Watchdogging the LAPD

An unfolding scandal in the Los Angeles Police Department is but the latest in a series that has dogged big cities across America.

A small group of cops is accused of stealing drugs, beating and shooting suspects, planting evidence, and lying to cover for fellow officers. Three officers have been fired, 12 suspended, and a captain faces discipline.

The temblor is rattling a city and police department still recovering from the aftershocks of the Rodney King beating in 1991 and the botched 1994 O.J. Simpson investigation.

Unacceptable behavior by a few police renegades is a recurring theme in a late-20th-century America trying to rid its neighborhoods of crime. New York City is reeling from the murder this year of an unarmed Guinean immigrant in a case of mistaken identity. That followed the brutal 1997 beating and torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima.

In Philadelphia, several police officers pleaded guilty in 1995 to terrorizing one neighborhood, beating, robbing, and planting phony evidence on innocent citizens. Dozens of drug convictions had to be thrown out along with several murder convictions.

Those are but a few examples. Misconduct often begins when officers involved in a crackdown on gangs or drug dealers take the law (or the drugs) into their own hands. It gains momentum when police officials, civilian overseers, and judges, an-xious to respond to public demands to do something about crime, avert their eyes and put "results" ahead of proper police procedure and constitutional rights.

L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and Police Chief Bernard Parks vow to get to the bottom of the matter. That's good. But city leaders, in L.A. as elsewhere, must do more:

*Strengthen departmental and civilian oversight of police. In L.A., the new city charter to take effect next July ensures that the LAPD inspector-general can investigate independently any misconduct. City officials must enforce those provisions and dismiss officers who hinder inquiries.

*Include in police training more emphasis on proper procedure and suspects' rights. Avoid us-versus-them attitudes toward segments of the community.

*Stop making excuses and ensure that lawbreaking cops are punished.

Finally, the public must demand that when the police take an aggressive attitude toward crime on America's streets, the rights of suspects don't go out the window. It should turn out of office politicians and elected judges who look the other way when cops misbehave.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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