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Slipping Into Darkness 

A Rampart ruling could keep officers’ misdeeds secret forever

Thursday, Jan 23 2003
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A tentative court ruling issued early this month could break the legal stalemate that has kept on hold for as long as three years more than 100 lawsuits arising from the LAPD Rampart scandal.

Yet, at least in its tentative form, the order suggests that details of the police misconduct alleged at Rampart will remain secret, even after the cases come to trial.

Terry Francke, an attorney with the Sacramento-based First Amendment Coalition, said that if the Rampart cases follow the script outlined by federal Magistrate Judge Andrew Wistrich, “You could see a good portion of these cases going into a black box.”

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To Greg Moreno, an attorney representing several claims against the city and the police, the judge’s order “gives the city attorney license to cover up everything that went on” at Rampart. “This is one of the basic reasons we have police misconduct unchecked in this city -- the judiciary has decided to protect these public entities.”

Paul Paquette, the deputy city attorney assigned to handle the federal Rampart cases, did not return two calls for comment on the judge‘s ruling.

Judge Wistrich was designated last spring to decide which documents the city must turn over to the lawyers suing the city, and which ones should be made public. It was a key assignment because Judge Gary Fees, who is hearing all the federal civil cases arising from Rampart, halted most pretrial activity pending the order from Wistrich.

Wistrich took eight months to mull the question of how to handle the documents under review, comprising more than 150,000 pages of police reports, internal records and witness interviews. His tentative ruling, issued January 7, designates as “confidential” more than 30 broad categories of documents, including any statements made by officers or witnesses, and virtually all police reports and documents, as well as material compiled later by police investigators. In addition, Wistrich held that the city attorney could classify as confidential any statements made during depositions, and held that papers that cited any confidential documents or statements could be sealed when filed with the court.

The decision followed closely the arguments made by Paquette, who sought broad authority to keep secret the identity of anyone arrested by the police, or of witnesses to those arrests, even if the arrests themselves were bogus. “These people have the right to some anonymity,” Paquette said. He also argued that state law makes most police records secret. a

While he followed Paquette’s design, Judge Wistrich said he would revisit his order “in the near future” to explain his reasoning, and said he may “narrow, qualify or abrogate” the limits on public release for some of the documents. Alonzo Wickers, an attorney for the L.A. Times, which joined the plaintiff attorneys to argue for public release of all documents related to Rampart, cited the judge‘s caveat and said, “I’m not encouraged right now, but I don‘t think it’s as bad as it looks.”

“It‘s not settled yet as to what’s going to be confidential and what‘s not,” Wickers said.

Even if Wistrich modifies his order, however, plaintiff attorneys say their clients have already lost the initiative in lawsuits that were formerly at the center of the public agenda. “By delaying trials and delaying discovery for so long, they let the heat go out of these cases,” said Moreno, who previously represented Javier Ovando, a gang member who was shot, crippled and framed by Rafael Perez and his partner Nino Durden. Moreno helped Ovando win a $15 million settlement, by far the largest award to a victim of police misconduct at Rampart.

Aside from the effect on attitudes of prospective juries, delays make fact-finding much more difficult, attorney Greg Yates said. “Each day more officers who were involved in Rampart are leaving and relocating, and their memories are fading. The same is true for our witnesses -- civilians or victims. It’s difficult to even take a statement, let alone a deposition, without having access to documents to refresh their faded memories. We‘re still stultified in our efforts to prosecute these cases.”

At least one key lawyer vows he will not be governed by the new ruling. Stephen Yagman, who has extensive experience trying police cases in federal court, said he would insist on full public disclosure when his cases come to trial. “This city has managed to keep a shroud over everything,” Yagman said last week. “I’m going to fight like hell for every single piece of paper. The government is not going to be able to continue with this bull-shit that it was just a few rogue cops that happened at Rampart.”

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