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A $500,000 Lesson 

Culver City cops just don’t get it

Wednesday, May 17 2000
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Police critics say the Rampart scandal is bigger than just one division of the LAPD. But a Superior Court jury held early this month that the problem of systematic police misconduct extends beyond Los Angeles as well.

The case stemmed from the in-custody death of Kenneth Wayne Callis, a black man who encountered police after smoking cocaine and was chased, beaten, hog-tied and then tossed in the back of a squad car by officers of the Culver City Police Department. The county coroner ruled that Callis died of asphyxiation, a common result of the hog-tie restraint.

In the course of a two-stage trial, a Santa Monica jury first found that the Culver City officers used excessive force and caused Callis’ death, and then awarded Callis‘ family $500,000. The attorney for the plaintiffs, Carol Watson, is a veteran of civil suits against police and a specialist in challenging the hog-tie, a practice that has led to scores of in-custody deaths across the country. The LAPD stopped hog-tying suspects in 1997 after losing a case litigated by Watson.

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But the decision against Culver City was not limited to the simple question of hog-tying a suspect after an arrest. In their closing and in the evidence they presented at trial, Watson and her co-counsel, Steffeny Holtz, argued that the Culver City department operates under a policy of ”deliberate indifference“ to excessive force and officer misconduct. Calls from citizens complaining about Culver City officers are routinely ignored and consciously kept out of even internal records, for fear they might prove damaging in court, the lawyers said.

”It is a policy of not having a policy,“ Watson told the jury. She said the strategy flows directly from Culver City Police Chief Ted Cooke, a tough- a talking former LAPD officer who takes pride in his department’s quick response time and the city‘s low crime rate.

In her closing statement, Holtz asked the jury to ”send a message“ to Culver City and Chief Cooke, but to judge by the city’s official reaction, the gist of the verdict did not get through.

In an interview last week, Culver City Mayor David Hauptman said the message he got told him little about the city‘s Police Department. ”If [Callis] hadn’t used drugs, this sort of thing wouldn‘t have happened,“ Hauptman said. ”It’s as if somebody were blind drunk and ran into a pole. You shouldn‘t be drunk anyway.“

Asked if he was not concerned that the jury found that Callis had been subjected to excessive force by Culver City officers, Hauptman said of his cops, ”They’re not evil people going out there and trying to beat people up.“

Similarly, City Attorney Carol Schwab said through a spokesperson that she found the verdict ”completely unclear“ and ”completely inconsistent.“ Last week, the City Council voted to pursue an appeal.

The official reaction matches Culver City‘s past record of ignoring criticism of its Police Department. Chief Cooke and his officers were the subject of stormy public hearings in 1998 after the Weekly published stories detailing allegations of widespread racial profiling and police misconduct, including the melee leading to Callis’ death, but Cooke successfully rebuffed calls for reform.

Instead, Cooke dispatched teams of officers to make door-to-door outreach visits to each of the city‘s 40,000 residents. ”We want to know how we are doing and what we can do to make things better,“ Cooke said at the time.

Cooke’s department has been less solicitous when it comes to handling citizen complaints, according to evidence presented at the Callis trial. As Culver City Captain Don Ruetz described it, ”Normally a sergeant would talk to a citizen and try to explain the reason why we stop people and try to put a good spin on it. And if it didn‘t really sound like it was just an attitude problem, it wasn’t really an act of misconduct, then they would just more or less appease the citizen and we wouldn‘t take a formal complaint . . . We do that all the time.“

Ruetz, head of the department’s Operations Bureau, made those comments during a civil-service hearing that was entered into evidence at the Callis trial. During the same hearing, Ruetz also explained Chief Cooke‘s policy of encouraging ”overinflated“ commendations while discouraging official complaints. ”Our chief likes to have a lot of commendations to offset personnel complaints or anything negative that would happen on an officer’s performance. So that if a lawsuit did come in, then the scale would kind of be in favor of the commendations and all the good work the officer did as opposed to the negative things that happened during an officer‘s career.“

Another key to the case was testimony at trial by Lieutenant Greg Smith, who said he proposed a change in policy after another man hog-tied by Culver City officers died in 1994. Smith said he suggested to Cooke that in the future, any hog-tied suspects be taken by ambulance instead of by police officers, but his suggestion was ignored.

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