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Dismissing Rampart

What if a cop kicks a gangbanger‘s ass in a seedy hotel in the Rampart division and there’s nobody but his homies and more cops to hear him scream?

Does the beating really happen?

Legally speaking, no, at least not according to Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, whose office last week announced it had declined to file charges in 82 cases of alleged criminal misconduct by Rampart officers.

Most of the allegations were made by onetime rogue cop Rafael Perez, who is currently serving a two-year sentence in federal prison for crimes he perpetrated as a member of the CRASH anti-gang squad. Other cases arose from claims by people serving jail terms who came forward after the scandal broke and said they were framed by police, and still other instances of misconduct were alleged by members of the community, many of them gang members.

The District Attorney‘s Office said most of the cases were rejected because they rested largely on the allegations of Perez, who would be impossible to use as a witness in court because of his convictions as a thief and perjurer. The decision not to file charges in any of the cases drew broad criticism from civil rights lawyers and other police critics, who point out that the D.A. relied on the a LAPD to investigate the charges against officers, and that Cooley announced months ago that he didn’t expect to prosecute any new Rampart cases. Moreover, they say that Cooley is using a double standard in refusing to rely on the testimony of Perez or gang members.

”They‘re looking for any excuse they can find not to prosecute,“ said Gary Wigodsky, head of the Rampart litigation group for the Alternate Public Defender, which provides counsel to indigent defendants. ”They send people to jail all the time on the word of rival gang members. It’s just a question of whether they want to put someone away.“

In particular, Wigodsky said there is no reason not to call Perez as a prosecution witness. He pointed out that police investigators found numerous cases where Perez‘s allegations of misconduct were corroborated by people imprisoned on the alleged false charges -- people who could not have known of Perez’s statements. ”Go ahead and put Perez on the stand,“ Wigodsky said. ”Let the jury decide.“

A review of the files released by the district attorney shows that some of the allegations seem patently false, made by prison inmates whose statements are easily contradicted by physical evidence. Others appear too old for any firm resolution -- witnesses are dead or have been deported -- and some look inconsequential, as when some elements of the police report are contested, but the drug dealer involved admits to criminal activity.

In at least half a dozen cases, however, the allegations of officer misconduct were supported by witnesses who were not charged with crimes, and by police records made at the time of the incident. These were dismissed because the witnesses were gang members or gang ”associates,“ according to the D.A. files, or because the clock had run out on filing charges.

As with previous efforts by law-enforcement officials to bury the Rampart scandal -- the LAPD‘s ponderous Board of Inquiry Report comes to mind -- Cooley’s investigation raises as many questions as it answers. The individual case summaries detailing the decisions not to prosecute add several new and disturbing episodes to a police scandal already marked by planted evidence, assaults, robberies and shootings by gang-squad officers willing to break the rules in their war on ghetto crime. On several occasions, witnesses detail new police beatings, some of which were reported at the time but shrugged off by authorities. Two of them occurred inside the Rampart police station.

The tenuous logic that guided the D.A.‘s Rampart review is highlighted in the case of David Lozano, arrested in 1998 on charges of being a gang member in possession of a gun. The officers involved were the cream of the CRASH unit -- Ethan Cohan, Ed Brehm and Michael Buchanan -- two of whom face criminal prosecution in separate cases. Rafael Perez was not present.

According to the original police report, Cohan, Brehm and Buchanan spotted Lozano outside the Viking Motel on Third Street. When Lozano saw the officers, he tossed a handgun to the ground and walked away; he was pursued and arrested, and then stated, ”You got me, I know I’m dirty, you got me.“ Lozano pleaded guilty after a preliminary hearing and was sentenced to 32 months in state prison.

That version was directly contradicted by the story developed later by police investigators. According to the D.A. report, four witnesses said they spent the afternoon and evening drinking and smoking in a rented room at the Viking. Around 10 p.m. the CRASH officers burst into the room and demanded drugs or ”a gun.“ After a search, one of the officers announced he had found a gun, but nobody was ready to claim possession of the weapon. An officer then asked if anyone present was on parole. When Lozano confessed he was, the officer announced, ”You won the Lotto. This is your lucky day.“

According to three of the witnesses, the officers were not through. They said one of the officers took Miguel Martinez, who went by the street moniker ”Trigger,“ into the bathroom and demanded drugs. When he said he had none, the officer asked, ”If you had your choice, would you take an ass kicking or do you want to go to jail?“ Martinez chose the ”ass whoopin‘,“ and the cop obliged, ending the assault by slamming him against a bed frame.

In weighing whether to file charges in the case, the D.A. declined on the basis of ”serious credibility problems“ with the witnesses, in part because ”none of the civilians is willing to admit possession of the gun.“ The fact that all four witnesses report that the police stormed the motel room gives the D.A. some pause, but he concludes that ”failure to include this information in the [police] report is not a crime.“ As for the assault on Martinez, the D.A. found ”problems with this allegation“ because Martinez was unsure which cop had assaulted him, and because ”he and the officer who allegedly attacked him were the only two eyewitnesses to the actual beating.“

The decision not to file charges against officers in the Lozano case may help explain why official L.A. has been unable to find few culprits at Rampart beyond Rafael Perez. But it also poses a question: If the D.A. won’t police the LAPD, who will?