It was backslapping all around when the regions top law-enforcement officials convened a news conference last week to announce the first federal indictments against LAPD officers since the Rodney King beating.
We will prosecute corrupt officers as aggressively as permitted under federal law, declared U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas, as county D.A. Gil Garcetti looked on. Added Police Chief Bernard Parks, I remain absolutely committed to ensuring that the LAPD is an organization of integrity and professionalism.
To review the tortuous course the case has taken so far, however, is to wonder how this clique of officials can possibly come to grips with the hundreds of allegations of misconduct that have already surfaced in the still-mushrooming Rampart scandal. Perhaps the most glaring failure must be ascribed to one law-enforcement leader not invited to last weeks media event -- City Attorney James Hahn, whose deputy blew the whistle on a bogus arrest, only to be ignored.
The indictments handed down by a federal grand jury charge that two officers from the LAPDs 77th Street Division arrested a man without cause and then testified falsely against him. Both cops face prosecution for criminal conspiracy, which carries a prison term of up to 10 years, as well as misdemeanor counts. Attorneys for both officers say their clients are innocent and will fight the charges.
The LAPD and the City Attorneys Office each had direct knowledge of the case, but as has occurred so often at Rampart, the agencies gave the officers involved wide latitude to explicate or shrug off the apparent misconduct, and the civil rights of the defendant were treated as an afterthought.
Until the federal indictments, the only consequence to befall the officers was an internal LAPD investigation, which concluded with the suspension of one officer for less than a month. Meanwhile, the deputy city attorney who brought the case to light has been fired. As for the U.S. attorney, the case took more than three years to bring to indictment. And even that glacial crawl to justice was launched only on the merest coincidence, a chance encounter at a mall in downtown Los Angeles.
The case against Eddie Ruiz, then a field-training officer, and Jon Paul Taylor, then on first-year probation, arose from their April 1995 arrest of Victor Tyson, a black man who was hanging out near his home on a dilapidated stretch of Broadway near 73rd Street. According to their official report, the officers noticed a broken window and, when they stopped to investigate, spotted Tyson and another man fleeing the scene.
Tyson was cornered after a brief foot pursuit; Officer Taylor reported and later testified that he saw the suspect drop a gun just as he was cornered. Tyson was charged with carrying a concealed weapon, and three months later the case landed on the desk of Evan Freed. It was his first prosecution as a new deputy in City Attorney Hahns Central Trials Division.
Freed said in an interview that he began questioning the police version as soon as he called witnesses to the stand. There were discrepancies between the written report and the officers testimony, and both officers seemed nervous in the face of Freeds questioning.
Freed decided to visit the scene himself. He quickly saw that there was no broken window, and that the alley where Tyson was arrested was so dark that I was unable to see the ground at all, as he put it in a memo to his supervisors.
The following day, Freed contacted Sergeant Richard Henry, a field supervisor who arrived at the scene soon after the arrest. Henry essentially spilled the beans, Freed told the Weekly. The sergeant said nobody ever mentioned a broken window to him, and he was skeptical of Ruizs claim to have special expertise in gun cases. Moreover, Henry told Freed, a brief encounter with Tyson convinced him that the suspect was docile, cooperative and apparently mentally impaired. Tyson is probably innocent, Sergeant Henry told Freed.
That was enough for the rookie prosecutor. He took his misgivings to Kenneth Chotiner, the Municipal Court judge handling the case, who heartily commended Freed for coming forward.
Considering that Tyson had no record at the time, Chotiner issued a finding of factual innocence rather than a simple not-guilty verdict. According to a transcript of the proceeding, the judge further recommended that LAPD Internal Affairs be notified of the apparent misconduct by Ruiz and Taylor.
As for Freed, Chotiner said, I am very impressed with all you have done . . . I have seen too many prosecutors -- Im not saying its your office or the D.A.s Office -- that would still go ahead, bluff their way through and try to convict somebody.