Rampart Probe Is Dividing Local Leaders
By Jim Newton, Times Staff Writer
reprinted from the LA Times
The Los Angeles Police Department’s ever-expanding Rampart Division corruption crisis is driving a wedge through long-standing political relationships as some local leaders brace for the scandal’s fallout, insulate themselves from damage and, in the view of some critics, concentrate on containing the issue rather than pursuing it to the end.
According to a wide variety of sources–including officials in Mayor Richard Riordan’s administration, the LAPD, the Police Commission, the City Council, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and elsewhere–these are a few of the emerging conflicts:
* Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and Police Chief Bernard C. Parks are sharply at odds, blaming one another for delays. Each of the two men, although publicly civil, has gone so far as to suggest in private that the other may be foot-dragging intentionally, either for political purposes or out of fear of what a full investigation may turn up.
* Two people say that behind closed doors, Riordan has voiced doubts about Police Commission President Gerald L. Chaleff, whose panel oversees the LAPD and will review its conclusions about the corruption investigation. Riordan denies having disparaged Chaleff.
Ironically, some outside observers are unhappy with Chaleff and the commission, but for opposite reasons: Where Riordan wants the commission to stand firmly with Parks, some LAPD critics see the panel as being too silent and supportive, which they believe is contributing to the generally tepid public reaction to the continuing revelations of police misconduct.
* Some City Council members, although convinced that Parks wants to root out the problem, appear ready to endorse an outside investigation as well as new moves to impose tighter civilian control over the ever-troubled LAPD. That course would put them at odds with Parks and Riordan.
“They, top management, continue to say, ‘There is not a code of silence, there is not a cultural problem,’ ” the council’s Public Safety Committee Chairwoman Cindy Miscikowski said. “All the evidence is to the contrary.”
* Some police commissioners report that they have felt indirect pressure from Riordan to support Parks’ conclusion that the recent shooting of a homeless woman, although the result of bad tactics, did not violate LAPD policy. Although Riordan administration officials have not addressed the shooting–but rather the overall question of LAPD shooting review policy–some commissioners say they believe Riordan aides want them to side with the chief to avoid undermining him during the Rampart probe. Those commissioners say that is increasingly difficult because their own inspector general believes the commission should rule that the shooting was improper.
Dispute Becomes Increasingly Public
Of all the relationships being tested, none is more important or more strained than that between the area’s two central law enforcement agencies, the district attorney’s office and the LAPD.
To some extent, that is predictable, even inevitable. Police tend to blame prosecutors for losing their cases, while prosecutors often accuse police of delivering them too little to win over a jury.
In this case, however, the stakes are higher than in most. And the accusations are more serious.
In recent weeks, the agencies have each lobbed their grenades in private battles that are increasingly beginning to explode on the public stage.
Aides and sources close to Garcetti and Parks report a building feud.
Garcetti, according to those sources, complains that the LAPD is moving too slowly and that the cases it sends to his office for prosecution are weak and undermined by the need to rely on former Officer Rafael Perez, who has turned informant as part of a plea bargain. Some of the evidence is so flimsy, Garcetti has reportedly said, that he and some of his deputies wonder whether the LAPD and its chief genuinely want to expose the full scandal.
Meanwhile, the LAPD dawdled on another highly touted initiative. Under pressure created by the Rampart scandal, Garcetti recently reactivated the county’s so-called roll-out team, a group of prosecutors who go to the scenes of police shootings. Quick to agree to the program were the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and other local agencies. The LAPD, by contrast, only came aboard Friday.
As of Friday morning, Garcetti was complaining about the standoff with the LAPD.
“They have not signed the protocol,” the district attorney said at that time. “There’s not going to be a negotiation about this. They will either sign it or not sign it.”
But by Friday evening, that situation had changed.
After a reporter asked about the roll-out team that day, Riordan got Parks and Garcetti on a conference call. They struck an uneasy truce, with the chief agreeing to the protocol for prosecution roll-outs. Hours later, prosecutors rolled out in response to an LAPD shooting for the first time.
Two blocks from Garcetti’s office, in the headquarters of the LAPD, other sources say Parks accuses Garcetti’s staff of being late getting to the game and complains that the prosecutors are so afraid of losing a high-profile case that they refuse to turn up the heat by hauling an officer or two into court on criminal charges.
“Any finger-pointing at the Los Angeles Police Department is misdirected,” Parks said in an interview last week. “It’s pretty clear that we have in the last two years put significant resources, investigators . . . into this investigation. We have pressured the D.A.’s office to file on the initial people . . . and we certainly, with our experience, know that there is more than enough to move forward [with those prosecutions].”
As examples, Parks and other Police Department officials said they would like to see three of the LAPD’s own charged criminally: Officer Nino Durden, Officer Michael Buchanan and former Officer Brian Hewitt.
Police officials seem particularly keen on prosecuting Buchanan, who they believe lied under oath and might testify against other officers if he is faced with the possibility of going to prison. Garcetti has balked, however, worried that Buchanan would fight his case in court and might prevail once a jury hears that much of the evidence against him is being provided by Perez. As a witness, Perez has the dual disadvantages of being an admittedly corrupt police officer and of having an incentive to implicate other officers in order to reduce his own criminal sentence.
Parks Urges Prosecution
Nevertheless, Parks and other LAPD officials said they believe strong cases can be made in which other evidence corroborates Perez’s allegations.
Parks specifically cited Buchanan as an officer who should be prosecuted–and blamed a timid district attorney’s office for failing to do so. “There’s a clear crime of perjury,” he said. “They can’t come to grips with that case.”
Garcetti brusquely disagreed.
“Are we more likely to get pressure with a single perjury count or more counts?” he asked. “No one . . . is going to beat me over the head to move quicker than is professionally, ethically appropriate.”
While he and Garcetti feud, Parks has managed to keep up a quiet but steady drumbeat against Police Commission President Chaleff, whom sources say the chief views as untrustworthy. (Parks would not comment publicly on Chaleff for this article.) That campaign appears to be bearing some fruit, as Riordan, once a Chaleff supporter, lately has been cool to him, according to mayoral associates.
Riordan insists his faith in Chaleff remains strong. “I think he’s doing a good job,” he said.
But compare that to Riordan’s assessment of Parks. The chief, according to Riordan, is “incredibly competent,” and nothing less than the best chief on Earth.
“I can’t think of any human being who would do a better job,” Riordan said last week.
The impression that Riordan is losing faith in his Police Commission president is so widespread that some observers believe Chaleff has become a pawn in another conflict: The strained friendship between the mayor and his longtime friend and advisor, Bill Wardlaw, who has defied Riordan by supporting City Atty. James Hahn in the campaign for mayor. Chaleff is Wardlaw’s lawyer, and some city government insiders who believe Riordan’s faith in Chaleff is waning attribute it to the mayor’s larger loss of trust in Wardlaw.
What most observers note about Riordan is how little he’s had to say about the Rampart scandal.
“I think it’s fair to say there’s been a conspicuous silence from the mayor on the question of Rampart,” Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas said. “That’s clearly his prerogative . . . [but] those who are elected have a responsibility to communicate as clearly as possible what will be done, how it will be done and the timetable in which it will be done.”
The mayor’s relative silence about Rampart has been even more curious given that before it’s over, the Rampart mess could prove one of the costliest police corruption cases in American history and by far the most traumatic city government breakdown of the Riordan years. Riordan’s last budget already is being affected, as many observers believe the extra revenue provided by a vibrant local economy will nevertheless do little to help a city that soon will be faced with hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements and judgments as a result of the police scandal.
Riordan has been so determined to stay out of the Rampart fray that people familiar with the case said the mayor was offered a briefing on the status of the case by representatives of the district attorney’s office but turned it down rather than inject himself into the process.
In an interview Friday, Garcetti initially declined to comment on whether Riordan had rejected an offered briefing. Then, minutes after the interview concluded, Garcetti called back to say that Riordan’s office had accepted his offer of a briefing and that one would probably occur this week.
Mayor’s Role in Police Issues
Riordan’s reluctance to play an active role in the investigation has not prevented the mayor’s office from being actively engaged in other police issues. On the shooting of homeless woman Margaret Mitchell, for instance, sources say Riordan aides and advisors have worked to keep the commission from drafting new standards on police shootings and then applying them to the Mitchell case.
Some commissioners have interpreted that as lobbying to convince them not to overrule the chief on that shooting, which Parks concluded resulted from poor tactics but was not a violation of LAPD policy. The commission’s ruling on that shooting will be closely watched and is made more problematic by the fact that its own inspector general has concluded that the board should condemn the officers’ actions, according to law enforcement sources.
Riordan said he is not intimately familiar with the Mitchell case, but some of his closest associates have been lobbying on his behalf, according to commissioners and others.
“The mayor has never lobbied his commissioners,” Wardlaw said. When asked whether he had made calls on Riordan’s behalf, Wardlaw crisply replied: “No comment. I don’t talk about my private conversations.”
Riordan’s chief of staff, Kelly Martin, has also raised the issue with commissioners. According to several sources, Martin has told commissioners that she believes the panel needs to stick with its long-standing approach to examining the propriety of shootings and not change the rules in the middle of the Mitchell case. Under that traditional approach, investigators consider the officers’ tactics that led up to the shooting separately from the shooting itself.
Discord Over Policy on Police Shootings
In short, what that means is the question of whether a shooting is “in policy” is decided principally by whether the officers who fired their weapons did so to prevent themselves or another person from imminent harm. That method is intended to give officers some reasonable latitude to protect themselves from harm, even in instances where their own mistakes contributed to creating a dangerous situation.
That approach frustrates some police critics, who argue that officers should be taken to task for tactical errors that result in shootings. They contend that bad tactics ought to be sufficient for a determination that a shooting was a violation of the LAPD’s policy.
Sources say the Police Commission is interested in considering a new method that would hold officers more strictly accountable for tactical decisions that provoke a threatening confrontation. The same sources indicate that Martin, in her conversations with commissioners, has asked them to set aside that question and decide it separately from the particulars of the Mitchell case.
Never, commissioners and others stress, has Martin suggested how the commissioners ought to vote on the shooting.
Across the top ranks of Los Angeles’ political leadership, the emerging strains are themselves a source of concern. All sides agree that unity would be helpful, but it appears increasingly difficult to achieve.
Meanwhile, the scandal broadens and deepens by the week.
“We’re on a threshold here,” Miscikowski said. “You talk to the top management at LAPD, and it’s something. This is shaking them to their bones.” (courtesy Los Angeles Times)