By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
These failures might have been addressed by a more vigorous, more independent-minded official. But James Hahn has been a charter member of the go-along, get-along political old-boys club that's run L.A. for decades. Along with Mayors Tom Bradley and Dick Riordan, the D.A.'s Office and most of the City Council, Hahn said nothing publicly during the late '80s as the LAPD worked South-Central like Israeli paratroopers work the West Bank, or when 20 cops stood by chewing gum as Rodney King was brutally beaten, setting the stage for the worst American riots of the 20th century. Nor did he speak out during the years leading up to Rafael Perez's 3,000 pages of damning testimony about the Rampart Division -- years punctuated by telltale cases involving officers like John Shafia.
And yet, throughout a season of recrimination that saw LAPD Chief Bernard Parks and former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti savagely attack and blame each other for the corruption and brutality of the Rampart scandal, James Hahn managed to float serenely above the storm. Now he's a finalist in the biggest race of his life, his bid to finally eclipse his legendary father by ascending to the city's highest office.
He's used his father's name and old political base, and a long record of attending to the business of the city's Democratic machine, to get this far. In recent weeks he's upped the ante, challenging the media to scrutinize the record of rival Antonio Villaraigosa. But Hahn has yet to be called to account for his own record. Given that he wants to be L.A.'s next mayor -- and that the next mayor's first, paramount and continuing task must be the reform of the LAPD -- the question Hahn must answer is this: Can someone who has been a pivotal part of the problem throughout his career be trusted to effect a true transformation of the paramilitary culture at the LAPD once the Rampart scandal has faded?
MANAGING A STAFF OF 400 LAWYERS IN OFFICES across the street from City Hall, Hahn has an enormously complex job as city attorney. Along with prosecuting tens of thousands of misdemeanor crimes, he must defend all city agencies -- and especially the LAPD -- against myriad lawsuits.
Those tasks foster an intimate relationship with the department, leaving the city attorney even more entangled with the LAPD than the D.A. As civil rights attorney Paul Hoffman pointed out to the L.A. Times, the City Attorney's Office is the one outside agency "in a unique position of knowing what's going on in the Police Department. There's really no one else in the community other than the Police Department itself that has regular information about what's going on inside the department."
That inside knowledge, in turn, gives rise to a Catch-22 situation, according to seasoned observers such as Superior Court Judge Kenneth Lee Chotiner, veteran police-abuse attorney R. Samuel Paz, and several longtime deputy city attorneys with whom I spoke and who declined to speak for attribution. The city attorney must serve as defense counsel when citizens sue the police, these observers note, and still ferret out lies or other wrongdoing committed by LAPD officers. Yet exposing such misconduct would cost the city millions in civil judgments and awards. Even when his deputies know that the cops are in the wrong, therefore, Hahn's office has either quietly settled with the plaintiff because it had no defense for the officer's conduct, or went to court and lost.
It's a recurring problem, one deputy city attorney explained, which only gets worse as a trial lawyer gains experience: "They know an officer has a prior record of dishonesty, and when he's sued again and again, they know the guy's a bad seed and probably did what he's accused of, and will lie on the stand to save his skin. So because they know, they refuse the case, and it's given to another attorney who may or may not get the information passed on to him . . . There's a built-in conflict of interest in the City Attorney's Office that colors everything that it does."
To his critics, it's a practice for which Hahn himself must answer. As Sam Paz puts it, "To continue to defend cops who act questionably places the city attorney squarely in the middle of an ethical conflict. The dirty cop gets a free ride when the city pays for the defense. At the settlement, the city pays with tax dollars for the consequences of potentially criminal behavior."
"Hahn can't tell Chief Parks, 'Listen, this guy has had four lawsuits filed against him, and he's guilty as sin of this one just like he was the others,'" says another deputy city attorney. "But he could forcefully tell Parks that he needs to change the polices that are allowing such a guy to go and do the things he's been doing."
JAMES HAHN MAINTAINS THAT HE'S performed his watchdog function by alerting the LAPD to problems when they arise. "We've been sending regular reports to the Police Commission and the Police Department on every case that's filed -- what the allegations are, what the settlements are, what the verdicts and settlements are," he said in an interview. "I made a big deal out of the whole risk management of the city, and talked about not only the Police Department but a lot of departments I thought were paying out too much money."