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A $500,000 Lesson

Police critics say the Rampart scandal is bigger than just one division of the LAPD. But a Superior Court jury held early this month that the problem of systematic police misconduct extends beyond Los Angeles as well.

The case stemmed from the in-custody death of Kenneth Wayne Callis, a black man who encountered police after smoking cocaine and was chased, beaten, hog-tied and then tossed in the back of a squad car by officers of the Culver City Police Department. The county coroner ruled that Callis died of asphyxiation, a common result of the hog-tie restraint.

In the course of a two-stage trial, a Santa Monica jury first found that the Culver City officers used excessive force and caused Callis’ death, and then awarded Callis‘ family $500,000. The attorney for the plaintiffs, Carol Watson, is a veteran of civil suits against police and a specialist in challenging the hog-tie, a practice that has led to scores of in-custody deaths across the country. The LAPD stopped hog-tying suspects in 1997 after losing a case litigated by Watson.

But the decision against Culver City was not limited to the simple question of hog-tying a suspect after an arrest. In their closing and in the evidence they presented at trial, Watson and her co-counsel, Steffeny Holtz, argued that the Culver City department operates under a policy of ”deliberate indifference“ to excessive force and officer misconduct. Calls from citizens complaining about Culver City officers are routinely ignored and consciously kept out of even internal records, for fear they might prove damaging in court, the lawyers said.

”It is a policy of not having a policy,“ Watson told the jury. She said the strategy flows directly from Culver City Police Chief Ted Cooke, a tough- a talking former LAPD officer who takes pride in his department’s quick response time and the city‘s low crime rate.

In her closing statement, Holtz asked the jury to ”send a message“ to Culver City and Chief Cooke, but to judge by the city’s official reaction, the gist of the verdict did not get through.

In an interview last week, Culver City Mayor David Hauptman said the message he got told him little about the city‘s Police Department. ”If [Callis] hadn’t used drugs, this sort of thing wouldn‘t have happened,“ Hauptman said. ”It’s as if somebody were blind drunk and ran into a pole. You shouldn‘t be drunk anyway.“

Asked if he was not concerned that the jury found that Callis had been subjected to excessive force by Culver City officers, Hauptman said of his cops, ”They’re not evil people going out there and trying to beat people up.“

Similarly, City Attorney Carol Schwab said through a spokesperson that she found the verdict ”completely unclear“ and ”completely inconsistent.“ Last week, the City Council voted to pursue an appeal.

The official reaction matches Culver City‘s past record of ignoring criticism of its Police Department. Chief Cooke and his officers were the subject of stormy public hearings in 1998 after the Weekly published stories detailing allegations of widespread racial profiling and police misconduct, including the melee leading to Callis’ death, but Cooke successfully rebuffed calls for reform.

Instead, Cooke dispatched teams of officers to make door-to-door outreach visits to each of the city‘s 40,000 residents. ”We want to know how we are doing and what we can do to make things better,“ Cooke said at the time.

Cooke’s department has been less solicitous when it comes to handling citizen complaints, according to evidence presented at the Callis trial. As Culver City Captain Don Ruetz described it, ”Normally a sergeant would talk to a citizen and try to explain the reason why we stop people and try to put a good spin on it. And if it didn‘t really sound like it was just an attitude problem, it wasn’t really an act of misconduct, then they would just more or less appease the citizen and we wouldn‘t take a formal complaint . . . We do that all the time.“

Ruetz, head of the department’s Operations Bureau, made those comments during a civil-service hearing that was entered into evidence at the Callis trial. During the same hearing, Ruetz also explained Chief Cooke‘s policy of encouraging ”overinflated“ commendations while discouraging official complaints. ”Our chief likes to have a lot of commendations to offset personnel complaints or anything negative that would happen on an officer’s performance. So that if a lawsuit did come in, then the scale would kind of be in favor of the commendations and all the good work the officer did as opposed to the negative things that happened during an officer‘s career.“

Another key to the case was testimony at trial by Lieutenant Greg Smith, who said he proposed a change in policy after another man hog-tied by Culver City officers died in 1994. Smith said he suggested to Cooke that in the future, any hog-tied suspects be taken by ambulance instead of by police officers, but his suggestion was ignored.

None of these admissions served the city as jurors considered the details of how Kenneth Wayne Callis died. a

As described in police reports and by his companion, Callis spent the evening of January 14, 1997, at an Econo Lodge on Washington Boulevard. He ate dinner, sipped brandy and smoked crack cocaine until around midnight, when the pair packed their bags to leave. Callis was dressed in a two-piece track suit.

Unbeknownst to the two, a Culver City squad car had stopped outside the motel to question a pedestrian. While one officer conducted a brief interview, the other, Officer Jim Raetz, strolled toward the motel and noticed Callis’ door open and then close. Raetz decided to see what was up.

Inside the room, according to Callis‘ friend, Cheryl Jones, Callis spotted the approaching officer. Callis had done time for a drug offense, and Jones had twice been convicted of forgery, so the police could not have been welcome that night.

Officer Raetz said the door opened a second time just as he arrived, and he and Callis were face to face. According to Raetz, he asked Callis if everything was all right, and Callis said, ”Yeah.“ Raetz then looked past Callis and spotted a cocaine rock sitting atop a small refrigerator. The officer said Callis then grabbed him by the arm, pulled him into the room, shouted, ”Not now, motherfucker,“ and ran into the night.

Jones tells a different story. According to Jones, Callis opened the door just as Raetz arrived and simply walked past without saying a word. She testified that the officer turned and followed him, leaving her alone in the room.

At that point, everyone agrees, the chase was on. Callis fled from the Econo Lodge and into the street, then across Washington Boulevard and onto a side street. Raetz followed on foot and was soon joined by Officer Randy Robertson. As both closed in on Callis, each delivered blows with his baton to Callis’ legs, finally dropping him. Callis got back to his feet, and Raetz and Robertson each sprayed him twice with pepper spray until Callis began to retreat.

At this point, three more officers arrived, including Sergeant Harvey Bailey. Callis‘ companion Cheryl Jones, who testified that she watched the altercation from the street, said the officers surrounded him, clubbing him until he went down. ”He was going in circles, just in agony and pain, from being sprayed and hit with batons, and it was several police officers surrounding him.“

The officers testified that Callis was struck only while running. They also said he was striking back at the officers and threatening them, but the only independent witness, a Washington Boulevard resident named Juan Esparza, disputed that. ”He was just defending himself,“ Esparza said in a statement. ”I didn’t see him trying to throw down with the cops.“

The police agreed, however, that one officer got out more pepper spray and sprayed Callis heavily, driving him to his knees. Callis then made a critical mistake, according to Sergeant Bailey. ”Callis went to one knee and began to reach for his waistband.“ (Police later found that Callis was carrying a pager.)

That was enough for Bailey. He ordered another dose of pepper spray and then directed the officers to swarm Callis. After the four officers piled on, Callis was subdued, then cuffed with his wrists behind his back, and then had his ankles bound and strapped to the handcuffs. Culver City officers refer to the device as a ”hobble“; other departments call it a hog-tie.

Thus restrained, Callis was loaded into the back of a squad car and driven to the Culver City police station. Time of death was disputed -- it was either in the car or upon his arrival -- but Callis was already dead by the time paramedics arrived at the station soon after midnight.

Attorneys for Culver City argued that Callis had brought his fate upon himself by smoking cocaine and by running from the police, and the jury agreed in part, decreasing the verdict against the city by 60 percent. But they awarded the full amount in judgment against Sergeant Bailey, holding that there was no need for the final gang tackle of Callis.

”He was surrounded by seven officers; he was on the ground,“ attorney Carol Watson said in an interview. ”They all jumped on. They just simply squeezed the life out of him.“

Culver City decided to indemnify Bailey and is thus liable for the full judgment. The judge said he will issue a ruling as to the exact amount.

Watson‘s co-counsel Steffeny Holtz emphasized in an interview that the officers never intended for Callis to die -- but they didn’t much care if he did, either. ”I don‘t think they murdered him intentionally. I think it’s a case of poor training by the department,“ Holtz said. She noted that middle-class whites rarely face excessive force at the hands of the police, in part because people with means are more likely to sue. ”That‘s why they don’t come into my neighborhood and haul people out of their rooms and beat them. But with Mexicans and poor blacks, they‘re just not worth any money.“

In this case, however, Callis was found to be worth an even half-million dollars. In an interview after the verdict was returned, Holtz said the continuing scandal at the LAPD made her message easier to get across. ”Those 12 people on the jury would never have listened to us were it not for Rampart,“ she said.

”They are genuinely shocked at the possibility that police officers are not being honest with them, and by the brutality that goes on.“