District Attorney Steve Cooley’s decision last week not
to retry the only three Los Angeles police officers convicted by a jury in the
Rampart corruption scandal was hardly front-page news. Rampart is ancient history.
Four years ago, though, the entire civic structure of Los Angeles
was riveted on revelations that police officers beat and framed suspects and
lied on the stand. It started when corrupt cop Rafael Perez was caught stealing
cocaine from an evidence locker, then agreed to cut himself a deal by fingering
dozens of other dirty officers, most of whom worked out of the Rampart gang
unit on the gritty streets a couple miles west of downtown.
It turned out his own partner, Nino Durden, shot and paralyzed
an unarmed man, then made up charges to justify it.
The LAPD was supposedly the cleanest police department in the
nation, and had been since Chief William Parker cleaned it up in the 1950s.
There were other problems, to be sure, like racism and a standoffish attitude
that pitted the LAPD against many of the communities it served. But corruption?
That was supposed to be over.
How widespread was it? The horror of rampaging cops who believed
they were a law unto themselves was matched by hopes of reformers who believed
there was finally a chance to fix a department that was too closed to the rest
of the city. This time, the thought was, the crimes of the LAPD were so bad,
and so obvious, that the department could finally be examined and cleaned up,
once and for all.
But the investigation was a mess, with the police chief openly
squabbling with the district attorney. Cooley, during his campaign, said it
was time for a fresh look at Rampart. He promised to get to the bottom of it.
He was elected in November 2000, in the midst of the Los Angeles
Superior Court trial of Sergeants Brian Liddy and Edward Ortiz and Officer Michael
Buchanan on charges of conspiring to obstruct justice in the arrest of two men
at a gang summit. The jury returned guilty verdicts shortly after Cooley was
sworn in. He couldn’t take credit for the convictions, but it was a good start.
Then the judge threw out the verdicts, saying she had made a mistake
in instructing the jury. Cooley appealed. And waited.
It took the appeals court an astounding four years to come back
with a ruling upholding the judge’s decision. Now Cooley, already re-elected
when the appeals decision came in over the summer, had to decide what to do
with Liddy, Ortiz and Buchanan.
Because so much time had passed, the district attorney no longer
had as good a case. Many of the witnesses against the officers had sued the
city and recovered money, and that’s something jurors would consider when weighing
their credibility. Some witnesses were in prison. Some had racked up additional
Cooley took the oath of office for his second term on December
6. Three days later, his office dropped all charges against the only three officers
found guilty of Rampart crimes.
Rampart is closed. Questions about Perez’s connections with ex-officer
David Mack, the sometime Death Row Records bodyguard in prison for bank robbery,
and about the grand jury transcripts, which were apparently stolen and recovered
but never released, and are perpetually sealed, questions about how deep corruption
went and who was involved — they are relegated to legend. What actually happened
in Rampart? No one really knows.
Cooley said the probe did what it was supposed to do. Dirty cops
were found out and fired, wrongly convicted suspects were set free and compensated
by the city, new protocols were brought in to keep the department honest. But
the jury never got to see its work completed.
There are other things now to draw the city’s attention.
Would-be contractors claim city officials told them they had to donate big bucks
to Mayor Jim Hahn’s campaign and against San Fernando Valley secession if they
wanted any shot at lucrative city deals. A public relations firm ostensibly
on contract to the Department of Water and Power kept flimsy billing records
and may actually have spent the money on promoting the mayor, or even on a city
Yet this was in a city that was supposedly the cleanest in the
nation. How deep does it go? There are allegations and political charges, and
criminal probes in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the D.A.’s Office.
Cooley has promised to get to the bottom of it.