Revenge of the White Cops
The $2.4 million jury verdict against the city of Inglewood for disciplining two white police officers involved in the videotaped beating of black teenager Donovan Jackson was like a slap in the face. How could the two alleged rogue officers - Jeremy Morse and Bijan Darvish - be rewarded for their actions? Many Inglewood residents concluded it had to be another example of injustice to the black community.
"No justice, no peace," came the cries from black-community leaders and activists on Friday, as Inglewood officials stoked a city's outrage.
But more than two years after supposedly the worst case of racially motivated police abuse since Rodney King, Inglewood residents still don't know exactly where to focus their anger, or whom to hold accountable for the havoc wrought by the Jackson videotape. With costs still rising as a result of attorneys' fees and a spate of federal civil rights lawsuits, Inglewood officials are vilifying Morse and Darvish; at the same time, the city's attorneys are stuck defending them in some cases, and fighting off claims that they should be exonerated in others.
On July 6, 2002, Morse was videotaped slamming 16-year-old Donovan Jackson onto the hood of his car and punching him in the face during a traffic stop at a Thrifty gas station. Jackson, according to court papers, had lunged at a Sheriff's deputy and resisted arrest by grabbing Morse's ear and scratching his face. After being handcuffed, he grabbed Morse's testicles, court documents say. Morse's partner, Officer Bijan Darvish, filed a report stating that Morse used reasonable force. Jackson alleged that Morse grabbed him by the throat. Two criminal trials left the officers bitter but unscathed. Darvish was acquitted of filing a false police report. Morse walked away from two hung juries.
After the release of the videotape, Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn called for punishment. Morse was fired in October 2002. Darvish was suspended for 10 days and relegated to administrative duty. An arbitrator later found that he did nothing wrong, but a city administrator reversed the decision, according to Darvish's lawyer Corey Glave. Meanwhile, their colleague, a black officer named Willie Crook, who allegedly struck Jackson with a flashlight but was not videotaped, was suspended for just four days, after reporting that he used no force. Crook testified that he later resigned and returned to his job as a jailer. Last week, a Los Angeles jury decided that the white officers received harsher punishment than Crook, and awarded Morse $1.6 million and Darvish $800,000.
On Friday, Inglewood erupted. Several dozen community leaders and activists joined Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Inglewood officials at a press conference at City Hall. The crowd, almost all black, was angry. Someone held a sign that read: "Can you believe this? Two rogue cops receive $2.4 million." Others chimed in as Waters spoke. "Just like in Mississippi," proclaimed one onlooker. "An eye for an eye," demanded another. "This decision is very sad, and it sends the wrong message," Waters said. "It opens the door to every white officer to bring about a discrimination lawsuit, and this cannot stand. We encourage the city to appeal. The Donovan Jackson saga cannot be closed with this decision. Justice awaits."
Mayor Dorn, protesting what he characterized as a travesty of justice, spoke as if he were delivering a Sunday sermon. He praised Police Chief Ronald Banks for his handling of the two white officers, who now have cost Inglewood more than $4 million. He called for a new trial. He railed against inequality on the jury. "Not one black juror," said the mayor. (The jury included six Latinos, three Asian-Americans and three whites, according to Inglewood City Attorney Anita Willis.)
Dorn, a former judge, directed much of his ire at Paul Coble, the lawyer for the city. "We need a lawyer to properly defend us," the mayor continued. "[Coble] should have called the police chief [as a witness] to explain his discipline of the black officer. The black officer was going to be fired and he knew it. We can't stand for a perception that white officers get treated differently, in a city with a black mayor and a black police chief." City Councilman Curren Price echoed, "[Coble] should be fired. The actions of the police chief were proper. The officers need to get their just deserts." Coble replied that "Clients have the right to get angry at their lawyers," but said he thinks he can win on appeal.
Activists took their turn at the microphone. "If you want to get rich quick, be skilled in the art of racial profiling and put brutality on people of color," said Talibah Shakir, a member of the Donovan Jackson Defense Committee, who also is his cousin. "We reacted to Donovan's beating with a campaign of militancy," said Dedon Kamati, also with the defense committee. "Our struggle got co-opted by lawyers who told us to stop talking to the city. The voice of the grassroots got kicked to the curb. Justice was sacrificed to keep the peace. Without militancy, there are no results." Waters said she wished Dorn could try the case for the city. "It appears we don't do so well in the courts," the congresswoman said. She urged the crowd to return for a nighttime rally. "We cannot be satisfied with decisions favoring people who we pay and who have brutalized others," Waters said. "Let's blow it up."
Lost in the outcry, however, was any questioning of police officials who kept Morse and Darvish on duty despite a pattern of complaints of brutality that predate the Jackson incident, of city officials who leaped to action only after the videotape surfaced, or of the City Attorney's Office for its oversight of legal actions. Private lawyers hired by Inglewood to defend Morse, Banks and the city are fighting the remaining three of nine police-brutality lawsuits filed in federal court. Darvish has been dismissed from all but one of them, according to his attorney. But several have produced six-figure settlements that suggest Inglewood wants to avoid a public trial that examines events leading up to the Jackson incident, which is still under federal investigation.
Morse, who, according to news reports, lives in Idaho, has been cleared of wrongdoing and stands to be well-compensated by the city, which likely will appeal last week's discrimination verdict. Darvish, who is back on patrol duty, has a separate civil rights lawsuit against the city in which he is seeking total exoneration and attorney fees, according to Glave. "He's not a greedy guy," says Glave of his client. "A criminal jury has acquitted him, and a civil jury has found he was discriminated against. And we are challenging the decision of a city administrator who reinstated his suspension after it was overturned by an arbitrator."
None of the officers' alleged victims have seen their day in court. Jackson, whose beating was broadcast around the world, reportedly has reached a tentative settlement with the city for $500,000. His father, Coby Chavis, reportedly has a tentative agreement to settle for $150,000. Neilson Williams, who went into a coma after allegedly being placed in a chokehold by Morse in June 2002 - two weeks before the Jackson incident - settled out of court for $650,000, according to his attorney Steven Lerman. Inglewood resident Patricia Surjue settled her lawsuit against the city for $470,000 after a federal judge ruled that Morse and Darvish entered her home illegally and that Morse seized her with excessive force, in 2001. There were 11 internal-affairs investigations resulting from complaints against Morse that preceded the Jackson incident, and five against Darvish, according to court records. Inglewood police say they ruled the complaints unfounded and took no disciplinary action.
So who is responsible for the mess Inglewood is in?
According to Dorn, "Myself and the City Council have nothing to do with the discipline of police officers. And as far as I'm concerned, the chief has done a fantastic job. We have the lowest crime rate in 30 years." After the crowd dispersed, in response to the same question Chief Banks said, "I cannot disclose the nature of our personnel decisions. But after the Jackson incident, I stood before these same people and described the steps we took in responding to prior complaints. They were satisfied with the actions I took then, and they are satisfied now."
Lawyers for Darvish and Morse suggest that city officials should be looking inward for answers. Gregory Smith, the lawyer who represented Morse and Darvish, argued at trial that his clients were "indicted and subjected to a witch-hunt by the City Attorney's Office," while Crook was not even indicted. Sources say Crook later filed a civil lawsuit that was settled under a confidentiality agreement by the city. Documents in the civil case, sources say, will show that Crook was never threatened with being fired.
Smith took the case after winning a $500,000 jury verdict for a white police lieutenant in Inglewood in 2001, also in a reverse-discrimination lawsuit. The verdict was amended in a confidential settlement, he said. In the case that ended last week, Smith said he showed the jury how police officials recommended punishment of Morse and Darvish despite internal findings that the use of force was reasonable. He called the opportunity for Morse and Darvish to go before a jury while their alleged victims settle out of court "ironic," and said his clients have performed as they were trained to do. "I don't think [city officials] are interested in an accurate perspective on the situation," he said.
Added Corey Glave, "They have to blame somebody. No one wants to blame themselves."
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