LAPD Investigating Claim of Civil Rights Violations in LAX Theft Case

The Los Angeles Police Department is launching an internal investigation into allegations by the LAX police union that suspects' civil rights were violated during a joint, LAPD-LAX police probe of baggage theft at the airport, LAPD Commander Andrew Smith says.

That 2014 crackdown included search warrants served at roughly two dozen locations, but although nearly 25 suspects were targeted, only six were arrested and none were successfully prosecuted in connection with the baggage-theft investigation.

The Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers’ Association (LAAPOA) suggested in a statement today that the civil rights of the suspects were violated, particularly in one case where "there was no probable cause for the arrest."

That employee was arrested after electronics devices were found during a search of a Wilmington residence, but the union says the found "property could have lawfully belonged to the employee."

That person was never charged, and the episode has paved "the way for a civil suit against the department," the LAAPOA states.

The union, which has long had a beef with the LAPD, a department that also fights crime at the busy airport, alleged that the search warrants were based on thin or even no probable cause, a necessary legal trigger for searches, and that none of the warrants were based on police crime reports.

LAX police Chief Patrick M. Gannon, a former LAPD deputy chief, called the allegations "hogwash," and "outrageous."

Gannon says that all the necessary checks and balances were in place before the March searches and that not only did a judge sign off on them, as is customary, but the District Attorney's office also reviewed the warrants. Affidavits were written too, he said.

Gannon said that the joint investigation led by the LAPD was so drawn out that it could have hindered efforts to find evidence. He also gave this hypothetical example: Cops might find a "stack of iPads" at a suspect's house, but if nobody reported them missing, the items are worthless as evidence.

"This investigation took so long to complete and this is such a small environment at the airport that at some point the investigation could have been compromised," Gannon said. "When we looked for stolen items at these locations we couldn't find them."

He said his experience with investigations is vast and that they're not always based on police reports. Sometimes they're based on informants. In the case of LAX, the airlines sometimes forward theft claims that don't amount to formal crime reports.

Despite the 0 score on prosecutions (the union says three of the six arrests were for previous warrants, two cases were rejected by the D.A., and another was dismissed by a judge), the operation was worth it, Gannon said.

"It sent a powerful message that we take baggage theft very seriously," he said.

Smith of the LAPD agreed with Gannon in saying that the baggage theft investigation had "multiple layers" of checks and balances:

We always welcome any review of our operations to ensure that the standards of the legal system and department policies are met. This particular operation underwent review and was approved by multiple layers of the LAPD and LAXPD with input from the Office of the District Attorney. In light of the allegations made in this press release, a Internal Complaint Investigation has been initiated, as is standard whenever someone makes a complaint. 

The LAX police union claims that an airport detective who complained to an LAPD investigator about the validity of the Wilmington search and arrest is paying the price for being a whistle blower:

... The LAXPD detective who raised concerns about the possible civil rights violations that had occurred by using search warrants as arrest warrants and without police reports or probable cause to back up the arrests has become a victim of retaliation for reporting the misconduct and is under investigation by the department’s Internal Affairs division. The department, under Chief Gannon’s leadership, is now in the process of removing the detective from the detectives unit.

Gannon says the union, unhappy with the presence of LAPD officers on its turf, fearful of a possible LAPD takeover of its sister department, and suspicious of Gannon as an ex-LAPD official, is grasping at straws as it makes nearly weekly allegations against the larger city organization.

"It's a constant barrage of complaints," he said.

Asked if the LAX department would open its own investigation into the union's allegations, the chief said no:

"I'm very comfortable that this was a legitimate and upfront investigation."

Send feedback and tips to the author. Follow Dennis Romero on Twitter at @dennisjromero. Follow L.A. Weekly News on Twitter at @laweeklynews.

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