At a court hearing last week on the status of more than 90 Rampart police-misconduct cases now pending before him, District Court Judge Gary Feess ordered the city to make broad disclosure of all relevant police documents generated during the course of the scandal — documents expected to shed new light on the scope of abuse at the city’s most notorious police station.
Lawyers were barred by Feess for more than a year from obtaining the documents they hope will help prove their claims of misconduct, and while the judge lifted that order last month, he went further Thursday.
“For the first time, the court is allowing the plaintiffs to take off the gloves in this contest,” said Sam Paz, a leading civil rights attorney and a member of the steering committee designated by Feess to coordinate issues pertaining to all the cases.
Key to the ruling was Feess’ declaration that all parties must adhere to Rule 26 of federal court “discovery” procedure, which requires both plaintiff and defense attorneys to voluntarily provide all relevant documents and not wait for specific requests from the opposition.
Feess also ruled that the city attorney must provide actual copies of all documents. In several cases in state court, the Los Angeles County district attorney and city attorney have made the transcripts of Rafael Perez’s interviews with investigators available only on CD-ROM, computer discs which, plaintiff lawyers said, had no indexes, could not be searched and were all but useless.
Deputy City Attorney Paul Paquette acknowledged after the hearing that Feess had set a new standard for disclosure. “It was news to me that Rule 26 was in play,” said Paquette, the city’s lead litigator in the massive police-misconduct case.
Paquette emphasized that the city was prepared to cooperate and ready to move the cases forward, but said he plans to raise specific objections in court based on officer-privacy concerns and the federal “official-information privilege” that protects some records maintained by police agencies.
In addition, Paquette insisted that disclosures be made on a case-by-case basis. Plaintiff lawyers said they wanted all documents to be made available to all comers, enabling them to bring to light broad patterns of misconduct, and evidence of supervisors tolerating misconduct.
Feess said Thursday that those issues would have to be sorted out in separate hearings before magistrate Judge Andrew Wistrich, also of the Central District in Los Angeles.
At the hearing Thursday and in interviews later, the plaintiff attorneys dismissed Paquette’s concerns as a smokescreen designed to keep a lid on the magnitude of police misconduct. “So far the city of L.A. has come into court and blustered and harangued and obfuscated and kept virtually secret the awful underlying facts of the Rampart scandal,” said lawyer Stephen Yagman, another member of the steering committee.
Sam Paz said that such a strategy has helped guide the city’s response to Rampart from the outset. He cited the “Board of Inquiry Report,” a mildly self-critical document issued by Police Chief Bernard Parks in the spring of 2000, and the decision to sign on to the federal consent decree, as instances of official damage control. “Part of the strategy has been to litigate in secret,” Paz said. “They’ve never had to produce the evidence that gave rise to the scandal. They’ve never had to answer the question ‘What did the chiefs and the supervisors know, and when did they know it?’”
In an interview, Paquette declined to respond to the suggestion that he was helping to cover up official misconduct. Instead, he said he was simply working to protect the privacy of police officers and the identity of their informants. Paquette said he was “very disappointed” that he would have to take those matters before a magistrate judge, and said that until the hearing last week, he’d expected to begin distributing documents and defending cases in court. “We really wanted to go forward,” he said.
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