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
District Attorney Steve Cooley wasted little time answering calls for justice after the videotaped beating of a 16-year-old by an Inglewood cop. He referred the case to a criminal grand jury in a matter of hours, citing ”the lessons from Rampart.“
But attorneys for victims of rogue Rampart Division officers give Cooley mixed marks on applying what should have been learned from the scandal that rocked the LAPD and led to federal oversight of local police reform.
”There‘s been a lot of clamor because we’re dealing with a videotape,“ said Greg Yates, a lawyer who landed $11 million in settlements for 25 Rampart plaintiffs. ”There were hundreds of instances unearthed or revealed in Rampart that were vastly more grotesque, more outrageous, but the D.A.‘s Office barely scratched the surface.“
In an interview Tuesday, Cooley said there was no grandstanding in his speedy response to Inglewood, but simply efficient case management. ”It’s important to evaluate the potential for criminal misconduct at the earliest possible stage,“ he said. More broadly, Cooley defended his record by citing several recent cases filed against police officers.
As for the troubled division at the heart of the LAPD scandal, Cooley said, ”We‘re still working on Rampart, believe it or not.“
A review of the first-year performance at Cooley’s new Justice System Integrity Division (JSID) shows few prosecutions for the kinds of misconduct -- falsified police reports, planted evidence -- that resulted in more than 200 overturned convictions in the last three years.
Most of the 24 cases filed by JSID in 2001 were for petty crimes that had little to do with miscarriage of justice: theft from a retirement a fund, falsification of a time card, domestic violence. Moreover, none of the prosecutions originated inside the District Attorney‘s Office itself, a problem that also characterized the tenure of Cooley’s predecessor, Gil Garcetti. Deputy D.A.s are often the first to become aware of officer misconduct.
The classic such case, hammered on by Cooley during his campaign against Garcetti, was that of Deputy D.A. Michael Kraut, who had to dismiss a case when he found that Officer Rafael Perez had lied on the stand. Kraut reported the incident, but it sat on his supervisor‘s desk until Perez’s unrelated confessions sparked the Rampart scandal.
Still, some of the JSID cases from 2001 show a new willingness to file against police officers. Prosecutors charged two officers with assault for using excessive force, and a Sheriff‘s deputy for filing a false police report. In still another case, an LAPD officer faced perjury charges.
And several more recent filings drew good reviews from Carole Telfer, head of the Public Integrity Assurance Section at the Public Defender’s Office. ”Generally the feeling here is that Cooley is acting quicker on this than Garcetti did,“ Telfer said in an interview.
Telfer cited ”four or five“ recent cases, including the 11-count indictment of a Sheriff‘s deputy early this month for writing false arrest reports. ”He’s not just letting things go by the wayside,“ Telfer said of Cooley. ”It‘s a positive sign.“
But filing cases is just half the battle. In addition, defense attorneys need to be informed when an arresting officer is suspected of misconduct. On that score Telfer found Cooley’s record ”troubling.“
In three recent cases filed against police officers, Telfer said her deputies first learned of alleged misconduct by reading the newspaper. Telfer said she wrote to the head of JSID last week complaining that her office deserved earlier notice.
To some defense attorneys, such lapses reflect a distinct bias in Cooley‘s office against disclosure of police misconduct, even when it’s required by law. ”One would think the D.A. would respond to Rampart by ensuring that evidence of officer misconduct gets disclosed,“ said Gary Wigodsky, head of a police-misconduct unit similar to Telfer‘s. ”Unfortunately, they haven’t done that.“
In fact, Wigodsky pointed out, after the infamous Kraut memo came to light, former D.A. Garcetti issued a new policy requiring that any records showing an officer had been disciplined or accused of misconduct be logged in a computer and shared with defense lawyers. Cooley rescinded that policy in February 2001, and replaced it more than a year later with a rule limiting disclosure only to documents issued by court order or where criminal charges are filed.
That means that an LAPD officer could be suspended for lying in court or in his police reports, and yet defendants in separate cases would have no access to the information, Wigodsky explained. Or as he put it, ”Under the new Cooley policy, the Kraut memo still would not come out.“
Asked to respond, Cooley said that ”advocates on the other side have a far more expansive view of the law than we do,“ but added that the question of what prosecutors should disclose to defense attorneys ”is still very dynamic and very fluid.“