The Beat Goes On: The Lessons of O.J. Continue To Be Ignored

By Hans Sherrer, Guest Writer

Edited by Kira Caywood

Just weeks after O. J. Simpson was charged with murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, the LAPD met with accusations of wrongdoing in the case. Allegations included improper investigation and collection of crime scene evidence; police doctoring of affidavits and reports; and mishandling and lack of standard testing of the two bodies. [1] Simultaneous news reports claimed that Simpson might be the victim of an LAPD frame-up.

Although the LAPD's faulty treatment of evidence was substantiated in court, media commentators' widespread belief in O. J.'s guilt squelched any interest in investigating the LAPD's behavior. This media apathy continued even after LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman was convicted of committing perjury while testifying at O. J.'s trial. [2]

Unhampered by news media interest or investigation, criminal police conduct continued unchecked. In September of 1999, former LAPD officer Rafael Perez, convicted of stealing eight pounds of cocaine from a police evidence locker, began revealing sordid secrets to a conscientious prosecutor in exchange for a lenient sentence. He first disclosed that, in 1996, he and his partner shot an unarmed, handcuffed teenager at point blank range. Then, they planted a .22 rifle near the young man's paralyzed body, and claimed the teen had attacked them. [3] Perez admitted that the frame-up was but one of many arranged by him and his police colleagues.

Perez's sensational disclosures triggered an internal LAPD investigation of the urban Rampart Division. Including Perez, more than 70 officers of the division have since been implicated and investigated for possibly committing or covering up police crimes. [4] The probe has already resulted in the overturning of more than 40 convictions obtained by illicit methods, and officials acknowledge that many hundreds more may be thrown out.

Among the LAPD crimes under investigation are unjustified shootings and beatings, planting drugs and other evidence on innocent people, permitting wounded people to bleed to death before calling for help, threatening witnesses, committing perjury, making false arrests, concocting phony police reports, and doctoring crime scenes. [5] Officers are also being investigated for using INS officials to deport immigrants who witness acts of wrongdoing. [6]

Also, recent disclosures show that members of CRASH, a special LAPD anti-gang unit formed in the late 1970s, threw parties and awarded plaques for killing and wounding innocent people. City officials have acknowledged that Los Angeles' financial liability to victims of police crimes could exceed $125 million. [7]

However, current revelations are only the tip of the iceberg. City officials predict that new cases and aspects of the LAPD scandal will be uncovered for many years to come. [8] Stephen Yagman, a Los Angeles lawyer who specializes in police misconduct cases, confirms the prediction. On his web site, Yagman has compiled a list of 12,000 cases that could be affected by the LAPD wrongdoing already known. [9]

Despite these efforts, the full extent of corruption will never be known. LAPD officials are in full damage-control mode, putting forth every effort to sweep revelations of police criminality under the rug. One method they use is blaming the brutality and corruption on thousands of recently hired officers, whom officials now claim were poorly selected, trained and supervised. [10]

However, no amount of whitewashing can transform the LAPD crisis into the work of a few "bad apples." In the opinion of David Dotson, a former Assistant Chief of the LAPD, the department has systemic internal problems that are "cultural in nature." [11]

The LAPD's reluctance to proactively change its pervasive culture of brutality is shown by its "cosmetic" act of disbanding the CRASH units, and then re-forming them under a different name. The New York Times reported, "It was not immediately clear how the new units' duties would differ from those of the CRASH units." [12]

Attorney Stephen Yagman said of the disbanding, "I think it's meaningless.

Disbanding CRASH is useless without terminating the officers who were members of CRASH, because they're just going to go to other assignments and keep doing bad things." [13]

LAPD top brass' refusal to acknowledge the problem behavior of its street officers and supervisory lieutenants caused a backlash among various groups, who accuse the officials of dragging their feet in investigating the allegations and punishing the perpetrators. [14] These critics point out that unless a complete and impartial investigation is conducted by an independent organization, it will continue to appear that LAPD higher-ups are engaging in a cover-up.

L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetti's failure to file charges against any of the investigated officers drew criticism. [15] However, his reluctance isn't surprising. He could be sitting on a powder keg. To some degree, all successful frame-ups require the complicity of a willing prosecutor. [16]

Therefore, any officer charged could implicate the DA's office in knowingly prosecuting innocent people. The same accused officers could also implicate the federal INS officials involved in the trumped-up deportation of immigrants who witness LAPD crime. Ironically, the only LAPD officer yet prosecuted is Rafael Perez, the whistleblower who exposed the extent of departmental corruption in a bid for a lenient sentence.

In a statement he read before his sentencing, former officer Perez offered a plausible explanation of the rot within the LAPD. Perez described how the unchecked power of a police officer helped blur the line between good and evil, and led to his downfall. "My job became an intoxicant that I lusted after." [17]

He summed up a problem facing every police agency in this country when he said, "Whoever chases monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster himself." [18] The LAPD made it easy for Perez and his fellow officers to become monsters. A preliminary report documented that the officers made up their own rules and functioned with "little or no oversight." [19] However, the report fails to point out that a state of police lawlessness cannot exist and thrive without the tacit consent of top officials.

Another angle worth considering is that the LAPD is not unique in being riddled with law enforcement monsters. [20] Police agencies throughout the country share information, procedures, methods of enforcement and, most importantly, a lack of personal accountability equal to that expected of civilians. Former officer Perez was sentenced to five years for stealing eight pounds of cocaine. Imprisoned people all over America can only dream of such light treatment.

History shows that nearly any behavior is acceptable within the LAPD -- if it leads to the conviction of a "bad guy." The only ironclad rules seem to be "Don't get caught red-handed," and "Cover your tracks." By those standards, former officer Perez wasn't a "rogue cop" -- he was just careless. He broke the rules of the game when he was caught by someone unwilling to look the other way. If Perez had successfully pulled off the heist, he would still be on the Los Angeles streets. He would continue his unrestrained practices of shooting, beating, planting drugs and other evidence on innocent people, filing false reports, and committing wholesale perjury in court.

Since the 1920s, numerous scandals have preceded the current LAPD uproar. [21] Typically, once the initial public furor over a scandal dies down, everything returns to "business as usual." That cycle will continue until law enforcement personnel are held as accountable for their actions as is anyone else in society. Any investigation or proposed reform neglecting that basic truth serves merely as empty, meaningless promises to placate people until emotions cool down. [22]

Regardless of one's personal feelings about O. J. Simpson, his prosecution presented us with a textbook case on how "the system" works to snare innocent people. Unfortunately, these lessons were ignored during the trial, and continue to be ignored. [23] As long as they are disregarded, the beat of police misconduct will go on and on routinely victimizing innocent people.

THE END

[1] "An Incendiary Defense," Jeffrey Toobin, The New Yorker, July 25, 1994, Vol. 70, No. 22, pp. 56-59.[back to story]

[2] "Fuhrman pleads no contest to perjury," Steve Marshall (USA Today), USA Today, October 3, 1996, p. 3A. The only reason Fuhrman was prosecuted for perjury was the extraordinary extent to which he lied during O. J.'s trial.

Perjury is epidemic among LAPD officers. They don't do it just on international television. In her autobiography, L. A. based defense lawyer Leslie Abramson wrote about her initiation to the world of police perjury as a young lawyer: "It wasn't just their lying -- it was the degree of it that got to me. As a young lawyer, I just wasn't expecting it. The cops, many of them, lie to the point of self-destruction ... Cops' lies were the leitmotif of all my early years. ... Cop credibility was the case a lot of the time.

And I was just left reeling by the amount of lying, the pettiness of lying, the consistency of lying -- the nickel-and-dimeness of it all." "The Defense is Ready: My Life in Crime," Leslie Abramson with Richard Flaste, Pocket Books, NY, 1998, at p. 88.[back to story]

[3] "Former Los Angeles Officer Sets Off Corruption Scandal," Todd S. Purdum (staff writer), New York Times, September 18, 1999, p. A9. After former LAPD officer Rafael Perez's confession, a judge exonerated the victim of the attack, Javier Francisco Ovando, and ordered him released from prison. The paralyzed Ovando had spent 2-1/2 years in prison by the time of his release.[back to story]

[4] "LA Police Admit Officer Ranks Rife With Corruption," James Sterngold (NY Times staff), Tacoma News Tribune, February 17, 2000.[back to story]

[5] "LA Police Admit Officer Ranks Rife With Corruption."[back to story]

[6] "Police in Secret Group Broke Law Routinely, Transcripts Say," Scott Glover and Matt Lait (Staff Writers), Los Angeles Times, February 10, 2000; and, "Rampart Set Up Latino to Be Deported, INS Says," Annie-Marie O'Connor (staff writer), Los Angeles Times, February 24, 2000.[back to story]

[7] "Rampart Settlements Could Hit $125 million," Los Angeles Times, February 3, 2000.[back to story]

[8] "LA Police Admit Officer Ranks Rife With Corruption."[back to story]

[9] "Fresh Allegations of Police Corruption Stun L. A.," Reuters News Service, February 10, 2000, http://news.findlaw.com/legalnews/s/20000210/crimepolice.html. [back to story]

[10] "LA Police Admit Officer Ranks Rife With Corruption." This same "defense" is being used to explain away the fatal shooting of an unarmed Amadou Diallo by four NY City police officers. See: "The Diallo case verdict is in: Blame poor police training, supervising," Richard D. Emert, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 1, 2000, p. A17. [back to story]

[11] "A Culture of War," David D. Dotson, Los Angeles Times, February 27, 2000.[back to story]

[12] "Chief of Los Angeles Police Disbands Anti-gang Units," The New York Times, March 4, 2000.[back to story]

[13] "Chief Parks Order Current Anti-Gang Units Disbanded," Matt Lait and Scott Glover (staff writers), Los Angeles Times, March 4, 2000.[back to story]

[14] See e.g., "A Culture of War."[back to story]

[15] See e.g., "Feds Begin Probe of LA Police Corruption," Reuters/Findlaw, February 24, 2000, at: http://news.findlaw.com/News/s/20000224/crimepolice.html. [back to story]

[16] See e.g., "Prosecutors Are Master Framers," Hans Sherrer, Justice Denied, Nov./Dec., 1999, Vol. 1, No. 9.[back to story]

[17] "Excerpts From Rafael Perez's Statement to the Court," Rafael Perez, Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2000.[back to story]

[18] "Excerpts From Rafael Perez's Statement to the Court."[back to story]

[19] "L. A. Police unit accused of 'making up own rules,'" Cynthia L. Webb (AP), Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 2, 2000, p. A9. [back to story]

[20] An example of this is that astute observers recognize the tragedy that befell the unarmed Amadou Diallo in New York was a consequence of pervasive and unpunished police misconduct in the NYPD, and not an isolated incident of police overreaction. See: "Pervasive misconduct by police at the heart of Diallo case, Bob Herbert (NY Times), Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 29, 2000, op/ed page.[back to story]

[21] "Top Priority: Free the Innocent," Melanie E. Lomax, Los Angeles Times, February 27, 2000.[back to story]

[22] See, "A Culture of War."[back to story]

[23] It is worth noting that in late February 2000, O. J. Simpson filed a lawsuit in the L. A. federal court seeking an order for GTE to turn over phone records between his ex-wife and her mother on the night Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered. Mr. Simpson asserts in the suit that the records can clear him of having any role in the stabbing deaths of her and Ronald L. Goldman, by showing that she was alive at the time the prosecutors claimed he killed her, and she may in fact have been alive at the time he was in the limousine being driven to the LA airport to fly to Chicago. The Brown family has refused to turn over their copy of the phone records, and is vigorously attempting to prevent GTE from being forced to turn over a copy of the records to Mr. Simpson. "O.J. Simpson Sues for Browns' Telephone Records," Ann W. O'Neill (staff writer), Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2000. [back to story]

Justice Denied