insufficient to lock in current successes, prevent another CRASH crisis, resolve LAPD’s long-standing problems or begin to close the public-police trust gap in high crime areas,” the report concluded.
“A significant number of LAPD’s most knowledgeable commanders, officers and leaders of the rank-and-file interviewed by this panel concur with outside critics that these goals will require much deeper changes within LAPD -- and a complete overhaul of the city’s deficient ‘thin blue line’ public safety model,” the report said.
If the LAPD and city leaders maintain the status quo, the panel warns, the city will be “on peril’s edge” whenever there is a police controversy.
In an interview, Rice said the LAPD remains at risk of additional police abuse, corruption and even unrest in minority communities unless immediate action is taken to change the course for the department.
South Bureau, a district that abuts Rampart and extends south from the Santa Monica Freeway to the Port of Los Angeles “is hanging by a thread,” she said. “I would not be surprised if something were to blow there this summer.”
The panel was appointed after city officials and critics voiced frustration over the inadequacy of the department’s own internal investigation.
The six-member panel was harshly critical of the LAPD’s internal probe, saying that it failed to provide a comprehensive picture of what misconduct occurred in the CRASH unit.
“Due to inadvertence, incompetence and/or intent, LAPD did not design investigations capable of determining the true extent of corruption,” the report found, faulting the City Council for twice rejecting calls for an independent investigation.
In response, one of the panel’s 28 recommendations is that an outside group be given the task of investigating any future police abuse.
Other recommendations include overhauling the police disciplinary system, expanding the size and independence of the commission’s inspector general office, conducting a performance audit of the county’s criminal justice system and creating a task force to push police reform in the LAPD.
Rice said the 88-page report identifies a path toward a high road of policing that must be taken to avoid crises like the Watts riots of 1965, the 1992 riots ignited by acquittals in the Rodney G. King beating case and the scandal that erupted after the 1998 arrest of Rampart Division CRASH Officer Rafael Perez.
That scandal expanded when Perez, accused of stealing cocaine from an LAPD evidence locker, told investigators that he and fellow officers routinely planted evidence, shot and beat suspects without provocation and framed people for crimes they did not commit.
Declaring that Los Angeles is the most under-policed big city in the nation, the panel said the size of the LAPD is a major factor in tension between the police and some segments of the public.
“For decades, blue ribbon reports have noted that with too few officers to patrol the streets and to guarantee backup, officers use intimidation and fear to exert control over large geographic areas,” the panel concluded. “And in high crime areas they counter increased danger with aggressive ‘search and destroy’ tactics that humiliate and alienate residents.”
The report puts pressure on the mayor and City Council, who have endorsed a more moderate expansion that would boost the police force by 1,000 officers to roughly 10,200 officers in 2009.
The Rampart panel said the blueprint for improving the Police Department should be the Plan of Action written by Bratton that calls for adding 3,000 officers.
“Until the city ends the chronic anorexia of ‘thin blue line’ public safety -- a ‘safety on the cheap model’ that delivers public safety in neighborhoods on the right side of that line and containment-suppression in neighborhoods that are not -- there will be limits to what police reform can achieve,” the panel said.
In looking at post-scandal changes at Rampart, one of 19 patrol sectors in the city, the panel was encouraged by what it characterized as the “community-savvy model” and called for other divisions to replace the “LAPD’s traditional paramilitary intimidation policing with strategic collaboration.”
If the model now at Rampart had been in place in 1999, the report said, “CRASH rogues would have been stopped because supervisors under this model do not indulge LAPD’s traditional ‘us versus them’ and ‘ends justify the means’ outlooks that excuse misconduct and shield excessive force.”
The Rampart scandal occurred, the panel said, because first-line supervisors, top police officials, the Police Commission, City Council, district attorney, federal authorities and the courts “failed to heed decades of warnings to change the police culture.”
Warning signs still exist. Over one three-week period last year, crews performing maintenance on police cars found a replica gun and a “throw down” gun. In previous corruption cases, officers have planted such weapons on shooting victims who were unarmed.
“Officers reported that behaviors that were hallmarks of the CRASH crisis still fail to trigger sufficient response from first-line supervisors,” the report said.
The report quoted one unidentified LAPD sergeant with more than 20 years on the force saying, “The culture hasn’t changed. We have ‘Rampart’ brewing” in the Southeast Division.
The blue ribbon panel also faulted the criminal justice system, saying it has “anemic checks on police abuse,” and called for an audit to assess whether there are sufficient safeguards against convicting the innocent.
The panel also said not enough has been done in the 40 years since the McCone Commission, created after the Watts riots, recommended an attack on poverty as a root cause of police-public tension.
“Forty years later in L.A.'s poorest high crime areas, the ‘spiral of failure’ that McCone noted as the petri dish of public-police hostility is even worse because of much more pervasive violence and dysfunctional poverty,” the Rampart panel concluded.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The Rampart scandal exploded in September 1999 when LAPD gang Officer Rafael Perez, facing drug charges, implicated others in return for a lighter sentence. He said Rampart officers routinely planted evidence, beat suspects and covered up unjustified shootings. As a result of Rampart and other LAPD misconduct, city officials agreed to let a federal judge monitor a wide array of LAPD reforms. The blue ribbon panel’s full report will be posted at www.lapdonline.org/police_commission
Rafael A. Perez -- Convicted of stealing cocaine and covering up the shooting of an unarmed suspect. Identified 123 misconduct incidents. Served five years in prison.
Nino Durden -- Perez’s partner. Pleaded guilty to stealing drugs and covering up the shooting of unarmed man. Sentenced to five years in prison.
Edward Ortiz -- Convicted of obstructing justice; conviction overturned. One of three officers who sued for malicious prosecution, he won a $15-million jury award.
Brian Liddy -- Convicted of obstructing justice; conviction overturned. He shared the $15-million malicious prosecution award and was later fired for misconduct related to a narcotics arrest.
Paul Harper -- Acquitted of obstructing justice, he shared the $15-million malicious prosecution award.
Michael Buchanan -- Convicted of obstructing justice, but the conviction was overturned.
Manuel Chavez -- Pleaded no contest to assault under color of authority for the 1996 beating of a gang member. Sentenced to 60-day jail term and placed on three years’ probation.
Shawn Gomez -- Pleaded no contest to filing a false report in the 1996 beating of a gang member. Sentenced to three years’ probation and ordered to serve 400 hours of community service.
Ethan Cohan -- Pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and filing a false report in the 1996 beating of gang member. Sentenced to one year in County Jail.
Willie L. Williams -- Presided over the LAPD when Perez began his misconduct but before the scandal became apparent; resigned in May 1997.
Bernard C. Parks -- The scandal broke on his watch; served from 1997 to 2002 and is now on the City Council.
William J. Bratton -- Called for Rampart review report after being dissatisfied with prior investigations.
Source: Los Angeles Times staff
By the numbers
Some of the costs of the scandal:
156 felony convictions overturned.
15 misdemeanor convictions overturned.
9 officers criminally charged.
23 officers fired or suspended.
398 administrative complaints targeting 93 officers.
214 civil suits against city (187 settled, 27 dismissed).
$70 million paid by city to settle lawsuits from victims.
Source: Los Angeles Times staff