Justice Department To Sue Unless LAPD Reforms

Justice Department To Sue Unless LAPD Reforms
Posted by FoM on May 09, 2000 at 11:19:44 PT
By Beth Barrett and Greg Gittrich, Staff Writers 
Source: DailyNews
Federal authorities threatened Monday to file a civil rights lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department unless the city implements a wide-ranging series of reforms to stem a pattern and practice of constitutional violations by the police force.
The threatened legal assault on the LAPD drastically raises the stakes for local politicians who attended a two-hour City Hall East meeting with U.S. Justice Department officials. The federal accusations of civil rights abuses within the LAPD go far beyond the corrupt Rampart Division. Los Angeles officials who attended the meeting never asked to hear details of the federal case against the city but repeatedly sought assurances that they would have time to develop and carry out reforms locally, sources said."No one got in their faces and said, Go ahead, file a lawsuit," a source said.The local officials -- including Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, who never spoke; City Attorney James Hahn; and City Council President John Ferraro -- agreed to work toward a voluntary settlement with the federal government to avoid the lawsuit. Discussions are scheduled to begin next week.For More About the LAPD Corruption Scandal: Visit the Daily News Online Extra: the talks break down, sources said, the civil rights lawsuit would be filed immediately and federal authorities would then push the city to enter into a consent decree to avoid the legal showdown. That would leave oversight of LAPD reforms subject to scrutiny of the federal court.If local leaders stall reforms or refuse to implement changes sought by the U.S. Justice Department, day-to-day control of the entire Police Department could be seized by the federal government if a federal court ruled against the city.Bill Lann Lee, acting chief of the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, delivered the ultimatum during the emergency meeting with city leaders."Today, we notified officials of the city of Los Angeles, the Police Commission and the LAPD that the Civil Rights Division has been authorized to file a police misconduct lawsuit," Lee, a former Los Angeles civil rights attorney, said following the meeting."This suit would allege that the LAPD is engaged in a pattern or practice of constitutional violations through excessive force, false arrests, unreasonable searches and seizures, and that management deficiencies have allowed this misconduct to occur," he said.A four-year federal review of the LAPD has concluded that civil rights abuses "occur on a regular basis," Lee said, before adding that the majority of the city's police officers are "ethical, hardworking, and responsible."Mayor Richard Riordan did not attend the meeting because he had already left for Washington, D.C., to discuss the matter with members of Congress and the Justice Department.Parks, Hahn, Police Commission President Gerald L. Chaleff, members of the mayor's staff and council members Mike Feuer and Cindy Miscikowski were among the 14 local leaders at the afternoon session.Sources said the Justice Department has authority from the highest levels of the federal government to file a lawsuit against the city. Therefore, it appears little room exists for the city to maneuver other than to go to trial."A consent decree is their pattern. They are a government agency, and when they get authority for a lawsuit, they use it as a greater hammer to get a consent decree," a high-ranking source said.Following the meeting, Chaleff read a prepared statement to a throng of reporters but declined to take any questions."We share the same goal, which is to make certain that the Los Angeles Police Department is performing its duties professionally and ethically and that proper management oversight is in place," Chaleff said."They have expressed encouragement about progress the city is making toward bringing about needed reform in the Police Department. And they have expressed concern about the need to continue these reforms," he said.After the meeting, Parks referred all inquiries to the Police Commission through a department spokesman. The chief is scheduled to join the mayor today in Washington to continue talks with federal officials.The Justice Department has been investigating the LAPD since 1996 to determine whether incidents of excessive force by police officers fall into a pattern of abuse. The review was recently broadened to include the alleged crimes of at least 20 officers in LAPD's Rampart Division, the focal point of the worst police corruption scandal in city history.Empowered by a 1994 federal statute, the U.S. attorney general has the authority to take, in effect, final control of any state or municipal law enforcement agency away from local authorities if a pattern or practice of illegal conduct can be proved. The abuse can fall along any lines, including race, color, national origin, gender, religion and economic status.The federal government already has taken such action against city police departments in Pittsburgh and Steubenville, Ohio, as well as against the entire New Jersey State Police force.In each case, local elected leaders agreed to enter into a consent decree with the Justice Department to avoid a full-blown civil rights battle in open court.Based upon the previous actions, a consent decree with Los Angeles would likely include the appointment of an outside civilian monitor. In both New Jersey and Pittsburgh, the civilian monitor has final and nearly ultimate control, including authority to seek discipline against officers and reopen investigations.It is likely any consent decree would require the city to create a system to track the conduct of officers, which would presumably allow the department to detect any troubling patterns of abuse like those that developed in the Rampart Division.To date, 73 felony convictions have been vacated at the request of the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office because Rampart officers involved in the arrests violated search and seizure laws, planted evidence at crime scenes or lied in court. Hundreds of additional cases are expected to be overturned and about 30 officers have been fired, suspended, or have quit.While the LAPD has been troubled by chapter after chapter of police corruption since the 1940s, local authorities have consistently tried to portray the force as one of the finest in the country over the years.During the meeting Monday, the Justice Department's concerns revolved around two primary issues, sources said.The first was the LAPD's failure to put into place a tracking system of problem officers after the federal government had provided more than $100,000 to study its design.The officials also repeatedly pointed to the recently completed LAPD Board of Inquiry report, which detailed the department's failings. Lee told city leaders that the inquiry report, which included documents such as excessive force and officer-involved shooting reports, supplemented the federal probe, sources said.Several officials at the meeting peppered Lee with questions and Chaleff was among those who urged the federal government to allow local reform measures to be completed before any litigation.Hahn is expected to make a presentation to the council today on the legal issues raised by the meeting.The Justice Department first notified city officials Friday about its intent to give the city an ultimatum. The first reaction of Riordan and other city officials was to fight any lawsuit and resist any attempt by the federal government to control the Police Department, sources said.Meetings among top city officials were hastily called over the weekend even as Riordan headed to Washington.Rather than battle the federal government, officials generally agreed that it made more legal and political sense to avoid a federal lawsuit by implementing the proposed reforms, sources said."The Mayor's Office and others moved from anger on Friday, back more toward the middle," said one high-ranking source familiar with the jockeying. "There is the prospect that you can lose litigation."As the meeting approached Monday, Parks had not been given an advance briefing by federal authorities on their case against the LAPD. But sources said the chief was willing to consider whatever the federal officials proposed."He's prepared to listen," one source said. "He knows they're not going to come into town and tell the department it's doing a good job." Web Posted: Tuesday, May 9, 2000 A Los Angeles Newspaper Group Newspaper Related Articles:MapInc. Articles On The Rampart Scandal: Faces Federal Suit Over Police Misconduct Serves 17 Search Warrants at Officers' Homes
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