Bring on the Dirty Cops

Photo by Ted Soqui

LOS ANGELES POLICE CHIEF WILLIAM BRATTON speaks often about gang violence and homeland security, and, until now, rarely about the four-year-old Rampart corruption conspiracy. He knows what he's doing. Much of the city, long beset by a fear of crime both real and imagined, always harbored a certain ambivalence about a scandal in which police officers were accused of framing, beating up and shooting gang members. A series of investigating bodies has skimmed across the surface of Rampart, producing little but a fractured consensus about just how deep the culture of rogue lawlessness flowed through the LAPD.

But even before he applied for the job last year, Bratton knew the department would never fully recapture its stature, its morale or its effectiveness until the subject of Rampart was finally closed. And he knew that to be closed, it must finally be fully opened.

In October, before taking the oath as chief, Bratton called for a new internal LAPD probe into the whole disaster. But a few months on the job convinced him that another inside report would never remove the stain of scandal. Last month, he told the Police Commission that he wants an outside, independent probe.

This is what police reformers had been seeking, and City Hall had been resisting, for years. Why the change now?

The first answer is the most obvious one — Bratton is an outsider. No matter how disturbing the revelations that may come out of any new probe, they will not directly tarnish this chief from New York with the Boston accent. This is something that could never be said of career LAPD officer Bernard Parks, who was in charge of Internal Affairs and later Operations when much of the misconduct occurred, even though he fervently insisted as chief that it was his leadership and discipline that brought the conspiracy to light.

Second, it helps that Mayor James Hahn is a low-profile guy who doesn't mind letting Bratton take the spotlight, and the heat, in opening a new Rampart probe. It is a no-lose situation for Hahn, who stands to get a piece of the credit if new charges are filed but retains sufficient distance if the investigation goes nowhere.

There's a little more. Parks, who as chief bristled at any hint of City Hall control over his operations, is now a member of the City Council. If he becomes tempted to make life difficult for Hahn, the man who turned thumbs down on Parks' bid for a second term as chief, it is handy for the mayor to have a reopened probe that can again focus public attention on the corruption that surfaced during Parks' tenure.

That is not to say that Bratton would sacrifice his standing just to throw Hahn a little political leverage. But the dynamic is there, and it is worth watching.

There is a better reason for Bratton to want to disinter Rampart. It keeps rising from the grave on its own anyway.

District Attorney Steve Cooley won office in large part on his promises to thoroughly look into Rampart. He prosecuted several officers, and "closed the book" on the scandal more than a year ago. He had to backpedal right away, as new evidence continued to surface.

He closed the book again late last year, saying there was no evidence to proceed on 82 cases since bad cop Nino Durden didn't finger anyone besides himself and ex-partner Rafael Perez. Then the Los Angeles Times obtained transcripts that Cooley's office had in which Durden directly names eight other officers involved in planting evidence and fabricating stories to cover up bad shootings.

Meanwhile, the city continues to deal with lawsuits from plaintiffs who were victimized by police crime. More than $40 million already has been paid out, and although settlements don't pump the same kind of data into the public realm as trial testimony, each one potentially adds another piece in the Rampart puzzle.

It is worth remembering as well that the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI continue to investigate Rampart allegations.

So Bratton must figure that if he does not actively reopen Rampart, it will eventually reopen itself.

In applauding the chief's statement to the commission, though, police reformers who listened closely to Bratton's words had reason for pause.

He reminded commission members that Los Angeles residents keep mentioning Rampart at civic forums and wonder about an independent commission. Then he told the board:

"Let's get it out of the way."

That suggests just a little too much of an emphasis on closure for the sake of closure, without the pain of searing analytical review. It is reminiscent of the LAPD's 2000 Board of Inquiry report, which concluded a few rogue cops had taken advantage of a department saddled with mediocre middle management. That was the report that then-Mayor Richard Riordan called the most thorough analysis performed by a public agency on itself "in the history of mankind."

It also is a reminder of the district attorney's first two (so far) book-closings. Plus the grand jury probe in which members reportedly found plenty to discuss about Rampart, but left it out of the public report. And the probe by the "independent" body that investigated at the instruction of the last Police Commission. And the LAPD's Rampart Task Force.

Each study that purported to get to the bottom of the whole mess, while failing to actually do so, damaged the credibility of the study that came after it. There are few people in town with police and criminal expertise who have not already participated in some Rampart study or other that failed to exactly name who did what to whom, when, how and why.

Bratton is betting that there is still one last chance to throw open the doors and have a thorough investigation. But it is a gamble. If this next probe falls short — even just a little — it could effectively put resolution of the Rampart scandal, and a clean slate for the LAPD, out of reach for all time.

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