Audit cites LAPD unit on reviews

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Police Department investigators routinely fail to fully investigate citizens' complaints against allegedly abusive officers, often omitting or altering crucial information in ways that help exonerate the officers, according to a report to be released today.

The 34-page report by the Police Commission's inspector general raises questions about the department's ability to police itself, adding to still-unresolved problems highlighted in previous reports.

The audit, which is expected to be presented to the civilian Police Commission today, examined how 60 complaints filed against officers in recent years were handled by the officers' supervisors and investigators in the department's internal affairs group. In 29 of the cases -- nearly half of the time -- it found some sort of flaw, including investigators who inaccurately recorded statements and failed to interview witnesses or identify accused officers. In some cases, investigators failed to address allegations of misconduct at all. "We are always concerned about the quality of our investigations," said Deputy Chief Mark Perez, head of internal affairs. "We take these findings very seriously."

Although Perez said the report's findings would be used to improve training of internal affairs officers, he dismissed the notion that the report amounted to a serious indictment of the quality of complaint investigations. Mistakes may be made, he said, but they rarely, if ever, affect the decision of whether to discipline officers.

"With the volume of cases we get each year, we cannot spend an infinite amount of time on every complaint," he said. "We make judgment calls that someone second-guessing us afterward might not like. . . . But I have a very high level of confidence that the adjudication at the end is right."

Inspector General Andre Birotte declined to comment on the report. But in it, he wrote that the issues raised "are essential to maintaining the integrity of the complaint process."

In several of the cases reviewed, Birotte and his staff indicated that the investigators' conclusion that the accusations against officers were "unfounded" would have been different if the investigations had been handled better.

In one complaint about excessive force, a witness said in a tape-recorded interview shortly after the incident that there had been too many officers surrounding the man to get a good view of what happened. But in their report, the internal affairs officers paraphrased the witness' comments much differently, writing that the man "had a clear and unobstructed view and did not see or hear the alleged acts occur." Problems with paraphrasing in this case and several others, the report found, were the reason the officers were ultimately absolved of any wrongdoing.

Perez acknowledged the shortcoming, saying that paraphrasing accounts by witnesses and complainants is "as much an art as a science" and one of the hardest skills to teach investigators.

In another case, two men said they were injured -- one suffered a broken or badly sprained elbow -- by a group of officers using excessive force while trying to break up a party.

The report faulted investigators for failing to interview two witnesses or retrieve any of the documents on file about the incident. Investigators failed to identify any of the officers involved in the altercation and did not include any photographs of the injuries the accusers sustained -- a basic component of an excessive-force complaint.

Birotte noted in his report that he had found deficiencies in the complaint investigations in previous audits and criticized the department for not implementing reforms.

Typically, police officers who become members of internal affairs receive a five-day training course on how to conduct investigations. Complaints are usually filed with a sergeant at a local police station who conducts interviews and passes the claim to internal affairs. Internal affairs handles the more serious cases -- several thousand each year.

Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney who has played a leading role in pressing the department to reform, said that such problems would persist until the LAPD stopped cycling officers into internal affairs and back into the regular force.

"You cannot ask police to investigate their buddies and friends," she said. "We've got the wrong paradigm for vigorously pursuing complaints."

Perez strongly disagreed with Rice.

"It's a myth that police cannot police themselves," he said. "We have a tremendous interest in not keeping bad cops around."

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joel.rubin@latimes.com

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