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Tarnished Brass

Photo by Tina Burch/Daily News

An LAPD disciplinary board ruled Monday that the captain formerly in charge of the Rampart CRASH unit should serve a 20-day suspension for mishandling an officer who volunteered information on a station-house beating.

But the board also found that the department failed to prove its original allegation — that Captain Richard Meraz had declined to listen to the officer’s statement and helped to cover up the beating.

The finding comes at a bad time for the LAPD brass, which is fending off a growing chorus of critics who say the department should not be allowed to handle the Rampart investigation on its own. This week, the L.A. Police Protective League joined in, calling for creation of a civilian panel to review the department’s internal investigation.

Meraz is the highest-ranking officer to be disciplined in connection with Rampart. His attorney Barry Levin on Monday described the judgment as "a harsh penalty." But he acknowledged that the punishment could have been more severe, and noted that the board had not buckled to pressure to hold "the captain responsible for everything that happened at Rampart."

Which leaves open the question, who will be held responsible? LAPD Chief Bernard Parks insists that his department can police itself, but five months after former officer Rafael Perez came forward with his allegations of widespread misconduct, Meraz is the only supervisor so far to be disciplined.

Meraz will serve his 20-day suspension without pay, and return to the department at the same rank and salary as before. In the meantime, the case against the 35-year department veteran shed no new light on what went wrong at Rampart, or how.

The case for which Meraz was disciplined turns on the February 1998 station-house beating of Ismael Jimenez, a member of the 18th Street gang. According to a prior LAPD inquiry, Officer Brian Hewitt choked and beat Jimenez while he was handcuffed in an interview room, leaving Jimenez gasping for air and vomiting blood. A second officer, Ethan Cohan, released Jimenez without notifying his superiors of Hewitt’s misconduct.

Rampart command staff learned of the beating later that night via a call from the hospital where Jimenez had been taken to have his injuries examined, and promptly opened an investigation. Cohan’s role remained a mystery until six days later, when he encountered Sergeant Richard Hoopes in the station parking lot and told him in detail about what had happened.

In testimony at the Meraz hearing, Hoopes said that as soon as Cohan laid out his version of events, the two headed directly for Meraz’s office, where Cohan made the same lengthy statement. Meraz was already aware of the investigation into the Jimenez beating. Once Cohan had made his statement, Meraz advised him that he should obtain the assistance of a defense representative, and then had Cohan’s name added to the Jimenez personnel complaint.

Hoopes testified that of more than 100 personnel complaints he’d handled during four years as a supervisor at Rampart, Cohan’s approach was unique. "I have never been involved in a situation where an officer came to me and admitted he might be involved in a personnel complaint," Hoopes said.

The departmental investigation into the Jimenez beating led to the firing last year of both Hewitt and Cohan, Hewitt for the beating and Cohan for failure to promptly report the incident. Cohan claims he never knew that Hewitt had struck Jimenez, and that he offered Jimenez medical help before releasing him, believing him to be ill.

The disciplinary board ruled this week that while Meraz did not seek to cover up the incident, he should have made a record of Cohan’s statement and should have personally notified Internal Affairs that Cohan had come forward.

Lieutenant Mark Savalla, a representative assigned by the department to assist Meraz in his defense, said he was disappointed that the verdict went against Meraz even though he had been cleared of the underlying charge of participating in a cover-up. "It’s splitting hairs," he said of the board decision. "You’re talking about shades of gray here."

In issuing its decision, disciplinary-board chairman Captain Gregory Meyer said the board was seeking "to send a clear message . . . that command officers are held to a higher standard."

That message apparently did not get through to the department’s critics. On Tuesday, Ramona Ripston of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is often at odds with the LAPD, joined with Ted Hunt of the Police Protective League, usually a pro-department bulwark, to press the L.A. City Council this week to convene a citizen’s panel "to review and oversee the Rampart investigation." At the same time, the L.A. Police Commission’s executive director and the LAPD’s inspector general proposed that civilians be invited to join in the commission’s own inquiry.

The City Council referred the question to its Public Safety Committee on a narrow 8-6 vote.

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