In 1985, Reagan administration labor secretary Ray Donavan and six others were indicted in Bronx County, New York, and accused of fraud and larceny in connection with a construction project for a New York City Subway tunnel. Donovan was forced to resign from his post, but when the trial concluded more than two years later, he and his co-defendants had been acquitted of every last one of the hundred counts against them. Having endured the expense and emotional upheaval of this ordeal, Donovan famously asked, “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”
If there were such an office, today you might find three Los Angeles Police Department officers queued up at the window.
Earlier this summer, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit published its opinion in Harper v. City of Los Angeles. The case arose from what is known as the Rampart scandal, in which a handful of LAPD officers assigned to a single police station were found to have committed all manner of misconduct, including the nightmare scenario in which officers shot and paralyzed an unarmed man, fabricated a criminal case against him, offered perjured testimony, and sent the man to prison in a wheelchair.
After a lengthy investigation, nine LAPD officers were charged with crimes. Three, including the scandal’s central figure, former officer Rafael Perez, went to prison. Another went to jail for 60 days, and another was sentenced to probation and community service. Four others, including the three plaintiffs in the Harper decision, were ultimately cleared of all charges.
As bad as the scandal was, the maelstrom of hysteria that swept over the LAPD in its wake has been nearly as detrimental to the fight against crime in Los Angeles as was the scandal itself. All of the city’s anti-gang units were disbanded, resulting in a city-wide increase in violent crime that took years — and a new police chief — to reverse. And, against all reason, the LAPD still operates under the terms of a consent decree imposed by Janet Reno’s Justice Department. This consent decree has swallowed countless millions of dollars and spawned a vast, self-perpetuating bureaucratic apparatus that removes hundreds of cops from the streets and demands an ever-increasing input of mind-numbingly meaningless paperwork.
I never worked Rampart Division, nor am I acquainted with any of the officers implicated in the scandal. And even as I reported, in February 2006, on a jury verdict in favor of three officers arrested for corruption but subsequently acquitted in criminal court and further vindicated in civil court, I was only aware of the vague outlines of the officers’ defense. Having read the Ninth Circuit’s opinion, I now know just how shamefully those officers were treated by internal-affairs investigators, the former chief of police, and the former district attorney, all of whose zeal to confront the scandal led them to commit acts of misconduct nearly as reprehensible as any they hoped to uncover.
The Harper opinion reads like a police officer’s horror story. Distilled to its essence, the three officers arrested a gang member for carrying a gun, did everything properly in processing that arrest, yet nonetheless found themselves accused of, and arrested for, conspiring to fabricate the case. Their lives, to understate the matter considerably, were all but ruined, their downfall based on the accusations of a proven liar, coupled with wild and uninformed speculation on the part of the investigators and an overly compliant prosecutor.
The central figure in the scandal was Perez, who, by accusing many of his former colleagues of misconduct, bargained his way to a reduced sentence after being caught stealing kilos of cocaine from evidence lockers. Despite having given demonstrably false information to investigators, there were those on the LAPD, including former Chief Bernard Parks, who saw Perez’s credibility as nothing less than oracular. Regarding the incident described in the Harper decision, for example, Perez gave investigators three distinct and contradictory versions of what had occurred.
The investigators then took Perez’s account, or some conflation of the three different accounts, and coupled them with a speculative and glaringly erroneous interpretation of police radio traffic at the time of the incident. They also speculated (wrongly) on discrepancies between the written logs completed by two police sergeants who were present. Worse still, they chose to rely on all this speculation rather than interview the very officers who might have clarified matters.
On this slender reed the investigators hung their case, concluding they had sufficient probable cause to arrest three police officers and launch them into the legal drama that has now lasted more than twelve years. I’ve often made sport of decisions from the Ninth Circuit (such an easy target at times), but in this case I can only applaud. “[T]here was substantial evidence,” said the court, “from which the jury could conclude that the Officers were arrested without probable cause.”
It’s difficult to decide which player in this spectacle is most deserving of contempt. Rafael Perez dishonored his profession and his oath, but in the end he was merely a criminal behaving as criminals do: by lying and attempting to deflect culpability on others. As chief of the LAPD at the time, Bernard Parks had a responsibility, both legal and moral, to see the matter investigated thoroughly but fairly. Instead, for the sake of covering his own posterior, he allowed his investigators to run roughshod over the rights of three honest cops. For his part, former district attorney Gil Garcetti surrendered his independent judgment and allowed his office to prosecute the three officers without a shred of credible evidence against them. And the internal-affairs investigators themselves, who, if they had been the least bit familiar with how things really work on the streets, if they had recognized the discrepancies in the radio traffic and the sergeants’ logs for the innocuous and common occurrences they were, if they had been properly skeptical of Perez’s accusations — if they had simply done their duty — might have spared the accused officers the entire ordeal.
In 2000, Gil Garcetti was voted out as district attorney and Bernard Parks was ousted from his job as chief of the LAPD, both of which events were cheered by rank-and-file police officers. Parks went on to win a seat on the L.A. city council, where to this day he revels in putting his thumb in the eye of the man who replaced him, current Chief William Bratton. To my knowledge, the involved investigators suffered no consequences at all, except of course for the continuing scorn of their colleagues.
The three vindicated officers, Paul Harper, Brian Liddy, and Edward Ortiz, were each awarded $5 million by the federal-court jury in 2006, an award that has now been upheld by the Ninth Circuit. They deserve every penny of it, and shame on those who ran up the tab.
– Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.