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Conduct and Ethics 2011

Posted 11/13/11

L.A.S.D. BLUE

“We police ourselves,” insists Sheriff Baca. But running a department takes a lot more.

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Sheriff Lee Baca was upset. “It’s illegal. It’s a misdemeanor and then there’s a conspiracy law that goes along with it,” he growled.  But his anger wasn’t directed at the deputy who had snuck contraband into the Men’s Central Jail.  Instead, L.A. County’s top cop was mad at the FBI.

     Why was the sheriff irritated?  The Feds committed no crime.  An undercover agent paid a corrupt deputy $1,500 to pass on a cell phone to an inmate who was secretly an FBI stoolie. It was a creative and fully legitimate exercise of the Bureau’s mission to root out corrupt cops. Why was Baca really miffed?  Because the Feds didn’t ask first.  They embarrassed him. And because they were evidently still nosing around “his” jails.

     As far as is known the FBI’s interest began last year.  That’s when agents interviewed a former inmate who sued deputies for beating him up (he lost the fight and the lawsuit.) An FBI spokesperson told reporters that agents were investigating that incident as well as another in which Baca’s deputies allegedly etched a slur into an inmate’s scalp.

     Since the signing of a consent decree in 1985 ACLU monitors have observed the jails.  One who was at the Twin Towers jail on January 24 reportedly observed deputies punching, kicking and repeatedly Tasering a limp, unresisting inmate.  Her declaration called a log entry that portrayed the inmate as violent a complete fabrication. An inmate who said he was warned not to cooperate furnished a supporting declaration.  These documents were filed by the ACLU on February 7, the same day that the inmate was charged for battering his jailers.  Was it a coincidence? Who knows?

     FBI agents interviewed the monitor. A Federal grand jury subpoenaed the Los Angeles Times for the identities of two readers who commented on the story.  One mentioned observing “brutal beatings of prisoners on a daily basis” at a hospital jail ward.  Another, purportedly an ambulance attendant, wrote of regularly taking “the sheriff's assault victims” to hospitals. (The Times refused to release the information.)

     Back to the present.  Sheriff Baca was barely done sniping at the FBI when the ACLU filed its yearly jail oversight report.  Entitled “Cruel and Unusual Punishment: How a Savage Gang of Deputies Controls L.A. County Jails,” it harshly criticized jail deputies’ alleged culture of intimidation and brutality:

    In the past year, deputies have assaulted scores of non-resisting inmates, according to reports from jail chaplains, civilians, and inmates. Deputies have attacked inmates for complaining about property missing from their cells. They have beaten inmates for asking for medical treatment, for the nature of their alleged offenses, and for the color of their skin. They have beaten inmates in wheelchairs.  They have beaten an inmate, paraded him naked down a jail module, and placed him in a cell to be sexually assaulted....

     Prisoners submitted dozens of affidavits. But it wasn’t only them. Jail chaplain Paulino Juarez mentioned an incident he witnessed in 2009. “To this day, recalling the beating brings tears to my eyes, and I cannot finish talking about it without taking a few moments to compose myself.”  An anonymous colleague spoke of an episode earlier this year:  “I was so shocked that despite the deputies seeing me watch them beat up the inmate, they continued to kick and beat him.  It was like they didn’t even care that there was a witness.”  Scott Budnick, a well-regarded civilian volunteer, said that he witnessed four beatings over the years. In one a deputy smashed an inmate’s head into a wall for no apparent reason; in another three deputies kicked and punched an unresisting inmate while yelling “stop resisting!”  Here’s what a retired FBI executive (he formerly headed the agency’s Los Angeles office) who helped the ACLU prepare the report had to say:

    To an astonishing extent, unchecked violence, both deputy-on-inmate and inmate-upon-inmate, permeates Men’s Central Jail and Twin Towers jails…The voluminous evidence I have reviewed cries out for an independent, far-reaching, and in-depth investigation by the Federal Government.  The problem can no longer be ignored.

     Then the other shoe dropped.  A hurriedly prepared but informative report by the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review (OIR), which oversees the LASD, criticized jail oversight.  According to the report, determining what really happens in the jails is a challenge, as there are few video cameras or unbiased witnesses. Its review of a sample of thirteen episodes of deputy misconduct revealed many examples of officers who failed to report abuse or lied about what took place.

     Within days the ground on which Baca stood began giving way.  An inmate was discovered dead in his cell.  He had been punched by a deputy two days earlier. A rookie deputy resigned, ostensibly because his supervisor forced him to beat up a mentally ill prisoner. The deputy who fell prey to the Fed’s cell phone sting resigned. He then started talking – naturally, about inmate beatings.  Baca’s friends in the media turned their backs on the once-popular Sheriff. L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez urged him to resign:  “Baca’s sheriff’s department is looking more and more like the Hazzard County department run by Boss Hogg.  Guess what, Lee.  ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ was not a training film.”

     Baca brushed off the suggestion.  As an elected official (he’s on his fifth four-year term) he left it to the voters to “decide.”  Still, he had to do somethingHe promoted three area commanders and sent them off to take charge of the jails. A task force of 35 deputies was formed to review past allegations of abuse.  Then came the requisite perp walk to the L.A. Times, where Baca delivered the obligatory mea culpa.  True to form, he blamed commanders for keeping him in the dark. Yet he also admitted having been “out of touch” with the jails.  “The truth is I should have known.  Now I do know.”  He promised reforms.  One tangible step was to install 69 video cameras that had been sitting in their original boxes for a year.

     And it’s still not over.  A two-year old internal report turned up that accused deputies at the Men’s Central Jail of beating disrespectful inmates and “dramatizing” incidents to justify the use of force. It also criticized the practice of assigning rookies to the third floor where the most dangerous inmates are housed.  (Earlier this year the department fired six third-floor deputies who assaulted two deputies from another floor while off duty.  The injured officers sued LASD for letting the tattooed, gang-like deputy clique form.)

     Baca’s stewardship of the department has come under criticism over the years (see the Lopez article for a rundown of the gripes.)  Still, controlling the largest municipal jail system in the U.S. would be a challenge even for competent administrators.  As the Office of Independent Review (OIR) noted, jail deputies are mostly left to police themselves.  Really, there are few occupations that expect practitioners to exercise as much self-control and restraint as law enforcement, where near-adolescents are given badges and guns and sent to go do God’s work, often under the sketchiest oversight.

Click here for the complete collection of conduct and ethics essays

     To be sure, good supervision is important.  But the most important line of defense remains an individual’s good judgment. Yet how the LASD selects, trains and deploys deputies leaves a lot to be desired.

     In 2009 the OIR issued a report that blasted the LASD for dreaming up a “holistic” approach that led applicants with significant integrity, temperament and criminal issues to be hired.  That debacle, whose effects continue to the present day, was caused by a major recruitment drive during 2005-07, when a stunning 2,500 deputies were added to the rolls.

   Processing an applicant pool large enough to yield so many cops in such a brief timeframe seems impossible, at least without taking shortcuts.  In a rush to bring deputies on board, that’s what the LASD did, swamping background investigators and ignoring their concerns. Academy standards were lowered to make sure that everyone passed.  Staff gave out answers to exam questions ahead of time and repeatedly recycled cadets who still managed to flunk.  That led to another critical OIR report as well as the academy’s near-decertification by the state’s peace officer and training commission, which was stunned by the department’s indifference to the integrity of the testing process.

     Did Sheriff Baca take these reports to heart? Apparently not.  While his managers jammed trainees through the  process he let TV producers film a reality show. “The Academy,” which ran for three seasons, portrayed the LASD’s hyper-military, stress-style academy in graphic detail, with each episode starring a campaign-hatted cadre of drill instructors yelling at recruits and humiliating them at every opportunity. (For our prior post about the show click here.)

     Opinions differ on whether such settings are appropriate for training law enforcement officers. Leaving that issue for another time, it seems reasonable to assume that the LASD, whose training continues along these lines, intends to produce deputies who obey without question.  That effect is likely amplified by the relative youth and immaturity of its cadets, who require no more education than high-school equivalency.  What’s more, since L.A. County jails are staffed strictly by sworn deputies, recruits must work detention for several years before going on patrol.

     The consequences seem all too predictable.  When unworldly, impressionable youngsters who have been inculcated with an exaggerated respect for authority come face to face with the world behind bars, it’s no wonder that some turn to the comfort of cliques and leave their better judgment behind.  Even if they don’t participate in abuses – and hopefully most won’t – few are likely to hazard making waves at such an early stage of their careers.  Looking the other way becomes a way to survive.

     And yet another problem has surfaced. Many cops find jail duty unpleasant. Of course, at the LASD it comes with the territory, so cycling through the lockups is mandatory for those who wish to promote.  According to a recent report, serving in the jails is so devalued that it’s become a dumping ground for deputies who get in trouble or can’t make it on patrol. Sheriff Baca says he’s putting a stop to that, but the harm’s been done.

     Much more than recrimination, what the LASD most needs is a thorough, dispassionate reassessment of how it develops and uses its workforce. Do its practices yield deputies who can think independently and make ethically sound decisions? Or do they produce drones susceptible to groupthink? LASD must also consider what is routine elsewhere, splitting patrol and custody so that each becomes a career track in its own right. Corrections is far too complex and demanding a profession to be left to the unwilling or incompetent. Really, until such issues are seriously addressed it hardly matters who sits behind the boss’s desk.

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RELATED ARTICLES AND REPORTS

Witness L.A. series on the jails I II III     ACLU jail oversight report     OIR report on violence in the jails

OIR report on hiring and background investigations

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At Least They’re Consistently Lousy


Posted 11/6/11

N.Y.P.D. BLUE

Allegations of misconduct and corruption beset the nation’s largest police force

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Less than a year after a fellow officer (and jilted lover) aimed her pistol and pulled the trigger, leaving him with bullet holes in the arm and shoulder, officer Jose Ramos wound up in yet another bull’s-eye.

     In December 1998 a tip that Ramos and a helpmate were peddling drugs led internal affairs detectives to tap telephones at two barbershops that Ramos acquired as gifts from his father.  One undercover officer hired on as a barber.  Others posed as drug dealers and gained Ramos’ confidence.  During the next three years they paid him to help rip off a pretend marijuana operation and to haul loads of pretend heroin in his police cruiser. Ramos was delighted. “I could drive a dead body in the trunk of my car where I want and no one would stop me,” he bragged.

     There was a reason why IA spent so much time and money. Soon after opening the drug case detectives overheard Ramos talk on the phone about fixing traffic tickets.  They discovered that the Bronx branch of the patrol officers’ union was running a massive, long-standing scheme to fix tickets issued to officers’ families and friends.   Upon request, union rep’s (Ramos was one for two years) tracked down and destroyed citations before they hit the courts and the motor vehicle bureau.

     It was an unpaid service. It was also audacious and completely illegal.  Each instance of a fixed ticket entangled violators, requesting officers, union go-betweens and the officers who actually destroyed the paperwork in a host of crimes that deprived the city of revenue and potentially imperiled public safety.

     In 2011 a grand jury reviewed a sample 800 episodes of ticket fixing, representing thousands of criminal violations and financial losses of up to $2 million.  Jurors may have thought that they were working in secret, but investigators knew that details of the case had been leaked to union officials by one of their colleagues more than a year earlier.

     The long-awaited indictment was unsealed last week. Two Sergeants and twelve officers stood accused of destroying 300 citations. Each was charged with multiple counts of official misconduct, obstruction, conspiracy, criminal solicitation and grand larceny.  In addition, a well-regarded former Internal Affairs lieutenant was accused of leaking information about the inquiry. All were released except Ramos, who was charged with multiple drug counts and held on $500,000 bail.

     Dozens of officers with lesser involvement received departmental discipline.  Some were forced to retire. Others got immunity in exchange for promising to testify against those indicted.  One tried to commit suicide.

     The blame game is well underway.  It’s not just about fixing tickets. A spate of recent messes including the conviction of an officer who planted drug evidence and the arrest of eight cops for smuggling guns into New York (they fell prey to an FBI sting) suggests that some of the city’s “finest” have fallen well short of that ideal. Internal Affairs has taken the brunt of the criticism.  Some question whether it’s professionally up to the task.  Others say that it’s too small to be effective or so procedurally hidebound that its investigators have no opportunity to be proactive.

     Criticisms have also been voiced about the lack of external oversight.  The one agency charged with that function, “The Mayor’s Commission to Combat Police Corruption,” has a small staff and limited authority.  Alarmed by the turn of events, politicians in Albany recently demanded that Mayor Bloomberg either convene a special panel to investigate the NYPD or the state would do it for him. But so far Hizzoner (speaking through a rep) has said “no.”

    We’ll put the integrity of the N.Y.P.D. up against that of any police force in the world.  But for the rare instances they are needed, we already have five district attorneys, two U.S. attorneys and the Civilian Complaint Review Board in New York City, plus an extremely aggressive Internal Affairs Bureau.  There is absolutely no need to creating another layer of government here.

     There are other concerns. NYPD’s low entry salary is said to discourage better-qualified applicants. Excluding allowances and overtime, an academy recruit earns $41,975.  After 1½ years the base increases to only $43,644,  nearly $20,000 less than what LAPD officers earn at that point in their careers.  (After five years the gaps narrow considerably.) Still, it’s a big jump to conclude that lousy starting pay makes Gotham’s warriors more likely to stray.  Thanks to the financial meltdown NYPD has enjoyed a surge of well-educated applicants.  Between 1999 and 2009 the proportion of officers with 4-year degree jumped from 17 to 24 percent.  It’s now commonplace for recruits to have baccalaureates.  New York City’s cops may be fewer in number, but in terms of formal education they’re getting smarter.

     What else can explain the department’s perceived moral decline? For a clue we return to the example of the drug-planting cop. At his trial an officer who pled guilty to like charges testified that the practice, known as “flaking,” was how some kept their numbers up.  “As a detective, you still have a number to reach while you are in the narcotics division...Tavarez [the officer he was trying to help] was worried about getting sent back [to patrol] and, you know, the supervisors getting on his case.”  And yes, there was a ready neutralizer. “It’s almost like you have no emotion with it...they’re going to be out of jail tomorrow anyway; nothing is going to happen to them anyway."

Click here for the complete collection of conduct and ethics essays

     Of course, there will always be rogues. Absent a resistant culture they can and will contaminate others. That’s not just a theory. “It’s a Courtesy, Not a Crime” read a sign held up by one of the 350 police union members who turned out to support the Bronx ticket-fixers when they were arraigned. Their president’s speech drew wild applause. “Taking care of your family,” he intoned, pausing for dramatic effect. “Taking care of your friends.  Taking care of those who support New York City police officers and law enforcement..is...not...a...crime.”

     Right.  So let’s “take care” of everyone!

     In “The Crime Numbers Game” criminal justice professors John Eterno and Eli B. Silverman assert that NYPD’s vaunted Compstat program created a culture of deception in which beleaguered superiors routinely downgraded crimes to create an illusion of effectiveness. They later expanded their argument to encompass ticket-fixing, laying blame on a management culture so obsessed with productivity that it ignored quality.

     There were clear signs of trouble as early as 2005. That’s when the then-chairman of the Mayor’s police corruption panel resigned in protest of its toothlessness. One of his concerns was that crimes were routinely downgraded in severity to make the police look good. He was brushed off by NYPD officials.  They insisted that fudging stat’s (something to which they didn’t admit) wasn’t really corruption, thus none of the panel’s business.

     Five years later, in February 2010, the New York Times reported the results of a survey by professors Eterno and Silverman.   Of nearly 500 NYPD officers who retired at the rank of captain and above, more than one-hundred reported that statistics had been manipulated so that New York City would compare favorably with other areas.

     Natch, police officials said that the professors got it wrong.  Three months later the Village Voice ran the first in a series of investigative pieces about the NYPD. Drawing heavily from tapes secretly recorded by a whistle-blowing cop in Brooklyn, it concluded that officers were under pressure to record a lot of activity while reporting as little crime as possible:

    [The tapes] reveal that precinct bosses threaten street cops if they don’t make their quotas of arrests and stop-and-frisks, but also tell them not to take certain robbery reports in order to manipulate crime statistics. The tapes also refer to command officers calling crime victims directly to intimidate them about their complaints. As a result, the tapes show, the rank-and-file NYPD street cop experiences enormous pressure in a strange catch-22: He or she is expected to maintain high “activity” – including stop-and-frisks – but, paradoxically, to record fewer actual crimes.

     Then another whistle-blower surfaced, this time in the Bronx.  He too had tapes. They confirmed that officers were being pressured in countervailing directions.  On the one hand they had to make lots of “chickenshit” arrests, tickets and stop-and-frisks. On the other they had to avoid taking crime reports or downgrade what was passed on. “It happened all the time. The reason was CompStat. They [supervisors] know what they are going to be asked for in CompStat, and they have to have a lower number – but not too low.”

     This time NYPD couldn’t deny everything – after all, there were tapes of roll calls and such. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly ordered an investigation.  Five heads promptly rolled in Brooklyn, including a Commander’s. But that wasn’t the end of it. Only three weeks later two memos from Brooklyn’s 77th. precinct landed on the pages of the Daily News:  “For the week of 10/18-10/24 we need 25 double-parkers, 15 bus stops, 50 seat belts, 75 cell phones...Thank you.”

     In January 2011 Commissioner Kelly anointed three former prosecutors to investigate the integrity of NYPD’s crime statistics.  Questions were promptly raised about how the panel would work.  As we await its findings the department’s controversial stop and frisk policy, on which we’ve extensively reported, has come under renewed criticism.  Three weeks ago a Federal grand jury returned a civil rights indictment against a Brooklyn cop who stopped a black man and allegedly arrested him without cause.

     Making tickets disappear, planting evidence, needlessly stopping people and downgrading crimes strip policing of all meaning. How could officers be so base and self-serving?  How could they so thoroughly devalue their work?  While it’s not the only reason, NYPD’s preoccupation with numbers must rank near the top. Instead of promoting a passion for excellence – the “quality” orientation that professors Eterno and Silverman mention, and which your blogger has long championed – managers substituted measures for goals.  Compstat helped transform the exercise of coercive power, a tinderbox in any democracy,  into an elaborate insider’s game. It’s no surprise that some officers turned into moral entrepreneurs.

     NYPD has plenty of smart, highly skilled cops.  All they require is an opportunity to practice their craft at the level it deserves.  If only their superiors would let them.

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RELATED ARTICLES AND REPORTS

New York Magazine Series on NYPD problems     New York Times homepage on ticket-fixing scandal

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Posted 7/8/11

RUSH TO JUDGMENT

Did cops and prosecutors in L.A. and New York act too hastily? And if so, why?

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  By all measures, Giovanni Ramirez is not a nice guy. Sporting a tattoo-encrusted neck and a con’s teardrop under his left eye, the 25-year old parolee has amassed convictions for attempted robbery, robbery and discharging a firearm. But hard as he tried, until recently he’s been known only to his homies, his victims and the cops.

     No longer.  Giovanni’s finally hit the big time.

     On March 31 two men savagely beat San Francisco Giants fan Bryan Stow after the season opener at Dodger Stadium.  The episode captured the nation’s attention. During the nearly two months that passed without an arrest, a constant stream of media coverage built public outrage to fever pitch.  Then one day a parole agent approached detectives, who had incidentally just cleared another parolee as a suspect in Stow’s beating.  Ramirez, the agent pointed out, closely resembled an artist sketch of one of the assailants. What’s more, he had recently tried to alter some tattoos.  Surveillance quickly confirmed that Ramirez had changed residences without giving notice.  Was he trying to avoid notice?  Was he lying low? Officers learned that Ramirez’s ex-girlfriend was at the game. According to witnesses, one of the suspects left in a car driven by a woman.  Could she have been the getaway driver?

     Within a week LAPD  served search warrants and arrested Ramirez, not on a prosecutor’s signed complaint but on probable cause.  At least one eyewitness reportedly identified him from a photo lineup.  But the D.A. declined to file charges. There was no other proof of Ramirez’s guilt or presence at the game, and friends and family members swore that he had been at home.

     Even after Chief Charlie Beck proclaimed that LAPD “absolutely” had the right man the D.A. did nothing.  Actually, there’s no rush. Detectives found a gun hidden in the apartment where Ramirez was staying, so he’s now locked up, doing ten months for parole violation.  That delay should help the fabled Robbery-Homicide Division, which took over the investigation, put together a case that will earn the D.A.’s approval.

     Or not. Additional evidence has surfaced in Ramirez’s favor. A video taken during the game depicts a bulky Dodgers fan (not Ramirez) confronting the beating victim.  It seems that Bryan Stow had been loudly profaning the home team, going so far as to compare Dodger (hot) dogs to excrement. At some point he realized that he was courting trouble and text-messaged friends about feeling unsafe.  Police reportedly interviewed the big guy who accosted Stow and eliminated him as a suspect. How many other suspects Stow’s loutish behavior may have generated is anyone’s guess.


     May 14 was shaping up to be just another globe-trotting day for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the patrician, white-haired 62-year old chief of the International Monetary Fund.  Married to a wealthy woman with whom he shares a $4 million Georgetown home (they also own fabulous residences in France and Morocco), the man who many assumed would be France’s next president was in a plane about to depart for Paris when two NYPD detectives boarded the aircraft and bid him to follow.

     Within hours Strauss-Kahn stood charged with sexually assaulting the maid who had cleaned his hotel suite hours earlier. As related in a long string of articles in the New York Times, there is little doubt that a sexual encounter took place. Strauss-Kahn’s ejaculate was reportedly found on the maid’s clothes and in the room, and his lawyers have not denied that their client and the maid had sex. But they insist that if anything happened it was consensual. Fiddlesticks, says the maid, whose name is yet to be released. She  told police that when she entered the suite Strauss-Kahn emerged from the bathroom in his birthday suit, tried to rape her, then forced her to perform oral sex.

     Oddly, officers didn’t question Strauss-Kahn for hours. Once they began he told them that he would have spoken earlier, but that his lawyer cautioned him to say nothing.

     After spending five days in jail Strauss-Kahn was indicted by a Manhattan Grand Jury for sexual abuse, attempted rape and forced oral copulation, charges that carry up to twenty-five years in prison. He was released under conditions that he wear an ankle bracelet and remain inside an apartment under watch by security guards (they’re on his dime.)

     Strauss-Kahn resigned from the IMF. His candidacy for France’s top post went on the back-back burner.  His alleged crime and checkered sexual past – on hearing of the arrest, a French writer said he tried to rape her years earlier – led to a fierce media campaign to bring down the uppity Frenchman. It started with a fawning New York Times piece portraying the maid, a Guinean immigrant, as “an unassuming and hard-working single mother” who was trying to make a better life for herself and her teenage daughter.

     How she was going about it has become the big question. A tip from an Arizona jail, apparently from an inmate, revealed that on the day following the alleged assault the maid had spoken by phone with a prisoner facing charges for trafficking 400 pounds of marijuana. During the conversation, which was conducted in an unusual African dialect and recorded as a matter of routine, the maid allegedly said, “Don’t worry, this guy has a lot of money. I know what I’m doing.” 

     D.A. investigators determined that she placed the call using a cell phone whose existence had been kept secret.  Scrambling to learn more about their star witness, they discovered that she was quite the liar.  Key facts in her asylum application were untrue, including alleged beatings by soldiers, her husband’s jailhouse death and a gang rape.  She had withheld her true income from public housing authorities.  A child listed as a dependent on her tax return wasn’t hers.  And for the real shocker, she held bank accounts in several states through which tens of thousands of dollars had flowed.

     None of these “oversights” directly relate to the assault.  But lying about hiding in a hallway does. When confronted the maid admitted that, as hotel key card records prove, she resumed her cleaning rounds right after the encounter.  And at last notice things have gotten even curioser. A lawyer she assumedly hired to pursue a civil case against Strauss-Kahn just filed a libel suit against the New York Post on her behalf.  Why?  Because the notorious tabloid accused her of being a prostitute, and even of turning tricks while being sequestered by the D.A.

     As for Strauss-Khan, he’s out on his own recognizance, sans passport and facing uncertain futures in the U.S. and in his homeland, where authorities have opened an inquiry into the female writer’s allegations. It’s enough to drive a Frenchman sober.


     The Dodger Stadium beating and, on the opposite coast, the arrest of Strauss-Kahn quickly morphed into good old-fashioned American media circuses, creating enormous pressures on police and prosecutors. Although it’s well known that going on appearance is exceedingly chancy, that’s how Ramirez was targeted. (Considering the number of gang members who are bald and have neck tattoos, the chances of randomly finding several who otherwise resemble the suspect must be close to one-hundred percent.) Of course, as an ex-con without two nickels to rub together Ramirez would be ill-equipped to do battle with determined prosecutors.  If nothing else he would certainly be impeached over his criminal record should he choose to face a jury.

Click here for the complete collection of conduct and ethics essays

     As we pointed out, L.A. prosecutors have yet to file charges.  Thanks to the arrest, though, the investigation faces a serious dilemma. If a case can’t be made against Ramirez, forget about picking on someone else. Unless they confess or something drops from the sky, all a defense lawyer needs argue is that police had it right the first time: it really was Ramirez all along.

     Let’s move on to Strauss-Kahn.  Yes, he and the maid apparently had a sexual encounter. But was it forced? Unlike their counterparts in Los Angeles, who held their fire pending further investigation, the eager-beaver New York prosecutors must live with an indictment that’s based in part on proven untruths.  Really, there’s only one thing about the case that we know for sure.  Had the phone call between the maid and the jailbird gone undiscovered, there’s little doubt that the train of American justice would have long left the station, with the maid riding first-class and Strauss-Kahn in the caboose.  Considering the circumstances, even a rich, innocent guy might not have been able to get out of that fix.

     Decisions to arrest and charge should be made dispassionately and with great care.  Ramirez and Strauss-Kahn are  examples of the mischief that can befall the system when cops and prosecutors allow a hang ‘em high atmosphere to distract them from doing a quality job.  If Giovanni Ramirez and Dominique Strauss-Kahn are guilty, let’s prove it fair and square.  And if we can’t and must let them go, remember that’s a victory, too.

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Rush to Judgment (Part II)     Your Lying Eyes     It’s Good to be Rich


Posted 5/16/11

MELTDOWN IN SOCAL

When thinking “troubled police,” Southern California doesn’t usually come to mind.
Well, think again.

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Daniel Dana was a San Diego cop.  Married, with a kid on the way, the former Marine had been enforcing the law in one of Southern California’s favorite tourist destinations for four years. Just a few days ago his career hit a brick wall. Dana, 26, is now facing charges of extorting sex from a prostitute who complained that he had  been relentlessly text-messaging threats to arrest her unless she submitted to his demands. What these were became clear at his arraignment two days ago, when he pled not guilty to felonies including rape and oral copulation under color of authority.  Dana is being held on $300,000 bail.  A police spokesman says that other women have come forward with similar tales.

     Officer Dana (actually, ex-officer, as he has reportedly resigned) isn’t the only San Diego cop to find himself on the wrong side of the law. One week earlier officer William Johnson, a 12-year veteran, was arrested for DUI after being involved in a minor traffic accident in a nearby city. But the worst of it happened in March. That month brought the arrest of three veteran San Diego officers: Roel Tungcab, 39, for domestic violence; Sergeant Kenneth H. Davis, 47, for stalking and harassing a female officer with whom he once had an affair; and in the most serious case, officer Anthony Arevalos, for pulling over and sexually assaulting female drivers who were leaving a nightclub district. One victim complained, and during a telephone call that investigators recorded Arevalos reportedly admitted his crime.  More complaints have surfaced; Arevalos has been fired and awaits trial on eighteen felony counts.

     And there’s more. In February a 19-year old college student told El Cajon police that she was raped by San Diego vice detective Arthur A. Perea.  Perea, 42 was placed on unpaid leave and resigned the following month.  Also in February off-duty San Diego motorcycle cop David C. Hall, 41 allegedly left the scene of a traffic accident. An alcohol test reportedly revealed that he was three times the legal limit [see 8/1/11 update].


     “You know you disrespected us by talking like that.”  That was all the warning that Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Vasquez supposedly got before six deputies jumped him and a colleague at a Christmas party last year. What was the reason? According to Vasquez’s Federal lawsuit the six were members of “The 3,000 Boys,” a gang-like clique of deputies who worked on the third floor of the Men’s Central Jail, which houses many hardened offenders.  They were apparently incensed by Vasquez’s complaint about their inefficiency and used their fists to let him know it.

     Vasquez was lucky to come out of it with only a few bruises.  According to a KTLA investigative series the six deputies had taken on the trappings of a street gang and were mimicking the appearance and behavior of the thugs they watched. Three are defendants in a lawsuit filed by an inmate who complained that he was severely beaten and arrested after complaining about jail conditions.  (Charges against him were later dismissed.) Asked about the clique’s tattoos (members sport the number “3,000” on the back of their necks) and use of a hand sign, Michael Gennaco, head of a county agency that investigates seriousmisconduct within the Sheriff’s department, said “I think it suggests that a group of individuals within the jail...have lost their way.” The department has moved to fire the deputies, who have been suspended without pay.


     It’s been nearly two years since a Federal judge released the LAPD, Southern California’s largest law enforcement agency, from a decade of monitoring imposed by DOJ in connection with the Rampart scandal.  Since then the department has caught considerable flack over a string of controversial shootings (for recent examples click here, here and here.) But according to a recent Los Angeles Times analysis, the LAPD’s problems haven’t only been with citizens.  Over the past decade lawsuits filed by LAPD officers against their superiors, alleging sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation, have made millionaires out of a stunning seventeen cops.  Dozens more have won or settled like cases against the city for amounts in the five and six figures.

     Litigation and misconduct have also beset nearby agencies.  The L.A. suburb of Glendale (pop. 191,000) just fired three officers for taking a police car to Las Vegas (there may be more to it, but the department’s not saying.)  Several Glendale cops are also under investigation for conduct ranging from an off-duty road rage incident to sexual solicitation.  Meanwhile, taking a cue from their LAPD brethren, a number of cops in Glendale and a neighboring city, Burbank, have sued their agencies for discrimination and shabby treatment.


     What’s to be done? San Diego chief William Lansdowne says his department will increase the number of internal investigators, create a hotline to take citizen complaints and make better use of a system that alerts superiors about problem officers.  While Mayor Jerry Sanders, the city’s former police chief, welcomes the improvements, he has brushed off the scandal to a few bad apples. “I’m concerned,” he said, “about the fact that we have so many officers out there that work so hard and do such a great job, and then they get tarred by a few of these guys who are absolute jerks.”

     Chief Lansdowne, Mayor Sanders and other city leaders insist that the troubles of “America’s Finest” (SDPD’s motto, displayed on patrol cars in bold print) amount to nothing more than a series of isolated events.  Tony Young, the president and sole African-American member of the city council gushes that cops and minorities get along famously. Despite what’s happened he calls SDPD “one of the finest police departments, if not the finest, in the country.” Even the normally skeptical Los Angeles Times has apparently bought the line that SDPD’s problems don’t reflect a systemic failure: “There are no accusations involving racial or ethnic bias; there is no evidence of a cover-up among police officials; the allegations do not seem to point to one particular station house or division.”

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     Yet there are things to worry about beyond biased policing. As for the department’s supposedly brisk and forthright response, the cases that came to light did so because victims complained.  What’s more, several of the incidents occurred in other cities, so the decisions to arrest had not been San Diego’s to make.

     When a bunch of officers get caught up in serious offending – the present count stands at ten, including a couple of episodes of excessive force – there’s reason to suspect that something’s rotten in Denmark.  Pressed to explain why so many cops got in trouble in such a brief period, Mayor Sanders fell back on the economy. “You know, there are stresses right now. There are stresses for city employees, but I think especially the police officers.”

     Conflating financial problems and sexual assault is ridiculous. Sheriff Lee Baca’s explanation that the scandal at the L.A. County Jail was caused by a “locker room mentality” is equally lame. Despite past problems with deputy cliques he refuses to acknowledge what is clearly an appalling failure of supervision.  “I don’t think it’s the environment of the jail that’s a problem,” he said.  “It’s a failure to follow the department’s core values.”

   Gennaco, the county’s external investigator, is far more candid (naturally, he doesn’t need to run for reelection.)  He sharply faults a past lowering of entry standards to fill vacancies. “You end up hiring some deputies you wouldn’t ordinarily hire. Folks had been disqualified or not hired by the LAPD or other agencies got jobs...because they just needed bodies.”  (Click here and here for related posts.)

     In the end it all comes back to selection and oversight.  Much of the misconduct reported in San Diego and Los Angeles literally screams personal character.  Poor screening may have allowed individuals who lacked integrity to join the force.  Once they got in an absence of guidance and supervision let them get and stay on the wrong track. Placing immature, impressionable rookies in the jails for up to five years is bad enough; not watching them closely is unforgivable.  How could sworn law enforcement officers run around sporting gangster-like tattoos without challenge? Where were their managers? And most importantly, why didn’t someone in authority ask that most basic of questions:

     “Why?”

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ACLU 2011 review of L.A. County Jail     ACLU report of abuses by L.A. County Jail deputies

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Posted 4/3/11

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR

Seattle PD chief welcomes DOJ investigation, calls it a “free audit”

   By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  In the early morning hours of April 17, 2010, Seattle police responded to a robbery call at a nightclub parking lot. The victim, who was unharmed, told officers that he gave four men $40 after they threatened him with a machete.  Officers located and proned out three suspects about a half-mile away.  What they may not have realized is that a freelance videographer was taping the encounter.  Gang detective Shandy Cobane is overheard yelling, “I'm going to beat the [expletive] Mexican piss out of you, homey. You feel me?” One of the men moved slightly, apparently prompting Cobane to kick him in the head (at :26.)  A patrol officer then moved in (at :38) and forcefully planted his shoe on the man’s neck.

     Once the video was out – and how it got out is a story in itself – Detective Cobane, a 17-year veteran, weepily apologized for his “offensive and unprofessional” comments.  “I know my words cut deep and were very hurtful.  I am truly, truly sorry.” Fortunately for him and the patrol officer, county and city prosecutors decided that neither the kick nor the foot planting merited prosecution.  Two facts undoubtedly weighed on their decision:  one of the kickee’s companions was one of the robbers, and that while the kickee didn’t participate in the robbery he was present when it occurred.

     In December, once the legal opinions were in, Seattle police chief John Diaz announced that he was opening an internal investigation:  “The use of any slurs based upon race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation and other gratuitous, unnecessary, unprofessional language by employees of the Seattle Police Department are not tolerated and are against department policy.”  By then FBI agents were already on the case.  In response to complaints by activists that police were targeting minorities for rough treatment, the Department of Justice opened a preliminary investigation. True enough, both officers who used force were white, while their victim was Hispanic.   (Interestingly, two cops on scene also happened to be Hispanic.  Neither used force or, as far as is known, complained about their colleagues’ actions.)


     Two months later, on June 14, a punch (temporarily) landed a Seattle cop in hot water.  And yes, there was  a video. Taken by a bystander, it depicts a cop struggling with a husky teen who tried to walk away from a jaywalking ticket. While they dance around a male youth tries his best to restrain a beefy young woman from interfering.  Alas, he loses his grasp and she aggressively steps in to rescue her friend.  That leaves the flummoxed cop little option but to either shoot her (gratefully, he doesn’t) or punch her in the face (he does.)

   As we reported in “Dancing With Hooligans,” both women turned out to have assaultive histories and the cop was quickly cleared. (Heck, he should have probably gotten a medal for restraint.)  But the video weighed in like five pounds of liverwurst.  Some things really can’t be explained to everyone’s satisfaction. Many citizens were inflamed and Seattle’s finest got another black eye.


     Then on August 30 came the stunning tragedy that we described in “Sometimes a Drunk With a Knife is Just That.” John Williams, an Indian woodcarver, was walking around downtown Seattle.  As usual, he had been drinking. In one hand he held a folding knife with a three-inch blade; in the other he carried a wooden board to be fashioned into one of the knick-knacks that he sold to a gift shop.  Exactly what happened when he was confronted we can’t say – the cop insists that Williams advanced on him and wouldn’t put down the knife – but within moments the artisan whom some knew as a mean drunk lay dead with four bullet wounds to the chest.

     Among minorities anti-police sentiment rose to fever pitch. Mayor Mike McGinn and Chief Diaz quickly held a community meeting and promised that practices would change.  A new Deputy Chief was appointed to watch over community relations. There was also talk about giving more cops Tasers, as the officer who shot Williams had nothing other than a gun.  Then a police board of inquiry ruled the shooting unjustified and the officer resigned.  (Prosecutors decided not to charge him with a crime.)


     Two months later, on October 18, four men posing as drug sellers tried to rip off an undercover Seattle cop.  One struck the officer in the face.  A second undercover officer identified himself and pulled a gun, leading the suspects to scatter. One, a 17-year old black male, was chased into a convenience store by a plainclothes cop. A security camera recorded the encounter.  It depicts the suspect as he turns towards the officer and raises his hands.  But the cop – he’s holding a pistol in his left hand – rushes the youth and violently kicks him, sending him to the ground. The officer keeps on kicking until a uniformed cop runs in and physically pulls him away.

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     After watching the video, Seattle PD Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer questioned the need for so much force.  The officer was placed on administrative leave.  His actions were promptly defended by the police union president, who said that the suspect had refused to get on the ground (the tape lacks audio.) Naturally, the ACLU didn’t see it that way.  Citing this episode and others, it formally requested that the Department of Justice open “a pattern or practice investigation into multiple incidents of excessive force by the Seattle Police Department (SPD), particularly force used against persons of color.”


     Federal law authorizes the Department of Justice to file civil lawsuits in cases where a law enforcement agency has engaged “in a pattern or practice of conduct...that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.” These matters are investigated by lawyers in the Special Litigations Section of the Civil Rights Division. At the end they prepare a letter setting out their findings and recommending improvements in areas such as training, supervision, discipline and the investigation of citizen complaints.  Such letters have been issued to twenty police departments since 1997. Agencies are given time to take corrective action, which is then evaluated.  If the response is inadequate or violations are very serious DOJ may demand that departments join in a consent decree and remain under supervision of a court-appointed monitor until all deficiencies are satisfactorily resolved (click here for links to past settlements.) Should an agency refuse, civil complaints can be filed in Federal court and set for trial.  (For past and current lawsuits click here.)

     Three days ago, on March 31, DOJ announced that it was opening a “patterns and practices” investigation of the Seattle Police Department and, as well, a separate inquiry into the shooting death of John Williams. Naturally, the ACLU was overjoyed.  Unexpectedly, even the cops seemed pleased. Chief Diaz went so far as to characterize the investigation, which he said was fully expected, as a “free audit from the Department of Justice.” He insisted that Seattle PD had nothing to hide and pledged its full cooperation:

    Our goal with this investigation ... is simple: to ensure that the community has an effective, accountable police department that controls crimes, ensures respect for the Constitution and earns the trust of the public it is charged with protecting.

     Even the head of the police union sounded bubbly. “In a way, I’m looking forward to this.  There’s no doubt in my mind they will not uncover any systemic problems...They may come up with suggestions in ways we could do better in both areas.  Great.”

     Chief Diaz and the union are spinning it the best they can. Instead of conceding that Seattle PD is in serious trouble, their public comments (dare we guess what they might be saying in private) suggest that the Federal slap-down of what was once considered the premier law enforcement agency in the Pacific northwest is nothing to worry about.

     But it is.  One can imagine the inquiry’s effect on morale. In a more practical sense, it’s a blot that could make it difficult for Seattle’s up-and-coming to take on command positions in other agencies.  Within the department the administrative burden of being under a civil rights investigation is overwhelming; assuming that Seattle isn’t completely absolved, once the findings are out it will only get worse. If nothing else, the imbroglio is sure to give citizens who are suing or intending to sue the police – and that includes everyone mentioned above, or in the case of John Williams, his estate – a bucketful of legal ammunition.

     Really, no department in its right mind wants to be in the Federal bull’s-eye.  Chief Diaz and his union friend will soon discover why.

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Posted 1/4/11

ABSOLUTE POWER CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY

Hours before leaving office, Schwarzenegger commutes the sentence of a friend’s son

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  “This is wrong, that’s why they did it on the last day, so they wouldn’t have to answer to anybody...He [Esteban Nunez] had all the big political guns coming out in his defense...We’re just regular people. Is this what justice is all about?” So said Fred Santos, father of Luis Santos, a 22-year old college student stabbed to death in a late-night brawl at San Diego State University two years ago. Two Sacramento men, Ryan Jett, 24, and Esteban Nunez, 21, son of then-Assembly speaker Fabian Nunez, were arrested for murder.  Both eventually pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and received 16-year prison terms.

     On December 31, 2010, during his last hours in office, California Governor Schwarzenegger commuted Esteban Nunez’s sentence to seven years. Schwarzenegger, who is known to be close to Nunez’s father, called the original term excessive because it was Jett, Not Nunez who plunged the knife into Luis Santos’ heart.  Speaking through a press flack, the Governor announced that he would not comment on the matter, thus leaving two key questions unanswered: Would he have accorded the same mercy to the son of a “regular” person?  And why didn’t he forewarn the victim’s family, which had to learn of his decision from reporters?

     The L.A. Weekly, an alternative newspaper that occasionally runs investigative pieces has tracked the case from its inception (click here and here.) According to its reporting, the tragedy unfolded on October 4, 2008 when four young men drove to San Diego to visit friends. Three were members of Sacramento’s upper crust: Esteban Nunez, Ryan Jett, Nunez’s friend from private school, and Rafael Garcia, the son of a well-to-do judge.  They were accompanied by Leshanor Thomas, Nunez’s former college roommate.

     After several hours of drinking and smoking pot the four tried to crash a party at a campus frat house. Refused entry because they weren’t “Greeks” they skulked off to a friend’s apartment to drink some more and plot revenge.  Their alcohol and drug-fueled rant about torching the frat house, which a witness overheard, was probably just talk, not so different from Facebook postings in which Nunez, Jett and Garcia bragged about their “Hazard Crew” and its “gangsta” ways.

     Four angry and armed drunks – Nunez and Jett were by now packing knives – went looking for trouble. They soon found it.  Although what happened is in some dispute, they got into a fight with five inebriated students – Luis Santos, Brandon Scheerer, Keith Robertson, Jason Fiori and Evan Henderson. Only difference was, they weren’t armed. Within moments three were gravely wounded. Santos lay on the ground dying from a slashed heart. Robertson and Henderson had also been stabbed, Robertson in the shoulder and Henderson in the stomach, a wound that required emergency surgery to keep him from bleeding to death.

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     Santos’ wound was reportedly inflicted by Jett. Esteban Nunez later admitted in court that he stabbed the two others.

     The “Hazard Crew” didn’t stick around to render aid.  Its first act was to flee.  Its second, to come up with an alibi (Nunez told the others that his father would “fix” things.)  Its third, to burn bloody clothing and dump Jett’s knife. Alerted by witnesses, San Diego cops were soon hot on the group’s trail. Garcia and Thomas admitted their involvement and pointed fingers at Jett and Nunez.

     In his commutation message Schwarzenegger criticized Nunez’s sentence for being the same as Jett’s.  Although he conceded that Nunez stabbed Robertson and Henderson, the Governor downplayed the youth’s culpability in Santos’ death. He also pointed out that Nunez had a clean background, while Jett had a lengthy arrest record and a felony conviction.

     In California the crime of voluntary manslaughter, to which Jett and Nunez pled guilty, is punishable by imprisonment for either three, six or eleven years (P.C. 193). Both defendants got the maximum – eleven years – plus one year for using a weapon. They also pled guilty to assaulting and gravely wounding Robertson and Henderson, drawing one year for each assault and one year for the use of a weapon, a total of four years. Schwarzenegger commuted Nunez’s sentence to the three-year minimum for voluntary manslaughter.  Adding in four years for the two surviving victims brought his new term to seven years, less than half that given Santos.

     As mutual aiders and abettors, Nunez and Jett pled guilty to the same crimes. But did Nunez’s less accurate use of a knife make him less culpable?  The judge didn’t think so.  Perhaps he was swayed by aspects that Schwarzenegger neglected to mention.  Shortly after the killing, Nunez text-messaged Garcia, “Gangsta rap made us do it. LOL.”  (LOL stands for “Laughing Out Loud.”) When Nunez learned that Thomas was talking he posted threatening rap lyrics on Facebook.  He also sent Thomas messages essentially telling him “to keep his mouth shut.”  (For other revealing tidbits about Nunez check out the stories in the L.A. Weekly.)

     In California executive clemency is regulated by Penal Code sections 4800-14814.  These authorize the Governor to require that judges and prosecutors supply information about a case and make recommendations as to clemency. Governors can also order in-depth investigations by state agents.  (For a full description of the process click here.) Similar procedures are in use by every State and the Federal government. The reasons are obvious: to protect public safety, and to avoid claims of bias.

     Schwarzenegger knew that his decision about Nunez presented a clear conflict between the duties of his office and the interests of a close and highly influential friend.  Ethical rules require that judges and others who face such conundrums recuse themselves and leave decision-making to others.  When that’s impossible – after all, only the Governor can commute – the only alternative is to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation, then vet the decision with experts who have no personal stake in the outcome.

     Whether in this case Schwarzenegger availed himself of all available resources, and if so to what extent, is impossible to say.  Considering his association with Nunez’s father he obviously should have used every fact-finding tool at his disposal.  But the timing of his announcement, coming only hours before leaving office, and his inexplicable (some might say, inexcusable) failure to give advance notice to the victim’s survivors suggests that the outcome was predetermined.

     Article 5, Section 8 of the California Constitution gives the Governor the absolute power to pardon and commute. There is no question that Schwarzenegger had the authority to give Nunez a break.  But was his motive legitimate or corrupt? Until he steps forward to resolve any lingering doubts, we must assume it’s the latter.

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