It was backslapping all around when the region’s top law-enforcement officials convened a news conference last week to announce the first federal indictments against LAPD officers since the Rodney King beating.
“We will prosecute corrupt officers as aggressively as permitted under federal law,” declared U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas, as county D.A. Gil Garcetti looked on. Added Police Chief Bernard Parks, “I remain absolutely committed to ensuring that the LAPD is an organization of integrity and professionalism.”
To review the tortuous course the case has taken so far, however, is to wonder how this clique of officials can possibly come to grips with the hundreds of allegations of misconduct that have already surfaced in the still-mushrooming Rampart scandal. Perhaps the most glaring failure must be ascribed to one law-enforcement leader not invited to last week‘s media event — City Attorney James Hahn, whose deputy blew the whistle on a bogus arrest, only to be ignored.
The indictments handed down by a federal grand jury charge that two officers from the LAPD’s 77th Street Division arrested a man without cause and then testified falsely against him. Both cops face prosecution for criminal conspiracy, which carries a prison term of up to 10 years, as well as misdemeanor counts. Attorneys for both officers say their clients are innocent and will fight the charges.
The LAPD and the City Attorney‘s Office each had direct knowledge of the case, but as has occurred so often at Rampart, the agencies gave the officers involved wide latitude to explicate or shrug off the apparent misconduct, and the civil rights of the defendant were treated as an afterthought.
Until the federal indictments, the only consequence to befall the officers was an internal LAPD investigation, which concluded with the suspension of one officer for less than a month. Meanwhile, the deputy city attorney who brought the case to light has been fired. As for the U.S. attorney, the case took more than three years to bring to indictment. And even that glacial crawl to justice was launched only on the merest coincidence, a chance encounter at a mall in downtown Los Angeles.
The case against Eddie Ruiz, then a field-training officer, and Jon Paul Taylor, then on first-year probation, arose from their April 1995 arrest of Victor Tyson, a black man who was hanging out near his home on a dilapidated stretch of Broadway near 73rd Street. According to their official report, the officers noticed a broken window and, when they stopped to investigate, spotted Tyson and another man fleeing the scene.
Tyson was cornered after a brief foot pursuit; Officer Taylor reported and later testified that he saw the suspect drop a gun just as he was cornered. Tyson was charged with carrying a concealed weapon, and three months later the case landed on the desk of Evan Freed. It was his first prosecution as a new deputy in City Attorney Hahn’s Central Trials Division.
Freed said in an interview that he began questioning the police version as soon as he called witnesses to the stand. There were discrepancies between the written report and the officers‘ testimony, and both officers “seemed nervous” in the face of Freed’s questioning.
Freed decided to visit the scene himself. He quickly saw that there was no broken window, and that the alley where Tyson was arrested was so dark that “I was unable to see the ground at all,” as he put it in a memo to his supervisors.
The following day, Freed contacted Sergeant Richard Henry, a field supervisor who arrived at the scene soon after the arrest. “Henry essentially spilled the beans,” Freed told the Weekly. The sergeant said nobody ever mentioned a broken window to him, and he was skeptical of Ruiz‘s claim to have “special expertise” in gun cases. Moreover, Henry told Freed, a brief encounter with Tyson convinced him that the suspect was docile, cooperative and apparently mentally impaired. “Tyson is probably innocent,” Sergeant Henry told Freed.
That was enough for the rookie prosecutor. He took his misgivings to Kenneth Chotiner, the Municipal Court judge handling the case, who heartily commended Freed for coming forward.
Considering that Tyson had no record at the time, Chotiner issued a finding of factual innocence rather than a simple not-guilty verdict. According to a transcript of the proceeding, the judge further recommended that LAPD Internal Affairs be notified of the apparent misconduct by Ruiz and Taylor.
As for Freed, Chotiner said, “I am very impressed with all you have done . . . I have seen too many prosecutors — I’m not saying it‘s your office or the D.A.’s Office — that would still go ahead, bluff their way through and try to convict somebody.”
Freed said he relayed Chotiner‘s request for a referral to Internal Affairs to his supervisors, who assured him that the police would be notified. In the weeks that followed, however, no such notice took place. When he next saw Chotiner, more than a month later, the judge asked why he’d never been contacted by Freed‘s supervisors. Freed said he was baffled as well.
Chotiner was apparently still stewing about the case a year later, when he happened to bump into Carol Sobel, a veteran civil rights attorney and a director at the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. It was that chance meeting that finally brought the case to the attention of federal authorities.
“I was on a break down at Parker Center on an Internal Affairs investigation, and I went to the L.A. Mall to get some coffee,” Sobel told the Weekly. “At the next table sat three judges, and one was Ken Chotiner, an old friend. He told me he was trying to get someone in the City Attorney’s Office to act on a case of his, on a police officer who had lied. He said, ‘How do you get someone to act on this? The City Attorney’s Office is not going to do anything.‘ I said, ’Let me see what I can do.‘”
It so happened that Sobel’s next appointment was at the ACLU, where Duval Patrick, then assistant attorney general in charge of the Department of Justice‘s Civil Rights Division in Washington, was meeting with activist attorneys on the question of police misconduct. L.A. was then in turmoil over the O.J. Simpson case and Mark Fuhrman’s inadvertent revelations about the LAPD, and Patrick was seeking specific examples of police abuse. “So I raised my hand and said, ‘I have a case from a judge about two officers who perjured themselves, and the judge can’t get anybody to deal with it.‘”
It was cut-and-dried — apparently the only sort of case the U.S. attorney will accept to move against a police officer. Explained U.S. attorney spokesman Thom Mrozek: “We can only bring cases in a criminal forum when we are confident we have the evidence to get a conviction. That’s a pretty high standard.”
Watson‘s referral to the U.S. attorney also served to alert the LAPD to a case of potential misconduct — according to Freed, Internal Affairs staff tagged along when he met with federal investigators in early 1997. But while the department responded more promptly than the U.S. attorney, it had trouble finding anything wrong with the Tyson arrest.
The case reached an LAPD disciplinary board in the spring of 1998, more than a year after the department opened its investigation. Officer Taylor had already resigned in the face of the inquiry, and the board was aware that a federal grand jury was investigating Tyson’s arrest. Yet, on March 11, the board issued findings that in hindsight seem a model of the sort of narrow, literal thinking that allowed the department to miss the Rampart scandal until it finally exploded. The board resolutely stood by Taylor‘s testimony that he saw Tyson drop a gun, found that the officers had sufficient probable cause to make an arrest, and disputed Judge Chotiner’s ruling in the case. “The board‘s not convinced at all that Victor Tyson was innocent,” its final ruling asserted.
Officer Ruiz was charged with misleading his supervisor, filing a false report, and perjury, but the board found him guilty solely on grounds that he fabricated the story of a broken window. Ruiz’s falsehood left the board mystified, as “he already, in the board‘s collective mind, had justified probable cause to detain Tyson.”
Remarkably, the LAPD board reserved its harshest criticism for the whistle blowers, Freed and Sergeant Henry. Freed, the board found, “rushed to judgment . . . and undermined prosecutorial and investigative facts.” In its only nod to Freed’s enterprise, the board said, “His intervention in this case was deplorably inept, but was the catalyst for the department discovering the misconduct that‘s been sustained here today.” As for Sergeant Henry, the board found he “expressed opinions only” and “should have conducted a more thorough investigation.” The only more thorough investigation that resulted was conducted by the U.S. attorney, and resulted in last week’s indictments.
Contacted last week, Evan Freed said he‘d never heard the board’s derisive comments on his performance. By the time the opinion was issued, Freed had been terminated by the City Attorney‘s Office when it declined to extend his provisional two-year stint. Freed asserted in a lawsuit that he was let go because of his efforts on the Tyson case, as well as the fact that he is gay. The case was dismissed last year.
Freed said he confronted City Attorney James Hahn over his belief that he was harassed for his role as a whistle blower, but was rebuffed. “I’m sure it was a political move on his part,” Freed said.
Hahn spokesman Mike Qualls responded that no such confrontation took place. “Jim Hahn has never met face to face with Evan Freed in his life,” Qualls said.
As to the handling of the Tyson case, Qualls said the City Attorney‘s Office was simply too trusting of the police. “The suspicions about the officers’ veracity were reported to us by an LAPD sergeant,” Qualls explained. “This was 1995. There was a certain trust that the LAPD command staff would deal appropriately with allegations like this.”
Joe Domanick contributed to this story.