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To Protect and Serve 

Hahn spent his career making the city safe for cops

Wednesday, May 9 2001
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

EARLY IN HER CAREER AS A DEPUTY LAWYER IN THE L.A. CITY Attorney's Office, Honey Lewis was something of a police junkie -- so much so that she became a volunteer auxiliary officer with the LAPD. One evening in 1984, Lewis found herself cruising the Rampart Division with LAPD Officer John Shafia, a member of the "Special Problems Unit," which predated the now-infamous CRASH anti-gang unit. Rampart cops back then were dealing out the same kind of violence and abuse as they were years later when Rafael Perez told investigators about the mayhem he and his fellow officers routinely administered on the streets of Pico-Union.

That night she witnessed "a number of incidents" of misconduct by Shafia, among them the casual brutalizing of a suspect. Lewis was concerned enough to turn Shafia in. The officer was subsequently found guilty by an LAPD Board of Rights for using excessive force, "failing to properly document an altercation with an arrestee" and "failing to properly book" property evidence. He received a 90-day suspension. But, although the city had Shafia dead to rights, no criminal charges were filed against him. This despite the fact that Honey Lewis, as one deputy city attorney later put it, was a "totally credible witness with no ax to grind."

Shafia had been a member of the LAPD for three years when he received that suspension and has continued to work for the city -- on patrol, in CRASH, in detectives and as a field-training officer. During his first 14 years in Rampart, he had 18 personnel complaints filed against him and was suspended a total of 151 days. Those complaints cost the city almost $370,000 to settle, and included shooting and killing an unarmed, 20-year-old man.

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John Shafia may seem an extreme example, but he's not alone. During the 16 years that Jim Hahn has been Los Angeles city attorney, there have been literally hundreds of other instances when problem officers have slipped through the cracks, their cases handled, then routinely ignored by Hahn's deputies. Hundreds of times, civil juries found LAPD officers guilty of egregious conduct and awarded citizens large financial settlements.

Instead, the case of John Shafia is one of missed opportunity, a hallmark of James Hahn's tenure as city attorney. A broad review of his dealings with the LAPD shows that Hahn forged a close partnership with the police rather than holding them to account, leaving the department to deal with questions of abuse and misconduct quietly, internally and, as events have shown, ineffectively.

In Honey Lewis' encounter with Officer Shafia, Lewis herself took action, reporting officer misconduct to the LAPD. Yet John Shafia remained at the Rampart Division -- he still works there today -- as he continued to provoke a steady stream of complaints. Did that make Shafia a problem officer? The family of Ismael Valereo certainly thought so. His survivors sued the city in 1992 after Shafia blasted him in the face with a shotgun from a distance of 12 feet. Shafia and a partner had been staking out a gathering of suspected gang members, and according to a police report, Shafia fired when Valereo reached for a metal object "in his waistband." The object, as it turned out, was a camera. The lawsuit was settled by the City Attorney.

Hahn's office had to answer for Shafia again in 1996, this time before the City Council. In closed session, one of Hahn's deputies was asked to explain why the city should pay the punitive damages the jury had levied against Shafia personally for roughing up an alleged DUI suspect. Even then, under skeptical questioning by council members, neither the deputy city attorney nor the LAPD captain present saw fit to describe Shafia as a problem, or to mention the slaying of Valereo.

But Councilwoman Rita Walters got the picture. "This guy, he doesn't learn anything," she said during the closed session. "He hasn't learned a thing from his suspensions, not one thing . . . He keeps going and doing the same thing. I don't know whether he has an alcohol problem. Maybe he needs counseling. But he certainly doesn't need to be in a uniform until he gets himself together."

What is particularly disturbing is that the Valereo shooting case was originally assigned to Honey Lewis, the same deputy city attorney who turned in Shafia after that 1984 ride-along. Lewis refused it, citing a conflict of interest due to her prior involvement with Shafia, but no alarms went off at the City Attorney's Office, nor at the LAPD.

Very few L.A. politicians, of course, had the stomach to take on the LAPD until the Rampart scandal broke in September of '99. And it would have required a genuine act of courage for James Hahn to push his attorneys to challenge LAPD officers, investigators or, in Hahn's case, the chief of police himself, be it Daryl Gates, Willie Williams or Bernard Parks. But Hahn never pressed the hard questions about why police-abuse cases continued their familiar patterns, or why the LAPD refused to change the policies, and training and culture, that were causing the lawsuits in the first place.

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