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The Rampart Verdict

Courtesy The Koplin Gallery

LAST SEPTEMBER GARY WIGODSKY, an earnest, sometimes smoldering defense lawyer, arrived on the 15th floor of the Criminal Courts Building downtown with a sheaf of six new cases under his arm. Close to a hundred convictions had already been thrown out as part of the spiraling Rampart scandal; Wigodsky's cases could lead to dismissal of hundreds more.

Though former rogue cop Rafael Perez described widespread officer misconduct during weeks of confessional interviews, the D.A. had set aside only those cases where Perez himself was a witness. Now, Wigodsky was challenging the arrests made by Perez's partner, Nino Durden, who had pleaded guilty to several crimes. Overturning those convictions could lead to new scrutiny of arrests by more than 80 other officers.

Key to his strategy: a subpoena Wigodsky served on the U.S. attorney requesting any incriminating statements made by Durden. But Mary Carter Andrues, the cheerful but tight-lipped assistant U.S. attorney who handles Rampart-related court appearances for the Justice Department, fought the request on grounds that Durden's statements were part of an ongoing criminal investigation. At the hearing, Superior Court Judge William Fahey agreed, and Wigodsky was fuming.


Part II

Outside the courtroom, Wigodsky cornered Andrues and pressed for an explanation. "I said to her, 'Look, aren't we on the same side here? We're both trying to get to the bottom of what happened here, we're both interested in identifying problem officers.'" Andrues rebuffed him without saying a word. "Her response was pretty icy," he recalled in an interview. "She was looking at me like, 'Are you kidding?'"

That courthouse confrontation sums up three years of fractured, halting inquiry into Rafael Perez's startling confessions. Instead of tearing open the veil of silence and secrecy shrouding the conduct of LAPD officers in the field, Perez's allegations of illegal and sometimes simply outrageous conduct remain officially unresolved.

For Wigodsky, the continuing air of uncertainty is the biggest disappointment of the entire police scandal. Wigodsky may know more about what happened there than anyone else in Los Angeles: At the Alternate Public Defender's Office, which provides court-appointed lawyers to stand in for the public defender in multiple-defendant cases, he leads a 20-lawyer squad devoted solely to Rampart cases. And the more he knows, the stronger his conviction that Perez told the truth, that misconduct was widespread and routine at the LAPD. "What everybody needs to understand is that most of Perez's allegations were corroborated — the specific instances," Wigodsky said.


Part III

Winston Kevin McKesson has a parallel understanding of Rampart, but arrived there from the opposite direction. As the attorney who represented Perez, McKesson sat through all of the meetings with investigators, and conferred extensively with the disgraced officer during his months in county jail. And where Wigodsky found clients and witnesses to back up Perez's accusations, McKesson tested them against his personal experience growing up in South Los Angeles. In that context, Perez's stories had a familiar ring. On the city's south side, McKesson said, "Nobody seriously thinks that this is not going on."

YET IN THE OFFICIAL RECORD, MOST OF the specific illegal acts Perez alleged against his fellow officers — planted evidence, false testimony, intimidation of citizens who witness officer misconduct — remain unresolved. And the larger allegation of widespread misconduct in special units across the department has never been investigated.

Even the leaders of two independent commissions appointed to investigate the scandal — one by the Police Commission and a second by the Police Protective League — concede they failed to reach a conclusion as to the nature and extent of misconduct at Rampart. In a recent interview, the head of the Police Commission panel, Richard Drooyan, said flatly, "We did not investigate criminal behavior by police officers." And in the report he authored for the Protective League, Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor of constitutional law at USC, addressed the question head on. The department's internal investigation "simply did not assess the magnitude of the problem within the LAPD." Chemerinsky elaborated in an opinion piece published last year: "The true extent of the Rampart scandal still is not known, and it increasingly appears that it never will be."


Part IV

The reasons for the stubborn ambiguity are various. First and foremost, few officers stepped forward to corroborate Perez's story, and since his targets were usually gang members with criminal records or associations, their statements were easily disregarded. Such credibility problems undermined the one criminal case against Rampart officers that reached trial; on the sole count where jurors found three officers guilty, the judge threw the verdict out.  

"One of the things we learn from this job is, it's hard to know," said Jeffrey Eglash, the LAPD's inspector general. "These occurrences, they take place in the shadows. It's rare that there's a video camera rolling. And it's relatively rare that there are witnesses out there to attest to something who have no baggage, who have no credibility issues."

The largest single investigation into Perez's allegations was staged by the LAPD itself. But a detailed summary of the findings made by the Rampart Task Force, which at its peak involved more than 500 officers, sits, stalled and unread, on the desk of Commander Dan Koenig, head of the department's Administrative Group.

Koenig, a slight and fastidious man, made it clear during a July visit to his sixth-floor office at police headquarters downtown that he sets his own agenda according to his own priorities. Asked the status of the investigative report, first announced by then-Chief Parks more than two years before, Koenig pointed to the inch-thick document and said, "It'll be done when it's done." Asked to preview its findings, Koenig said, "I don't know. I haven't read it."

And while the department pursued that inquiry at its own leisurely pace, outside investigators encountered downright hostility. Then-Chief Parks set the tone when, at the height of the civic turmoil surrounding Rampart, he rebuffed specific inquiries from the county district attorney, and declared that his staff would only cooperate with federal authorities.

Those federal investigations — by the FBI and by the Justice Department — netted jail time for confessed felons Perez and Durden, but nothing more. In fact, the decision by federal authorities to prosecute Perez helped stymie any further examination. "They shut him up," said Wigodsky. "If their intent was to get to the bottom of Rampart, their first and most forceful act was to make sure that no one got to the bottom of Rampart."

In a faxed response to written questions, the U.S. Attorney's Office insisted in July that "The Justice Department investigation is still open" and that the U.S. attorney "did not play any role" in shutting down other inquiries. Officials there "would consider" any new request that they share the Durden transcripts, but said, "Local authorities retained several avenues to compel Perez" to serve as a witness had they so desired.

FAILURE TO DETERMINE JUST WHAT HAPpened at Rampart helped to mute a scandal which, at the outset, threatened to shake the LAPD to its foundations. Unlike the videotaped beating of Rodney King, which galvanized public and official opinion in a broad-based mandate for fundamental reform, reaction to Rampart became little more than a Rorschach test of pre-existing attitudes toward the police.

To Ramona Ripston, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, "Rampart was much larger than Perez and his partner. I always knew that the police department appeared more brutal than it should have been, and Rampart showed us that brutality and corruption."

But for Bill Seki, a former district attorney who now represents Perez partner Nino Durden and indicted Rampart officer Ethan Cohan, "The Rampart scandal was completely overblown," and driven by "politics and media exposure."

The most serious crimes Perez brought to light were the ones to which he confessed, including shooting an unarmed gang member, planting a gun on him and charging him with assault, and stealing several kilos of cocaine from department evidence lockers. But Perez also accused scores of his fellow officers of unprovoked beatings, of planting evidence, and of arresting gang members without cause and making false testimony to send them to prison. Seki dismissed those allegations as a smoke screen, concocted by Perez to distract investigators from other misconduct — possibly by fellow black officers working at Death Row Records, as some writers have speculated. "What he fed them was a crock," Seki said of Perez. But Perez found an avid audience in the media and the city's ready contingent of police critics. "Corruption by police officers is a huge bandwagon that can pull any politician along," Seki said.

Similar differences in perspective are reflected at the Los Angeles Police Commission, the civilian body that oversees the department. "I don't know if we'll ever know what happened at Rampart," said commissioner Silvia Saucedo, a lawyer raised by immigrant parents in the heart of the Rampart division. "But I do know that what was going on there was wrong."  

Commission president Rick Caruso, a prominent real estate developer, was more conclusive. "I don't think it was a broad, systemic problem," Caruso said. "I think it was a problem of a few bad officers that were involved in a scandal down there."

IF THERE'S DIVISION OVER THE SCOPE and the severity of the problems at the Rampart division, there's a surprising degree of consensus over how to respond. Reform at the LAPD is moving forward through the offices of the Police Commission, the Inspector General's Office, the monitor approved by a federal judge to oversee the department, and the department itself.

By and large, those reforms boil down to "audits" — management surveys of procedures and paperwork, and reviews of those audits by the inspector general and the monitor. "You have to look at the trends and the blips on the radar screen," inspector general Eglash said. "That's one of the lessons of Rampart."

Of course, audits and surveys bypass the ugly business of investigating and prosecuting criminal cases against individual officers. It was beleaguered former D.A. Gil Garcetti who said that criminal convictions and state prison terms were the only way to change the practices of corrupt police officers, but Garcetti was bounced by voters in 2000.

The focus on process stems largely from inside the department itself. Summarizing the findings of his Board of Inquiry in March 2000, then-Chief Bernard Parks warned that "mediocrity is flourishing" department-wide and said, "Our failure to carefully review reports . . . our failure to provide effective oversight and auditing created the opportunity for this cancer to grow."

As an example of that "mediocrity," Commander Koenig pointed out that officers routinely arrested suspects and booked them without the required approvals from supervisors. "Those systems were being bypassed throughout the department," Koenig said. "It was in bypassing those systems that allowed Perez to make false police reports."

An alternative critique might suggest that the problem at Rampart stemmed from the LAPD's paramilitary approach to crime and the community, and that cops who are willing to flout civil rights can always doctor the paperwork to cover up their conduct. But Parks was committed to the LAPD model, and could never bring himself to see Rampart as more than an isolated aberration.

Parks is gone now, but his views live on with managers like Commander Koenig, who personally authored the Board of Inquiry. To Koenig, it all boils down to "systems . . . you have to have checks and balances that dramatically reduce the opportunity" for officer misconduct. Those systems are being administered by managers throughout the department, and reviewed by the 30 investigators and other staff working under inspector general Eglash.

The federal consent decree has only increased the flow of raw data already swamping the Office of the Inspector General. "We've become auditors in a large sense," Eglash said in an interview. "We have a large number of audits to do, and we have an even larger number of audits that the department is supposed to do, and that we then review."

And while Eglash maintains that "the potential is there" for audits to be a useful reform measure, he worries about a "checklist mentality" among department managers. "Part of what we see at the LAPD is they want to be able to check off the boxes and say they accomplished these things, but they haven't really taken them to heart and changed the way they go about doing business."

Much of numbers-crunching now being conducted by Eglash could be replaced by a single computer system that could integrate, collate and cross-reference the complaints and other records compiled by the more than 9,000 sworn officers of the LAPD. That computer system was called for by the Christopher Commission a decade ago, but installation remains years away. In the meantime, Eglash and his staff plumb officer performance from the outside in.

Partly as a consequence, the inspector general has less and less time to focus on individual incidents, complaints and officers, particularly complaints of excessive force and false arrest. Those cases, his surveys suggest, are as troublesome as ever. "On the one hand, when you look at the department's complaints, they sustain (or find against an officer) 14 or 15 percent, which is higher than a lot of other jurisdictions," Eglash said. "But when you look at these core Fourth Amendment issues, of use-of-force and seizures and detentions, they're down around 1 or 2 percent."

IF THE CURRENT RAMPART-DRIVEN REform effort looks incremental and hopelessly bureaucratic, it fares even worse in comparison with the crucial structural changes mandated by the Christopher Commission 10 years ago, after the Rodney King riots.  

Then, against the backdrop of the city's still-smoking skyline, hard-line Chief Daryl Gates was forced from office, a new, independent inspector general was appointed, and the department's recruitment and training policies were thoroughly revamped. Yet none of those reforms prevented the Rampart scandal. Is there reason to believe the consent decree will fare any better?

Commission president Caruso answers with a determined optimism. "There's some old-school thinking here, and there's a lot of new-school thinking — much more concerned about the quality of life in the city, much more sensitive to how they do their job," Caruso said. "And the new-school thinking is the one that needs to prevail, and that will prevail."

Commander Koenig said change comes in stages, and will only volunteer that "It's not done yet." In his view, former Chief Willie Williams "brought a sense of police-community partnership back to the organization," while Chief Parks "brought a sense of discipline; the next chief's challenge will be to marry those two things into some sort of a cohesive cultural shift."

That's a lot to ask, certainly, and still would leave untouched some of the primary failings of the criminal justice system exposed by the Rampart scandal. In his study for the police union, Chemerinsky challenged judges in criminal trials to speak out when officers provide blatantly false testimony in court. Specifically, he called for changes to the Code of Judicial Ethics to require that officers who lie on the stand be reported.

That might seem reasonable — after all, perjury by any witness can be ruled contempt of court — but it provoked sharp reaction from Judge Larry Fidler, who handled most of the Rampart cases at L.A. Superior Court. In a rare public response to Chemerinsky's report, Fidler dismissed the notion that jurists could serve as a meaningful curb to false testimony. "Very rarely is it clearly obvious that someone is lying," he said.

Alternate public defender Gary Wigodsky calls local prosecutors to account on the same score. "What did we learn from Rampart?" Wigodsky asked. "We didn't learn that some cops are corrupt. We already knew that. We learned that information on corruption is suppressed — by the district attorney, by the city attorney, by the police agencies."

Wigodsky said prosecutors and the police are bound by law to turn over any evidence that might impeach the credibility of an officer, and has gone to court to force them to comply. But District Attorney Steve Cooley has given little ground, ordering his deputies not to disclose suspected misconduct unless an officer has been indicted — a much narrower standard than the one adopted by his predecessor, Gil Garcetti.

Cooley's hard-line position only makes sense to Winston Kevin McKesson. As the attorney who represented Perez through a criminal trial and then through the Rampart firestorm, McKesson is sympathetic to the dozens of young men framed by Perez and his cohorts. But he also considers himself a realist.

"It's not the D.A.'s job to look and see where the cop is lying," McKesson said. "It's a conflict of attitudes. If your son gets killed, if my son gets killed, you're not going to want the D.A. who's looking out for a dirty cop. You want the D.A. who's going to put the bad guy in jail."

McKesson brings the same sense of realism to the question of change and reform at the LAPD. He rejected the debate over Perez's veracity, asserting that the Rampart controversy turned on individual attitudes. "This was not information that they wanted to hear," McKesson said of the public at large. "The many people who live in the more conservative, less integrated parts of the city, they really don't care. It's not their children being targeted, not their children being sent to prison."

McKesson reflected on the L.A. cycle of protest, riot and reform. "The citizens of Los Angeles really get the police department they want," he said. "You get another scandal, another short period of time where people pretend to be outraged, and then just go back to where it was."

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