To Protect and Serve
Photo by Anne Fishbein
EARLY IN HER CAREER AS A DEPUTY LAWYER IN THE L.A. CITY Attorney's Office, Honey Lewis was something of a police junkie -- so much so that she became a volunteer auxiliary officer with the LAPD. One evening in 1984, Lewis found herself cruising the Rampart Division with LAPD Officer John Shafia, a member of the "Special Problems Unit," which predated the now-infamous CRASH anti-gang unit. Rampart cops back then were dealing out the same kind of violence and abuse as they were years later when Rafael Perez told investigators about the mayhem he and his fellow officers routinely administered on the streets of Pico-Union.
That night she witnessed "a number of incidents" of misconduct by Shafia, among them the casual brutalizing of a suspect. Lewis was concerned enough to turn Shafia in. The officer was subsequently found guilty by an LAPD Board of Rights for using excessive force, "failing to properly document an altercation with an arrestee" and "failing to properly book" property evidence. He received a 90-day suspension. But, although the city had Shafia dead to rights, no criminal charges were filed against him. This despite the fact that Honey Lewis, as one deputy city attorney later put it, was a "totally credible witness with no ax to grind."
Shafia had been a member of the LAPD for three years when he received that suspension and has continued to work for the city -- on patrol, in CRASH, in detectives and as a field-training officer. During his first 14 years in Rampart, he had 18 personnel complaints filed against him and was suspended a total of 151 days. Those complaints cost the city almost $370,000 to settle, and included shooting and killing an unarmed, 20-year-old man.
John Shafia may seem an extreme example, but he's not alone. During the 16 years that Jim Hahn has been Los Angeles city attorney, there have been literally hundreds of other instances when problem officers have slipped through the cracks, their cases handled, then routinely ignored by Hahn's deputies. Hundreds of times, civil juries found LAPD officers guilty of egregious conduct and awarded citizens large financial settlements.
Instead, the case of John Shafia is one of missed opportunity, a hallmark of James Hahn's tenure as city attorney. A broad review of his dealings with the LAPD shows that Hahn forged a close partnership with the police rather than holding them to account, leaving the department to deal with questions of abuse and misconduct quietly, internally and, as events have shown, ineffectively.
In Honey Lewis' encounter with Officer Shafia, Lewis herself took action, reporting officer misconduct to the LAPD. Yet John Shafia remained at the Rampart Division -- he still works there today -- as he continued to provoke a steady stream of complaints. Did that make Shafia a problem officer? The family of Ismael Valereo certainly thought so. His survivors sued the city in 1992 after Shafia blasted him in the face with a shotgun from a distance of 12 feet. Shafia and a partner had been staking out a gathering of suspected gang members, and according to a police report, Shafia fired when Valereo reached for a metal object "in his waistband." The object, as it turned out, was a camera. The lawsuit was settled by the City Attorney.
Hahn's office had to answer for Shafia again in 1996, this time before the City Council. In closed session, one of Hahn's deputies was asked to explain why the city should pay the punitive damages the jury had levied against Shafia personally for roughing up an alleged DUI suspect. Even then, under skeptical questioning by council members, neither the deputy city attorney nor the LAPD captain present saw fit to describe Shafia as a problem, or to mention the slaying of Valereo.
But Councilwoman Rita Walters got the picture. "This guy, he doesn't learn anything," she said during the closed session. "He hasn't learned a thing from his suspensions, not one thing . . . He keeps going and doing the same thing. I don't know whether he has an alcohol problem. Maybe he needs counseling. But he certainly doesn't need to be in a uniform until he gets himself together."
What is particularly disturbing is that the Valereo shooting case was originally assigned to Honey Lewis, the same deputy city attorney who turned in Shafia after that 1984 ride-along. Lewis refused it, citing a conflict of interest due to her prior involvement with Shafia, but no alarms went off at the City Attorney's Office, nor at the LAPD.
Very few L.A. politicians, of course, had the stomach to take on the LAPD until the Rampart scandal broke in September of '99. And it would have required a genuine act of courage for James Hahn to push his attorneys to challenge LAPD officers, investigators or, in Hahn's case, the chief of police himself, be it Daryl Gates, Willie Williams or Bernard Parks. But Hahn never pressed the hard questions about why police-abuse cases continued their familiar patterns, or why the LAPD refused to change the policies, and training and culture, that were causing the lawsuits in the first place.
These failures might have been addressed by a more vigorous, more independent-minded official. But James Hahn has been a charter member of the go-along, get-along political old-boys club that's run L.A. for decades. Along with Mayors Tom Bradley and Dick Riordan, the D.A.'s Office and most of the City Council, Hahn said nothing publicly during the late '80s as the LAPD worked South-Central like Israeli paratroopers work the West Bank, or when 20 cops stood by chewing gum as Rodney King was brutally beaten, setting the stage for the worst American riots of the 20th century. Nor did he speak out during the years leading up to Rafael Perez's 3,000 pages of damning testimony about the Rampart Division -- years punctuated by telltale cases involving officers like John Shafia.
And yet, throughout a season of recrimination that saw LAPD Chief Bernard Parks and former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti savagely attack and blame each other for the corruption and brutality of the Rampart scandal, James Hahn managed to float serenely above the storm. Now he's a finalist in the biggest race of his life, his bid to finally eclipse his legendary father by ascending to the city's highest office.
He's used his father's name and old political base, and a long record of attending to the business of the city's Democratic machine, to get this far. In recent weeks he's upped the ante, challenging the media to scrutinize the record of rival Antonio Villaraigosa. But Hahn has yet to be called to account for his own record. Given that he wants to be L.A.'s next mayor -- and that the next mayor's first, paramount and continuing task must be the reform of the LAPD -- the question Hahn must answer is this: Can someone who has been a pivotal part of the problem throughout his career be trusted to effect a true transformation of the paramilitary culture at the LAPD once the Rampart scandal has faded?
MANAGING A STAFF OF 400 LAWYERS IN OFFICES across the street from City Hall, Hahn has an enormously complex job as city attorney. Along with prosecuting tens of thousands of misdemeanor crimes, he must defend all city agencies -- and especially the LAPD -- against myriad lawsuits.
Those tasks foster an intimate relationship with the department, leaving the city attorney even more entangled with the LAPD than the D.A. As civil rights attorney Paul Hoffman pointed out to the L.A. Times, the City Attorney's Office is the one outside agency "in a unique position of knowing what's going on in the Police Department. There's really no one else in the community other than the Police Department itself that has regular information about what's going on inside the department."
That inside knowledge, in turn, gives rise to a Catch-22 situation, according to seasoned observers such as Superior Court Judge Kenneth Lee Chotiner, veteran police-abuse attorney R. Samuel Paz, and several longtime deputy city attorneys with whom I spoke and who declined to speak for attribution. The city attorney must serve as defense counsel when citizens sue the police, these observers note, and still ferret out lies or other wrongdoing committed by LAPD officers. Yet exposing such misconduct would cost the city millions in civil judgments and awards. Even when his deputies know that the cops are in the wrong, therefore, Hahn's office has either quietly settled with the plaintiff because it had no defense for the officer's conduct, or went to court and lost.
It's a recurring problem, one deputy city attorney explained, which only gets worse as a trial lawyer gains experience: "They know an officer has a prior record of dishonesty, and when he's sued again and again, they know the guy's a bad seed and probably did what he's accused of, and will lie on the stand to save his skin. So because they know, they refuse the case, and it's given to another attorney who may or may not get the information passed on to him . . . There's a built-in conflict of interest in the City Attorney's Office that colors everything that it does."
To his critics, it's a practice for which Hahn himself must answer. As Sam Paz puts it, "To continue to defend cops who act questionably places the city attorney squarely in the middle of an ethical conflict. The dirty cop gets a free ride when the city pays for the defense. At the settlement, the city pays with tax dollars for the consequences of potentially criminal behavior."
"Hahn can't tell Chief Parks, 'Listen, this guy has had four lawsuits filed against him, and he's guilty as sin of this one just like he was the others,'" says another deputy city attorney. "But he could forcefully tell Parks that he needs to change the polices that are allowing such a guy to go and do the things he's been doing."
JAMES HAHN MAINTAINS THAT HE'S performed his watchdog function by alerting the LAPD to problems when they arise. "We've been sending regular reports to the Police Commission and the Police Department on every case that's filed -- what the allegations are, what the settlements are, what the verdicts and settlements are," he said in an interview. "I made a big deal out of the whole risk management of the city, and talked about not only the Police Department but a lot of departments I thought were paying out too much money."
But Hahn's assessment came under sharp criticism even before the Rampart scandal broke. In November 1997, then-LAPD Inspector General Katherine Mader issued a detailed report pointing out Hahn's failure to notify the Police Commission or the department when judges or juries found officers responsible for misconduct. Titled "Management of LAPD High-Risk Officers," the report focused on a case involving four CRASH officers that was settled by the City Attorney's Office for $125,000. The suit alleged that the officers had invaded a birthday party, knocked out the tooth of a 14-year-old boy by hitting him in the face with the butt of a gun and choked the boy's father unconscious.
The I.G. found that "the department had no record (I.G.'s emphasis) of either the lawsuit or the settlement and was not notified regarding the facts, negotiations or settlement by the City Attorney" and that there had been "no corresponding department personnel investigation addressing the conduct of the involved officer. Neither of the officer's supervisors was aware of the . . . lawsuit or settlement."
More broadly, the report continued, "A civil claim alleging misconduct rarely results in the initiation of a department personnel investigation . . . For example, the Internal Affairs Division reviewed 561 civil claims for damages involving department employees which were forwarded to it by the City Attorney's Office and the Department's Legal Affairs Section in 1995. [But] the department did not sustain a single allegation of misconduct against a sworn employee stemming from its review." Nor did Hahn seek to prosecute any cops for misconduct, or to publicly question the department's inaction.
In short, one of the report's conclusions states, "there is no single source within the Department or the City Attorney's Office of names of employees involved in civil litigation related to their department." Or as Mader later put it, "The problem with the settlement of the CRASH officers suit is that they put the same CRASH officers back on the street doing the exact same things they did before."
IN DECEMBER 1998, AT LEAST PARTLY in response to Mader's critique, James Hahn announced the creation of a new "Police Division" within his office, ostensibly as an effort to focus more sharply on the LAPD. Comprising 29 attorneys, a 19-member support staff and 32 LAPD investigators, the new division would "deal with problems early on so that they don't result in litigation," Hahn said at the time. In practice, however, the Police Division quickly succumbed to the institutional pressures it was designed to thwart.
Named to head the new division was Cecil Marr, a widely respected former legal adviser to the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. Last November, stung by a critical court decision, Marr was publicly critical about the way the LAPD deals with records of complaints against its officers -- storing them in eight or more different locations, and often not being able to produce the files when demanded by plaintiff's attorneys. "Quite frankly, many of the judges do not believe us when we tell them there are no files," said Marr. "We've done a series of reports on the police discovery unit, and as a result there's been a tremendous change in how these operations are handled."
But while finally addressing a problem that's been simmering for decades, Marr is otherwise careful not to criticize the department that is, in essence, his partner in court. For example, the City Attorney has never issued comprehensive public reports to the taxpayers, detailing -- in one simple text -- exactly how much the city paid out to settle police-abuse suits, why the same lawsuits continue to recur, or what should be done to reduce them. Attorney Merrick Bobb issues just such reports in his capacity as the county's monitor at the Sheriff's Department. When asked why the City Attorney's Office doesn't do the same, Marr replied, "I don't think it should fall to the City Attorney to do it. We provide the data, yes, the analysis, no."
Hahn spoke in a similar vein in a separate interview: "I am the lawyer for the Police Department. Our lawyers are their [the LAPD's] lawyers, and I certainly don't want to do anything that increases the payouts by the taxpayers, or increases [the city's] liability."
The core of Hahn's Police Division is the Litigation Section, which deals with all police cases except traffic cases. The man in charge of that division is Don Vincent, a former LAPD captain and commanding officer of Internal Affairs before joining the City Attorney's Office. Vincent directs the efforts of 12 attorneys and relies almost exclusively on LAPD investigators. Hahn's critics see that reliance as presenting another glaring conflict. "Those officers are on the LAPD payroll, not the City Attorney's," one deputy city attorney with long experience in the office explained. "That means their allegiance is to the LAPD, their concerns are those of the LAPD, and their marching orders come from the LAPD. The City Attorney can't be truly independent if the LAPD is, in effect, controlling the investigations. With the expansion of the Police Division you now have more LAPD cops reporting back to the department."
The question of conflicting allegiances clearly doesn't trouble Vincent, however. He's the kind of guy to whom the world looks just as it did on Dragnet, where cops never lied and everything worked the way the manual said it was supposed to. When asked if cops investigating cops don't have a tendency to favor their fellow officers, the former LAPD veteran replied, "An assumption like that is made by someone who doubts the integrity of the Police Department in the first place. And in the second place, who doubts the integrity of the attorneys who work this section.
"I think the LAPD is full of integrity," Vincent declared. "I have no problem representing the department. As a matter of fact, I like representing the department. I was in the LAPD for 25 years, and in my last six I was commanding officer of Internal Affairs . . . and I've never found any problem with any of it. If evidence [of an officer lying] presents itself -- and that has not been my experience thus far -- we'd certainly take a different approach to that case."
ONE RESULT OF THE CITY ATTORNEY'S deference to the LAPD is the enormous amount of money the city of Los Angeles has paid out to settle police-abuse cases. From 1990 to 1999, the city paid out over $100 million to settle such cases. Another measure: From '92 through March 2000 the city spent $144 million to settle all suits against the LAPD. That number includes internal matters such as sexual-harassment suits, but not traffic accidents involving police vehicles, which have cost taxpayers another $5 million over the past three years alone.
Hahn sees these figures as a success. "Our office has been working on this [problem], and it's shown by the reduction in numbers," says Hahn. "I think we're doing a good job. It's measured by that last column, which is a lot less than 10 years ago."
In fact, Hahn's own statistics fail to bear that out. While it's true that the amounts the city paid to settle police-abuse suits were down in 1997 and '98, they shot back up in 1999, when Hahn's office authorized $1.5 million more in settlements than it did at the start of the decade.
Meanwhile, current estimates of the costs of settling Rampart-related lawsuits range from a low of $125 million to $1 billion. The higher estimate gained credence when two federal judges recently ruled that the LAPD could be sued under federal racketeering or RICO laws, thus expanding the time a police-abuse victim has to file a lawsuit from one to four years. Whatever the figure, it's going to be high, Hahn concedes. "It's not just going to be the Rampart cases," he says, "but every police case where there is a jury is going to be [influenced] by Rampart. Close cases are not going to go our way."
"We had a wrong-address search-warrant case after the Perez case broke," Hahn continued. "We were thinking the award would be $50,000 to $100,000. But the jury came back with a verdict of $800,000. That told me that Rampart is going to be very expensive."
Saddled with such a costly record of inaction, Hahn's effort to assume the mantle of police reform seems patently artificial. Last year, for example, Hahn issued a policy statement instructing his deputy city attorneys to report to their supervisors if they suspected a police officer of lying or fabricating evidence. The policy itself is innocuous enough, but the date it was announced -- March 21, 2000 -- was remarkable, for two reasons. It was the first time Hahn ever issued an official policy on the subject of officer credibility. And it came only days after an embarrassing federal indictment of two LAPD officers for attempting to frame an innocent man named Victor Tyson, and in the face of damning, whistle-blowing accusations made by both a probationary deputy city attorney named Evan Freed and Judge Chotiner of the Superior Court.
Freed and Chotiner charged that they had reported the two officers for lying and attempting to frame Tyson back in 1995, but that Freed's supervisors failed to launch their own investigation, or to even bother reporting the charges to LAPD Internal Affairs.
Following jury selection, Freed informed the judge that he believed that the officers were lying. Upon review, Judge Chotiner found the frame-up to be so transparent that he issued a rare finding that Tyson was "factually innocent" of the fabricated crime. He then told Freed that his office "should do something about the fact that the officers were lying and that Internal Affairs needed to be notified."
The case drew headlines when the federal indictment was handed down, but Chotiner discussed it publicly for the first time for this story. The judge vouched to me that Freed wrote his supervisors a memo on the alleged misconduct but they took no action. When the judge asked later what had happened with the case, Freed replied that he didn't know.
"This continued on for weeks," said Chotiner, "and finally I made several calls to Freed's supervisors. Finally, during my third call, one of them said, 'Look, if you feel something should be done, you do it.' I told him that I wasn't asking him to conduct an investigation, or to file criminal charges, but to simply notify Internal Affairs. But nothing ever happened." Not, that is, until the U.S. Justice Department launched a lengthy investigation that finally led to the officers' indictments, and to Hahn's belated policy statement.
During that investigation, as Freed tells it, Hahn personally called him on the carpet. During a stormy meeting in Hahn's office, Freed said, the city attorney called him a traitor for revealing that the officers had been lying, and blamed him for mishandling the case. "If you had asked the right questions," Freed claims Hahn told him, "you wouldn't have found out about this." After Freed's probationary period expired he was not rehired, and when he took his case to court, charging retaliation, he lost.
Hahn maintains that he never spoke to Freed about the case and that Freed wasn't rehired because of his poor overall performance. "I was proud that Evan didn't want to proceed on that case," says Hahn. "I think he did the right thing . . ." Just not right enough to win a spot on Hahn's staff.
WHILE JAMES HAHN HAS PROVED unwilling or unable over his 16 years in office to challenge the LAPD, over the past 14 months he's shown the political aptitude of a true survivor. When the Rampart scandal exploded last year, it shattered dreams and the reputations of the city's leading public figures. Mayor Riordan saw his standing as savior of the LAPD turn to dust, Gil Garcetti went down to landslide defeat in his bid for a third term as district attorney, and Chief Parks was revealed as an intransigent obstacle to reform. Yet James Hahn has emerged standing tall -- a political suit, as Lillian Hellman once put it, tailored to suit the times.
Last March, for example, he was among the first of the declared candidates for mayor to call for an independent investigation of widespread brutality and lawlessness in the Rampart Division's CRASH unit. Then he started complaining publicly about the LAPD. In an interview for this story, for example, Hahn criticized the culture of the LAPD, saying that it "may not be visible in any organizational chart, [but] it has to be rooted out. It's a culture that says it's us against them, and we're right and they're wrong . . . and that is very resistant to outsiders coming in and telling them what to do."
Hahn followed up the criticism by playing a leading role -- culminating last November -- in hammering out a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department mandating that the LAPD make scores of specific reforms under the watchful eyes of a court-appointed monitor backed by a federal judge. The decree was finally enacted over the strenuous objections of Riordan and Parks, and Hahn's performance during the arduous negotiations is said to have been very impressive. "I've always thought of Jimmy Hahn as a nice guy but something of a lightweight," an expert on police affairs told me. But this time Hahn surprised him. "Hahn helped forge the consensus both within the city's negotiating team and with the Justice Department, and kept enough City Council members in line to trump Riordan and Parks by saying that his faction had the votes on the City Council to override them. Hahn was central to their coming out with the strongest consent decree in the country."
Last November, however, Hahn, perhaps mindful of how crucial his black voting base is to his run for mayor, declared that if elected mayor he'd re-hire Parks, who has deep roots in L.A.'s black bourgeoisie. For those interested in effectively changing the department's biggest problem -- the insular, paramilitary culture that Hahn himself has complained about -- Hahn's endorsement of Parks seemed not only like politics as usual, but like a long step back to the future.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.