It’s no longer up to Steve, our almost brand-new district attorney, who last week formally abandoned any further interest in the Rampart-area police-corruption cases. These are the very cases, you‘ll recall, whose neglect helped Steve Cooley beat incumbent Gil Garcetti in last year’s election. Too bad about that. Many, many voters expected much more.
Cooley himself wasn‘t too comfortable with this proclamation. He probably knew full well that the public memory wasn’t quite so short as to take the news in stride. So the big admission got stuffed in as a sort of ad lib last week in a news conference intended to vaunt alleged new policies to avoid police misconduct. But the news-event topic was barely mentioned in the resulting coverage.
Later, a D.A. spokeswoman said details about certain pending Rampart cases wouldn‘t be disclosed, since some of them had not yet been rejected. That comes pretty close to saying that the decision to ”close“ the ”book“ came before that book, as Cooley glibly put it, ”is read.“ By Cooley’s own admission, 35 officer-misconduct cases are still under investigation. But Cooley, in effect, said that his crystal ball has already showed him that these officers would be cleared, minus criminal charges. LAPD Chief Bernard Parks sure seemed pleased: Now it looks like he‘ll skate into another term next year. So did a thundering editorialist at the Daily News, while deploring that the city had been conned into a whole federal consent decree over that little spot of fun that Rafael Perez and a few buddies had enjoyed in the Rampart CRASH unit.
Some hoped that federal investigators might indict more of the dozens of purportedly bad cops that Perez’s testimony mentioned and whose names keep coming up in civil cases against the city. We are talking about the questionable arrest and prosecution work of as many as 71 LAPD officers over five or more years. Then again, the feds might decide just to retry arch-snitch Rafael Perez and throw away his plea bargain. You never know.
But Eastside civil rights attorney Antonio Rodriguez thinks he knows. ”There‘ll be no new activity in the criminal field. They’re all part of the same team — the new district attorney, the new city attorney, the now-mayor who used to be city attorney, the entire City Council.“ And beyond that, there are the politics of everyday public jurisprudence. ”The prosecutors still count on cops to testify, do their investigating.“ So there is a systemic limit to how far any criminal-prosecution team will go after a wide pattern of police abuse. Instead, ”They lop a few heads, say everything is fine and move on.“
Rodriguez is one of a handful of L.A. lawyers — some famous, some not — who‘ve devoted their professional lives to representing what they call the victims of the LAPD. Now that public officialdom has turned its back on the scandal, it’s their turn to move in. Even without any new criminal cases, the city faces potential liabilities in the nine figures And after the failure of so many years of attempts to reform Los Angeles policing, a huge police-malfeasance fiscal hit against an already cash-strapped city may be the only thing that can make a long-term difference, to instill long-needed deep change in the LAPD. This is pretty much what happened over in the county jurisdiction almost a decade ago; compared to the LAPD, the Sheriff‘s Department has since moved from the outhouse to the penthouse.
The members of this ”bar“ are a unique breed: angry, impatient, yet persistent and not always easy to live with. ”Police-misconduct attorneys tend to be misfits, ne’er-do-wells and true believers,“ said one civil rights lawyer who asked for anonymity. But, ”People who do this stuff are the hardest-working lawyers I know. Police [defense] lawyers make every step as difficult as possible. You work twice as hard for half the results. You have to fight so hard for what every other attorney takes for granted. That people make a living at it is really a remarkable thing.“
Now, there is more than just a living to be made. Back when he was still city attorney, Jim Hahn estimated the cost to the city of settling Rampart civil cases could top $100 million. They have already cost more than $30 million. Yet, since the $15 million settlement of the case of Javier Ovando nearly two years ago, and the ”global“ settlement of a batch of other Rampart plaintiffs a few months later, most of this litigation — which is in federal court under the civil rights statutes — seemed to have ground to a halt. Now, after more than a year of confusion and cross-purposes, things are finally moving in those courts.
Last month, in an important status conference that went unreported in the media, U.S. District Judge Gary Fees lifted a stay on discovery in the Rampart civil cases, in effect letting them all roll toward trial. A committee of plaintiffs‘ attorneys has been put together, whose members include such civil rights veterans as Sam Paz and Stephen Yagman, to coordinate all the actions. Fees’ basic idea here was to streamline the cases and to avoid inter-attorney conflict and produce what Rodriguez calls ”an evidence pool“ of police-malfeasance allegations. These will, ideally, be consistent for all the 50 or so Rampart-based misconduct cases now being litigated. And these cases are far more likely to go to trial now, Rodriguez said, because the recently proposed out-of-court city settlements have been so small.
As recently as last year, many of these attorneys were willing to entertain such city settlement offers (particularly in the wake of the $11 million total settled on for clients of attorney Greg Yates). But now some lawyers are saying they want to lay open the LAPD‘s wrongdoings in open court. These attorneys for the people who say they were victimized by the Rampart-based police excesses seem to be the only ones using words like justice. ”I have a philosophical and ethical position on this. It is my clients’ [only] chance to be treated as human beings,“ says attorney Sam Paz.