Give Rampart Investigators a Big Stick and Then Turn Them Loose

Code of silence must be crushed.
By Erwin Chemerinsky and Constance L. Rice

Erwin Chemerinsky is a professor of law and political science at USC. Constance L. Rice is a civil rights attorney.

March 3, 2003

The truth about the LAPD’s Rampart corruption scandal never has been learned. How many officers engaged in illegal activity or facilitated it with their silence? How high up did the scandal extend within the Police Department? Did other anti-gang units also routinely plant evidence or lie in court? What happened to honest officers who early on blew the whistle on “gangster cops”? And why has there been no coherent account of what happened?

Now Police Chief William Bratton is proposing such an inquiry. We applaud him for recognizing that much remains unknown. But unless the investigatory commission has the powers and adequate budget needed to do the job, there is little chance of success. And after 3 1/2 years of delay, it is uncertain whether an investigation now can succeed.

Although several reports were issued concerning the scandal, none engaged in a thorough, factual investigation of what actually happened within the LAPD. The failures of prosecutors, judges, police commissioners and politicians have yet to be documented publicly. A great deal has not come to light.

The Police Commission committee, chaired by lawyer Richard Drooyan, focused on making policy recommendations for reforming the LAPD, not on learning what happened. The LAPD had a board of inquiry look at Rampart, but it was very much the institution’s version of the scandal and minimized the extent of the problem, blaming it on mediocrity and a few wayward officers.

There were several proposals for an independent commission to conduct a full investigation, but then-Mayor Richard Riordan and then-Police Chief Bernard Parks succeeded in quashing them.

Now is the time for an independent commission with the tools and a clear mandate to get to the bottom of what happened. The commission must have subpoena power to ensure that needed witnesses testify and that necessary documents are provided. Most important, it must be able to give immunity to police officers. Many officers, some of whom have told each of us about unreported serious misconduct, have said that they can’t testify because they fear they will lose their badges for failing to report misconduct when it occurred.

Worse, the many good officers who wanted to testify know that the LAPD’s command staff and Internal Affairs ended the career of Armando Coronado because he blew the whistle on Rampart Division officers Rafael Perez and Nino Durden years before the Rampart scandal exploded publicly. The commission must have the ability to provide officers anonymity and protection from the LAPD’s Pavlovian response of silencing and retaliating against officers who expose wrongdoing.

Bratton has suggested a citizen commission. That is well intentioned, but the panel must primarily consist of people who are expert police corruption investigators and who are knowledgeable about the scandal, LAPD culture and its Internal Affairs Division. Unless the commission is guided by an expert, such as former Inspector General Jeff Eglash or former Christopher Commission counsel Merrick Bobb, there is no hope of getting to the bottom of the scandal that has so damaged LAPD effectiveness and constitutional integrity.

If a real investigation is not going to be done, at the very least an independent panel of experts might do a post-mortem of what went wrong in the Rampart investigation and provide a blueprint for future inquiries.

The Rampart scandal involved police officers planting evidence to frame innocent people and then lying in court to gain convictions. The officers’ misconduct violated the very core of the rule of law. Not nearly enough was done to expose what happened and to ensure that it never happens again.

A further investigation is a laudable idea, but only if it is done right.

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