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Permit To Pack 

Chief hands out gun permits but not public records

Wednesday, Dec 2 1998
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

Culver City Police Chief Ted Cooke was a boxer in his youth, and there’s still a lot of fight in him — especially when it comes to releasing public records from his department. Three times Cooke has waged campaigns opposing the release of the concealed-weapon permits that he’s issued — and three times he has lost. His latest setback has been at the hands of the L.A. Weekly, although the chief did register something of a split decision. Under legal pressure, the chief in recent months has turned over hundreds of permits, but others may still be outstanding. And Cooke won’t reveal where his permit holders live, effectively giving cover to those who may be violating state law by living outside the city that issues the permits.

Ultimately, the Weekly, which filed suit against Culver City in July, determined that at least two out-of-town film-industry figures, Baretta star Robert Blake and film producer Stanley Lathan, may be city-sanctioned scofflaws. (Blake rents a modest apartment in Culver City, but apparently has never lived there. And L.A. County records indicate that Lathan’s primary residence is in Beverly Hills.)

In the legal slugfest over permits to carry concealed weapons, former boxer Cooke hasn’t led with his chin, but with his city’s checkbook. His battles to defy public-records laws have almost certainly cost the city thousands of dollars in legal fees, including the court costs of parties who sued to get the records. (The exact figures have not been released.) To date, the Culver City Council has not pressed the issue, however, so Chief Cooke himself has emerged from this scrape with barely a scratch.

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The gun permits are noteworthy because they underscore Cooke’s apparent attempt to circumvent the intent of state lawmakers.

Police departments can issue concealed-weapon permits only to residents living within their jurisdictions. And even if permit holders Blake and Lathan rent space in Culver City, it is not where they live, according to the best available evidence.

"The people who qualify for permits must be bona fide residents," said Ross Sargent, chief of staff to state Senator Patrick Johnston, who sponsored the legislation that included residency requirements. "We are thinking primary residents who get their permits from the same town they get their mail, have dinner, go with their kids to a soccer game." Cooke’s issuing of permits, he added, "seems clearly inconsistent with both the spirit and the letter of the law."

That’s not the chief’s view in regards to Blake. When queried this week by the City Council, Cooke responded, "Some people have more than one residence, and if there’s a residence in Culver City . . . we’re complying with the law." Cooke said he hadn’t checked into the case of Lathan (which was reported more than two months ago, in the September 11–17 Weekly).

The chief’s practices fly in the face of the policies of other police chiefs who, like legislators, have decided that it makes sense to restrict the number of citizens carrying weapons outside their homes.

Most cities issue permits sparingly. California Department of Justice records from 1994 through 1997 show that the Beverly Hills Police Department granted an annual average of one concealed-weapon permit, and Santa Monica about five. Los Angeles, with more than 3 million residents, granted an annual average of 63 permits. Culver City, with about 41,000 residents, granted an annual average of 267 permits. State law allows chiefs of police to grant permits to individuals who demonstrate good character and show good cause for carrying a weapon. The residency requirement, a recent addition, took effect January 1.

Despite assorted legislative efforts, the number of Culver City permit holders in 1997 had risen to 320 from 193 in 1994. This year, the number of permits has dropped, Cooke told the City Council, because of the residency requirement. (Cooke has released 77 permits to the Weekly for 1998.)

In years past, many Hollywood celebrities, such as Johnny Carson, Sylvester Stallone, Jim Belushi, Sammy Davis Jr., Gary Coleman, James Caan, film director John Milius and Hill Street Blues television producer Steven Bochco, have received permits from Cooke.

Chief Cooke always has played a remarkable game of rope-a-dope regarding the permits. According to published reports, Cooke persuaded a group of reserve officers to sue Culver City to bar the release of permits requested by the Los Angeles Times in 1989, a suit the group eventually lost. In 1993, publishers of the Daily Breeze successfully sued for the complete permits.

His fighting stance has continued. After the Weekly began asking for the permits in March, the city attorney, after weeks of delays, wrote the paper that "the Police Department has informed us they do not retain a concealed-weapons permit once it has been issued. Therefore, there are no such permits to review." Because of this legal song and dance, the Weekly then had to ask for the department’s "copies" of the permits.

The Weekly’s lawsuit has not unearthed all the public records. The Police Department says that it only keeps records going back two years, even though the city inadvertently gave the Weekly six early-1995 permits, apparently by mistake. If the city is telling the truth, this destruction of records is a questionable practice, according to legal experts, who note that such records could later prove relevant to a criminal investigation.

At first, the city also refused to provide copies of permits issued to the department’s reserve police officers, citing privacy issues. Eventually, the department turned over permits for about 60 percent of current reserves.

In the past, reserve status has been another vehicle for issuing potentially controversial permits, such as the one held in 1991 by Mark L. Nathanson, a prominent Beverly Hills businessman and political power broker. The L.A. Times reported that he got a concealed-weapon permit from Culver City by being named a reserve officer.

Overall, the number of permits released by the city for the last two years is smaller than the number of Culver City permits recorded by the state. The city insists that it has turned over everything. A clerical error? Or perhaps the handful of missing permits for these years includes some surprises. The pope? Fidel Castro? It’s impossible to know.

The chief’s policy also makes it impossible to assess a long-told tale in the department. In 1986, Cooke allegedly held a fund-raiser for a police-related organization and, in return for contributions, distributed permits to at least 15 donors. Cooke, who refused to talk with the Weekly, acknowledged to the City Council that he raised funds for the organization, but insisted, "There was no quid pro quo" regarding permits. Council members declined to press him on the issue.

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