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Fairness Delayed

More than two years after a pair of LAPD officers were suspended for allegedly planting drugs on homeless men, LAPD Chief Bernard Parks finally ordered an audit of all arrests made by the officers during their tenure with the department.

The Chief’s order was met with guarded optimism by critics of the department, who charge that the audit should have been undertaken much earlier.

”It‘s about time,“ said Gary Wigodsky, the deputy alternate public defender who heads the office’s Rampart Task Force. ”I just hope their review is done quickly, and the results are made public or released to defense attorneys, so that we can take whatever legal action is needed.“

Though the audit of former officers Christopher Coppock and David Cochrane began in April, the department has yet to set a due date for the results. Cochrane left the department in February 1999, and Coppock resigned during his disciplinary hearing in April of that year.

The review of Coppock and Cochrane‘s arrests came only after Police Commission President Raquelle de la Rocha telephoned Parks about these two ex-cops. De la Rocha’s calls were prompted by inquiries from the L.A. Weekly and a story in this newspaper detailing the legal fallout from these officers‘ checkered careers.

LAPD Lieutenant Horace Frank, of Media Relations, says the review will be comprehensive. ”They’re going to pull all the arrests made by Coppock and Cochrane, including those they made while working separately with other officers.“ Although he‘s not sure how long the investigation might take, Frank says the results will be made public. ”Basically, we are going to put together the same kind of review of Coppock and Cochrane’s arrests that we did for Rafael Perez.“

So far, eight convictions have been overturned, and defense attorneys estimate that as many as 1,000 cases could be tainted.

The two officers were suspended in connection with the 1997 arrests of four homeless men -- Abner Thomas, Charlie Robinson, William Perry and Elmore Williams. Coppock and Cochrane have also been indicted for the alleged kidnapping, false imprisonment and beating of Delton Bowen, another homeless man. A pretrial hearing in that case is set for August 3, but it is expected to be delayed because of the July 7 suicide of Coppock‘s attorney, Barry Levin. Deputy D.A. Kraig St. Pierre, the prosecutor in the case, said he expects Judge Larry Fidler will allow time for Coppock to find new counsel.

The Thomas-Robinson complaint, previously reported by the L.A. Weekly, involved 18 charges, including allegations of dope planting and falsification of police reports by the former Central Division officers. Cochrane left the department after he was found guilty of lying under oath at a department-led Board of Rights hearing involving another officer. Coppock resigned two months later during his disciplinary hearing.

The court has now thrown out the convictions of Thomas, Robinson and Perry. The whereabouts of Williams are unknown. Thomas then filed a state civil rights suit against the city and the two ex-officers, which the city settled last month for $100,000.

A partial audit of Coppock and Cochrane’s arrests was done in December 1998 by Central Division Sergeant Godfrey Bascom as part of his investigation of Thomas‘ complaint. He identified 46 felony drug arrests between September 1997 and September 1998 -- all made by the two ex-cops when they worked together as partners.

Bascom says he didn’t have time to investigate the legitimacy of those arrests. ”The department should have put together a task force to look at their arrests,“ he said.

Ida Campbell-Thomas, a deputy alternate public defender, says the reports pulled by Bascom revealed three distinctive and disturbing patterns. ”One pattern is that Coppock and Cochrane go into a Skid Row hotel, and just happen to see a room with a door open,“ says Campbell-Thomas. ”Now these guys are in full uniform, not undercover, and yet they see someone in the room with their dope out in plain view.“

A second one, she says, is stopping people on the street or in the park. ”As they approach, the individual is allegedly caught with a startled expression. Then they drop the dope in plain sight of the officers,“ she continues. ”The last one involves allegedly catching people red-handed as they are going through a bag of dope, counting their rocks.“

The Weekly‘s review of the 46 reports showed that few of those arrested were advised of their legal right to remain silent before Coppock and Cochrane interrogated them. Seven of the eight convictions so far overturned by the court come from this group of 46.

Gigi Gordon, director of the Culver City--based Post-Conviction Center, which is representing more than 2,000 defendants in the Rampart corruption scandal, says the two-year delay in beginning a comprehensive audit shows that the department was never serious about investigating Coppock and Cochrane’s alleged corruption. She calls the current review nothing but damage control by Parks.

”If the LAPD had been serious about investigating these former cops, they would have begun this review in 1997 when Thomas made his complaint, or at the very least, when they were indicted,“ she says. ”As far as I can see, nothing has changed with the LAPD‘s attitude towards police corruption.“