One precinct stirs a criminal-justice crisis

A scandal in the LAPD's Rampart division spreads up into the courts, raising justice-system doubts nationwide.

A corruption probe that began in one Los Angeles police precinct has widened far beyond a few dozen out-of-control officers into the worst scandal in this city's history. It now reaches to the very heart of the criminal-justice system.

The unfolding story - in which a rogue officer implicated dozens of fellow officers for shooting suspects, falsifying testimony, and routinely planting evidence to obtain convictions - now points toward widespread court complicity.

People wrongly prosecuted by police are expected to number more than 200, potentially escalating the cost of the scandal from lawsuits to $300 million or more, threatening city services for years to come.

"Every part of the system - prosecutors, defense counsel, judges, and juries - have played a role in miscarriages of justice," says Myrna Raeder, past chair of the American Bar Associations' Criminal Justice Section. "The legal system has become an entrenched culture in which everyone is looking the other way."

Already, 57 people wrongly imprisoned have been released in 32 overturned cases, and 20 officers have been fired. With other, high-profile police-misconduct cases nationwide, from the Abner Louima brutality case in New York to the release of 13 death-row inmates last year in Illinois, national experts say the Los Angeles case will help force a new era in police and court reform.

"In every other endeavor of American life, whenever there is a total system failure - from airplane crashes to hospital explosions - the system has a built-in means of a total, post-mortem analysis to find what went wrong," says Barry Scheck, criminal attorney on the O.J. Simpson murder trial. "The only system which doesn't have such a mechanism is the criminal-justice system. We think the Los Angeles case, on top of other developments, can create the public outrage to correct this oversight."

Former Los Angeles Police Department officer Rafael Perez, the police informant, has said there was an organized criminal subculture within the LAPD that not only committed crimes but celebrated them in a secret fraternity, awarding plaques to officers who wounded or killed. Some 2,000 pages of transcripts implicate more than 70 officers for either committing crimes or knowing about them and helping to cover them up.

Bombarded by public criticism, the City Council Tuesday voted to write a blank check for the police commission that oversees the LAPD - and its inspector-general - to review the scandal and propose change.

But many prominent local figures have called for even more scrutiny from outside sources.

"We need another Christopher Commission study of the police," says Erwin Chemerinsky, professor of law at the University of Southern California, referring to the blue-ribbon panel created after the Rodney King riots. "But now we need new structures, especially ones external to the department, because internal review clearly hasn't worked."

One suggestion is to look to the federal government for this oversight.

"A system has been in place for a long time which cannot get to the bottom of its own abuses," says Paul Hoffman, former legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, now a civil rights lawyer calling for more federal involvement in the so-called Rampart scandal. "I must wonder if the federal government is adequately using the authority it has been given to provide outside scrutiny that is crucial."

Call for justice

In fact, such a review is already in place, although it is low-profile. An ongoing investigation by the US Department of Justice keeps tabs on law-enforcement agencies that have a pattern of misconduct. Past investigations have helped reform police departments in Pittsburgh, Steubenville, Ohio, and New Jersey. In Columbus, Ohio, federal agents filed a lawsuit against a police department because efforts at voluntary reform failed.

"If our investigations show that a pattern or practice of constitutional violations by [the LAPD] exists, criminal and civil remedies could be wide-ranging," says Mike Gennaco, chief of the civil-rights section of the US Attorneys Office in Los Angeles.

But it is the broader allegations of widespread corruption of the court system that have heightened outrage.

"What is troubling to us about the Rampart scandal is the number of cases where prosecutors knew for a fact that an officer was lying," says Mary Broderick, executive director of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. "The District Attorney's office and the Los Angeles court system not only permitted but encouraged a culture in the police department that said anything goes."

More than just police

Because of comments like these, legal analysts say any independent review aimed solely at the police is bound to fail. The lack of significant progress despite a countrywide rise in civilian-review boards since Rodney King is a case in point.

"This is a national wake-up call that we are letting the integrity of the court system disintegrate," says Ms. Raeder. "Prosecutors are beholden to police and police to prosecutors in terms of their ability to put on a successful case. Any reform that is successful will have to reach into both arenas, and it starts with leadership."

Raeder and others attribute a growing pattern of police abuse in many American cities to the country's 20-year war on drugs, which has put much pressure on local police to produce convictions.

To cut the margin for abuse, several groups around the country are pushing for more use of DNA testing, both in current court cases and to examine possible wrongful convictions.

"DNA testing, among other things, has proven that the pattern of wrongful convictions is a countrywide problem not just one for Los Angeles," says Mr. Scheck.

Other more basic remedies have also been suggested in response to the Rampart probe.

For one, the scandal is reopening the issue of using independent investigators to interview eyewitnesses in police cases. An investigation into 300 criminal cases by the Los Angeles Daily News after the Rodney King beating showed a high percentage of civilian eyewitness testimony was ignored when it differed from that of police officers.

Put it on tape

In addition, the Rampart investigation has renewed momentum for efforts to put more video cameras in police cars and also videotape interrogations and confessions. Advocates say these measures would help eliminate some of the confrontations that lead to court battles between officers and citizens.

"The sheer breadth of the Los Angeles abuses will be an undeniable aid in the movement to videotape interrogations of suspects," says Mary Powers, director of the National Coalition on Police Accountability in Chicago. "They are now realizing that when everyone is informed that an encounter is being recorded, both sides calm down and are more moderate in the exchange."

Lastly, the cost of possible lawsuits to Los Angeles has added fuel to reform efforts.

"As a taxpayer, it's kind of shocking to me that cities like L.A. will continue to ignore the risk of letting the police run themselves no matter how outrageous the misconduct and how many hundreds of millions in damages," says Ms. Broderick.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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