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
Koenig, a slight and fastidious man, made it clear during a July visit to his sixth-floor office at police headquarters downtown that he sets his own agenda according to his own priorities. Asked the status of the investigative report, first announced by then-Chief Parks more than two years before, Koenig pointed to the inch-thick document and said, "It'll be done when it's done." Asked to preview its findings, Koenig said, "I don't know. I haven't read it."
And while the department pursued that inquiry at its own leisurely pace, outside investigators encountered downright hostility. Then-Chief Parks set the tone when, at the height of the civic turmoil surrounding Rampart, he rebuffed specific inquiries from the county district attorney, and declared that his staff would only cooperate with federal authorities.
Those federal investigations — by the FBI and by the Justice Department — netted jail time for confessed felons Perez and Durden, but nothing more. In fact, the decision by federal authorities to prosecute Perez helped stymie any further examination. "They shut him up," said Wigodsky. "If their intent was to get to the bottom of Rampart, their first and most forceful act was to make sure that no one got to the bottom of Rampart."
In a faxed response to written questions, the U.S. Attorney's Office insisted in July that "The Justice Department investigation is still open" and that the U.S. attorney "did not play any role" in shutting down other inquiries. Officials there "would consider" any new request that they share the Durden transcripts, but said, "Local authorities retained several avenues to compel Perez" to serve as a witness had they so desired.
FAILURE TO DETERMINE JUST WHAT HAPpened at Rampart helped to mute a scandal which, at the outset, threatened to shake the LAPD to its foundations. Unlike the videotaped beating of Rodney King, which galvanized public and official opinion in a broad-based mandate for fundamental reform, reaction to Rampart became little more than a Rorschach test of pre-existing attitudes toward the police.
To Ramona Ripston, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, "Rampart was much larger than Perez and his partner. I always knew that the police department appeared more brutal than it should have been, and Rampart showed us that brutality and corruption."
But for Bill Seki, a former district attorney who now represents Perez partner Nino Durden and indicted Rampart officer Ethan Cohan, "The Rampart scandal was completely overblown," and driven by "politics and media exposure."
The most serious crimes Perez brought to light were the ones to which he confessed, including shooting an unarmed gang member, planting a gun on him and charging him with assault, and stealing several kilos of cocaine from department evidence lockers. But Perez also accused scores of his fellow officers of unprovoked beatings, of planting evidence, and of arresting gang members without cause and making false testimony to send them to prison. Seki dismissed those allegations as a smoke screen, concocted by Perez to distract investigators from other misconduct — possibly by fellow black officers working at Death Row Records, as some writers have speculated. "What he fed them was a crock," Seki said of Perez. But Perez found an avid audience in the media and the city's ready contingent of police critics. "Corruption by police officers is a huge bandwagon that can pull any politician along," Seki said.
Similar differences in perspective are reflected at the Los Angeles Police Commission, the civilian body that oversees the department. "I don't know if we'll ever know what happened at Rampart," said commissioner Silvia Saucedo, a lawyer raised by immigrant parents in the heart of the Rampart division. "But I do know that what was going on there was wrong."
Commission president Rick Caruso, a prominent real estate developer, was more conclusive. "I don't think it was a broad, systemic problem," Caruso said. "I think it was a problem of a few bad officers that were involved in a scandal down there."
IF THERE'S DIVISION OVER THE SCOPE and the severity of the problems at the Rampart division, there's a surprising degree of consensus over how to respond. Reform at the LAPD is moving forward through the offices of the Police Commission, the Inspector General's Office, the monitor approved by a federal judge to oversee the department, and the department itself.
By and large, those reforms boil down to "audits" — management surveys of procedures and paperwork, and reviews of those audits by the inspector general and the monitor. "You have to look at the trends and the blips on the radar screen," inspector general Eglash said. "That's one of the lessons of Rampart."
Of course, audits and surveys bypass the ugly business of investigating and prosecuting criminal cases against individual officers. It was beleaguered former D.A. Gil Garcetti who said that criminal convictions and state prison terms were the only way to change the practices of corrupt police officers, but Garcetti was bounced by voters in 2000.
The focus on process stems largely from inside the department itself. Summarizing the findings of his Board of Inquiry in March 2000, then-Chief Bernard Parks warned that "mediocrity is flourishing" department-wide and said, "Our failure to carefully review reports . . . our failure to provide effective oversight and auditing created the opportunity for this cancer to grow."