A bad way to lose good cops

Celeste Fremon is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism and the editor of

Violent crime is down in L.A. by 7.8%, property crime by 3.4%. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, as of this morning, up to 800 gang and narcotics officers who helped make that drop possible are deciding whether to leave their jobs -- all because of the inability of a federal judge to make a sensible decision.

Here’s the deal. According to the provisions of the federal consent decree, LAPD officers at the rank of lieutenant or below who work in either gang or narcotics details have to sign disclosure agreements documenting all their personal finances and giving the department access to their financial records. The idea is to ensure that these officers are not stealing money, drugs or other “valuable contraband.” The provision has never been enforced -- until now.

In reaction, the Los Angeles Police Protective League says that about 500 of the officers directly affected will either request transfers out of the gang and narcotic units or will simply retire. Plus, the union plans to sue.


“It’s not just about disclosing assets and liabilities,” said Hank Hernandez, the union general counsel. “It’s about having to turn over documents that confirm those disclosures, things like mortgage papers. And then who has access to the documents? We see the kind of record-keeping they do at police headquarters. I can show you photos of stacks of boxes in the hallways that are open to the public.”

For those who have forgotten (or never knew in the first place), the federal consent decree is essentially a plea bargain between the LAPD and the U.S. Justice Department that resulted from the Rafael Perez/Rampart Division scandal and a laundry list of related problems. The agreement went into effect in June 2001 and required the department to take certain corrective measures, as well as submit to five years of oversight by the feds (now extended for an additional three years). In exchange, the feds agreed not to file a use-of-force lawsuit against the LAPD.

The department has worked to satisfy the terms of the consent decree -- all but the financial snooping provision, which the union declared unacceptably onerous. The lack of compliance has infuriated U.S. District Judge Gary A. Feess, who has official say-so over the provisions of the decree. A few years back, in an effort to placate the judge, the LAPD and the union hammered out a compromise involving additional background checks and periodic stings aimed at collaring any cops on the take. They drew the line at blanket trolling of financial records, unless there was a demonstrable reason to do it. Everybody hoped the deal would satisfy Feess.

It didn’t. Thus, for much of this year, there were new negotiations between the union, the Police Commission, the City Council and the consent decree monitor, in the hope of finding an acceptable middle ground. But last week the talks fell apart, and on Friday the union was served with an order demanding that every new gang and narcotics officer sign the disclosure form. All existing officers must sign it within two years.

“It’s a total invasion of privacy,” an unhappy 20-year veteran gang detective told me. “The only reason for the two years is to avoid losing the expertise. They want us experienced coppers to train the new recruits before we transfer out, which 100% of the people I know are going to do.”

So, what about the financial disclosure requirement? Is it a good idea?

In a word: no. For one thing, if an officer is doing what now-infamous Rampart Division bad apple Perez was doing -- namely skimming large amounts of high-ticket narcotics from police busts and reselling the stuff through proxies for a tidy profit -- do we really believe that he or she would deposit that ill-gotten loot in a Bank of America checking account? .

More relevantly, would the financial disclosure agreement have helped nail Perez sooner? Perez did not deposit his drug money; he spent it. But let’s say it would’ve sped up the righteous pinching of Mr. Perez. In order to catch a handful of bad cops, is it wise to alienate and humiliate hundreds of decent officers? In any organization, morale is important. In law enforcement, it’s everything.

“The federal monitor stood in open court and said this is ‘best practice,’ ” said Hernandez. “So we challenged him to come up with one example where the strategy had worked, and he couldn’t. The truth is, there’s no legitimate need for this order. We don’t have the kind of corruption it’s meant to discover.”

The heart of the Rampart scandal was never about stealing drugs or money. It was about use of force, planting evidence, picking up gang members and dropping them in “enemy” territory, “testilying.” The result was wrongful convictions, millions of dollars in civil rights lawsuits and the long-term alienation of the communities most in need of the LAPD’s protection and service.

Even in the worst old days, financial graft has never been the LAPD’s problem. For that you’d want to look eastward to Chicago or New York.

Or as one upper-level officer said to me, “Historically, we may beat you up, but we don’t take your wallet.”