District Attorney Gil Garcetti looked even paler than normal under his signature shock of snow-white hair as he stood before the media February 6 to reassure the city that he was firmly in control of the ever-expanding Rampart scandal.
Garcetti had little news to announce -- no felons were being exonerated, and certainly no cops had been indicted -- but that morning the L.A. Times had published sensational excerpts from 2,000 pages of interview transcripts from rogue-officer-turned-informant Rafael Perez. With his re-election primary only weeks away on March 7, the D.A. had to say something.
To his credit, Garcetti had never minced words about the severity of the scandal, expected to cost the city some $250 million in civil settlements alone. This is the biggest problem I have seen in my 31 years in the District Attorneys Office, Garcetti said in December.
Yet all he could do at the news conference was underscore his own sluggish response. He was increasing the staff on his Rampart task force to 10 attorneys -- from the seven he had put on in November. And he had restarted the rollout program under which deputy district attorneys head directly to the scene of any officer-involved shootings. Only one problem -- the LAPD had yet to sign on.
None of which spoke very well for the top prosecutor charged with bringing cases against the renegade cops of Rampart. But none of it surprising in light of Garcettis more than seven years in office. Despite an early reputation as a tough-on-cops prosecutor, and despite the Rodney King beating and its obvious warning flags of widespread LAPD misconduct, Garcetti has taken few steps to monitor or restrain the citys police force.
Garcetti seems bemused, almost surprised, at the suggestion that his office might share some responsibility for policing the police. Even today, there is no formal policy requiring prosecutors to notify their superiors of officers lying on the stand or engaging in apparent misconduct. Asked if he thought that might be a problem, Garcetti could only muster, We train on this, we train our managers . . . and one of the things we talk about is putting your witness on the stand. And if you have a doubt about their credibility, then dont do it. I think there has to be a slightly more formal process, I guess, is what Im saying.
Garcettis challengers in next Tuesdays primary say he should share some of the blame for Rampart. The incumbents response has been to duck head-to-head debates and emphasize his hypothetical commitment to prosecuting lawbreaking officers. In light of his record, that may be the best he can do.
Perhaps the most glaring Rampart signal flare that Garcetti chose to ignore is one that had nothing to do with Rafael Perez. The case involves a February 1998 station-house beating of a handcuffed prisoner, gang member Ismael Jimenez, by Brian Hewitt, a former CRASH officer then working narcotics.
To the LAPD, the case was cut-and-dried. Physical evidence of the beating included DNA matches for Jimenez with blood spatters on the walls and a pool of bloody vomit on the floor. At the hospital that night, Jimenez told several people that Hewitt was his assailant; one of them, the emergency-room physician, scrawled Hewitts name on a hospital bed sheet to be sure it was preserved. Hewitt was brought up on departmental charges and fired the following year.
There were no witnesses to the actual beating, however -- the other cops at Rampart that night said they didnt see anything. And a consulting physician who reviewed the medical file found that the blood on the floor -- which stained a 9-by-11-inch section of carpet -- could have come from a small injury in the mouth or tongue, which was not detected. To the lawyers at the D.A.s Special Investigations Division, which reviews any cases against police officers, that was enough to derail criminal prosecution.
In hindsight, that decision looks like the D.A. bending over backward to avoid prosecution of a cop. In January, LAPD Chief Bernard Parks cited the Hewitt case specifically in charging that Garcetti was dragging his feet on Rampart. Garcetti defended the decision in an interview with the Weekly. We have been looking at that case so hard, and this is before Perez came out, Garcetti said. Because in our mind . . . we had a bad cop here, a bad cop. And if we could prosecute that case, we wanted to prosecute that case. But I had an ethical responsibility, and that ethical responsibility is you do not prosecute anyone unless you can establish that a crime was committed by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.