District Attorney Gil Garcetti looked even paler than normal under his signature shock of snow-white hair as he stood before the media February 6 to reassure the city that he was firmly in control of the ever-expanding Rampart scandal.
Garcetti had little news to announce — no felons were being exonerated, and certainly no cops had been indicted — but that morning the L.A. Times had published sensational excerpts from 2,000 pages of interview transcripts from rogue-officer-turned-informant Rafael Perez. With his re-election primary only weeks away on March 7, the D.A. had to say something.
To his credit, Garcetti had never minced words about the severity of the scandal, expected to cost the city some $250 million in civil settlements alone. ”This is the biggest problem I have seen in my 31 years in the District Attorney‘s Office,“ Garcetti said in December.
Yet all he could do at the news conference was underscore his own sluggish response. He was increasing the staff on his Rampart task force to 10 attorneys — from the seven he had put on in November. And he had restarted the rollout program under which deputy district attorneys head directly to the scene of any officer-involved shootings. Only one problem — the LAPD had yet to sign on.
None of which spoke very well for the top prosecutor charged with bringing cases against the renegade cops of Rampart. But none of it surprising in light of Garcetti’s more than seven years in office. Despite an early reputation as a tough-on-cops prosecutor, and despite the Rodney King beating and its obvious warning flags of widespread LAPD misconduct, Garcetti has taken few steps to monitor or restrain the city‘s police force.
Garcetti seems bemused, almost surprised, at the suggestion that his office might share some responsibility for policing the police. Even today, there is no formal policy requiring prosecutors to notify their superiors of officers lying on the stand or engaging in apparent misconduct. Asked if he thought that might be a problem, Garcetti could only muster, ”We train on this, we train our managers . . . and one of the things we talk about is putting your witness on the stand. And if you have a doubt about their credibility, then don’t do it. I think there has to be a slightly more formal process, I guess, is what I‘m saying.“
Garcetti’s challengers in next Tuesday‘s primary say he should share some of the blame for Rampart. The incumbent’s response has been to duck head-to-head debates and emphasize his hypothetical commitment to prosecuting lawbreaking officers. In light of his record, that may be the best he can do.
Perhaps the most glaring Rampart signal flare that Garcetti chose to ignore is one that had nothing to do with Rafael Perez. The case involves a February 1998 station-house beating of a handcuffed prisoner, gang member Ismael Jimenez, by Brian Hewitt, a former CRASH officer then working narcotics.
To the LAPD, the case was cut-and-dried. Physical evidence of the beating included DNA matches for Jimenez with blood spatters on the walls and a pool of bloody vomit on the floor. At the hospital that night, Jimenez told several people that Hewitt was his assailant; one of them, the emergency-room physician, scrawled Hewitt‘s name on a hospital bed sheet to be sure it was preserved. Hewitt was brought up on departmental charges and fired the following year.
There were no witnesses to the actual beating, however — the other cops at Rampart that night said they didn’t see anything. And a consulting physician who reviewed the medical file found that the blood on the floor — which stained a 9-by-11-inch section of carpet — could have come from ”a small injury in the mouth or tongue, which was not detected.“ To the lawyers at the D.A.‘s Special Investigations Division, which reviews any cases against police officers, that was enough to derail criminal prosecution.
In hindsight, that decision looks like the D.A. bending over backward to avoid prosecution of a cop. In January, LAPD Chief Bernard Parks cited the Hewitt case specifically in charging that Garcetti was dragging his feet on Rampart. Garcetti defended the decision in an interview with the Weekly. ”We have been looking at that case so hard, and this is before Perez came out,“ Garcetti said. ”Because in our mind . . . we had a bad cop here, a bad cop. And if we could prosecute that case, we wanted to prosecute that case. But I had an ethical responsibility, and that ethical responsibility is you do not prosecute anyone unless you can establish that a crime was committed by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.“
Another potential case the D.A. declined to prosecute involved an alleged 1998 rape by two officers. According to the D.A.’s review of the case, the woman involved, a drug user identified as Tina R., charged that the officers propositioned her during a traffic stop. Tina R. said she declined, but said one officer threatened to ”get her“ if she didn‘t comply. Later that evening, she met with both officers and drove to a hotel, where she alleged one officer raped her while the second stood by.
During an internal review, both officers admitted taking the woman to the hotel, but said she had flirted with them and that the sex was consensual. As in the Hewitt case, the department took the incident seriously — one officer was suspended for 66 days, the other for 44. The D.A. reviewed the same paperwork, did no independent interviews, and declined to prosecute.
Criminal acts by officers are not the district attorney’s only means of detecting and rooting out police corruption. There is also the courtroom. Public records and interviews show that Garcetti and his managers received clear signs of officer misconduct during court proceedings, and neglected taking any action.
Garcetti‘s challengers have focused on one particular case, first reported in the Weekly, as Garcetti’s ”smoking gun.“ That case was the criminal trial of Ubaldo Gutierrez, arrested by Perez in November 1996 on drug charges.
In June of 1997, on the day scheduled for closing arguments, deputy D.A. Michael Kraut moved to have the case dismissed. According to public defender Mearl Lottman, Kraut had discovered inconsistencies between the police logs and the officer‘s testimony. In layman’s terms, the cops had been caught lying on the stand.
”I was really surprised,“ Lottman recalled. ”I‘ve never had a case dismissed at closing argument, and in the 11 years I’ve been a defense attorney, I‘ve never even heard of this happening. At the time, I had a feeling that Perez had been lying and hoped that someone would investigate him.“
As in all cases that result in an acquittal or a dismissal, a disposition memo was written up and passed on to the head deputy of the division, who in turn was charged with signing off on the case. Kraut has not commented publicly about the case and would not return repeated calls from the Weekly. And Garcetti has refused to release the memo, contending that, as part of the ongoing Rampart investigation, it is no longer a public record.
Responding to suggestions that he buried the matter, in a January interview on the radio show Which Way, L.A.?, Garcetti was direct. ”My office looked at that case and concluded that Mr. Kraut was simply wrong in this case,“ Garcetti told the show’s host, Warren Olney. In fact, ”Officer Perez was not lying in the case.“
He amended that version in his interview with the Weekly. ”It turns out, [Kraut] was right that [Perez] was lying, but it was for the wrong reason. That, I can tell you.“ But Garcetti declined to discuss the case in detail, and again refused to make public Kraut‘s memo to his supervisor.
A review of the scores of cases Perez brought to court shows that defendants often challenged the veracity of a cop who now says he lied routinely, but prosecutors rarely listened.
One case that did draw glancing interest from the D.A.’s Office involved Victor Perez, an off-the-books taxi driver known to peddle rock cocaine around MacArthur Park. Perez was busted for a small quantity of crack by Officer Perez, but at his preliminary hearing, on June 21, 1997, the case was dismissed when the cocaine, allegedly booked into evidence, could not be produced. Again, a memo was produced and sent upstairs.
In an office that handles tens of thousands of felony cases every year, should those missing rocks have drawn the attention of prosecutors? Deputy D.A. Robert Schirn, then head of a trials division and now in charge of major narcotics, said he could not recall the particular case, but said disappearing evidence would raise genuine concern. ”That is something that is going to be reviewed,“ Schirn said.
The case was reviewed, but with little vigor. Victor Perez was arrested on drug charges again a year later, and while that case was pending, a member of the D.A.‘s Office asked to speak with him about the earlier, botched case. But when Perez’s attorney pressed to get his client a deal in return for cooperation, the D.A. lost interest. Only after Officer Perez was arrested did Richard Rosenthal, the prosecutor handling the Rampart investigation, request the files on the cab driver‘s case.
Interviewed by telephone at Mule Creek State Prison, Victor Perez said that in the months that followed his conviction on the second offense, he was contacted by police investigators and gave detailed testimony about his encounter with Perez. This time, he got a reduced sentence in return for his cooperation. The deputy D.A. who prosecuted the initial case against the cab driver declined to be interviewed, but said she, too, had been interviewed by LAPD investigators.
Veterans of the D.A.’s Office say the atmosphere there discourages any challenges to police. ”It‘s bureaucracy.“ said Deputy D.A. Larry Diamond, a former member of the Special Investigation Division, which handles most police prosecutions. ”People don’t advance in bureaucracy by standing up for something.“
Part of the problem is that cases against police are difficult to prove — anathema to prosecutors who rise and fall by their conviction rates. ”It‘s not an easy task,“ Diamond said. ”A police shooting is more complex than people understand, and so is the law.“
”You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t,“ said another former SID attorney. ”These are very difficult cases, and your witnesses are often people with their own credibility problems, such as prostitutes or drug dealers.“
For the same reasons, prosecutors also seek to keep the police on their side. ”You can only raise the issue once in a while,“ said a veteran prosecutor who requested anonymity. ”You question the credibility of the police officer in too many cases, you‘ve got a jacket. The cops will know who you are, and it won’t be good for your career.“
Of course, if the district attorney put a premium on tracking problem cops, then the career path itself might change. But so far, that hasn‘t happened. According to Christopher Darden, the former prosecutor who gained fame trying the O.J. Simpson case, there is a ”climate“ in the D.A.’s Office ”that causes a D.A. to wholly ignore these cries from indigent defendants that, ‘Hey, I’ve been framed, I didn‘t do it, the cops are lying.’ These cries for help repeatedly fall on deaf ears,“ Darden said.
”There has to be a mechanism that allows them to look beyond the police report to make certain the people they are prosecuting are guilty. And there isn‘t one.“
To listen to Garcetti today, even in light of the unfolding LAPD scandal, that atmosphere isn’t about to change. Asked if he felt his office shared any responsibility for what happened at Rampart, Garcetti would only reiterate his faith in his subordinates. ”I‘ve got over 1,100 lawyers in my office. I’ve got to have faith that certainly if we have an officer who‘s lying, that the office is addressing it.“