LAPD Scandal Sparks Case Reviews

ByBryan Robinson

Aug. 10, 2000 -- From 20,000 to 30,000 legal cases will have to be reviewed because of the continuing investigation into corruption in part of the Los Angeles Police Department, the city’s public defenders’ office said today.

“We believe we have a legal and ethical obligation to review these cases,” said Assistant Public Defender Robert Kalunian. “Now that doesn’t mean we’ll take action on all the cases. But we feel we have to at least review the cases as the investigation continues to grow.”

Currently, as many as 70 current and former police officers are under investigation by state and federal agencies for allegedly beating, robbing and framing innocent people.

The probe into corruption allegations against the Rampart division’s anti-gang unit began last year when undercover officer Rafael Perez was convicted of stealing cocaine from a police evidence locker. In exchange for a five-year sentence, he identified dozens of fellow officers he claimed abused their power, framed and robbed drug suspects and protected each other by maintaining a code of silence between 1995 and 1998.

Since the Rampart investigation began, nearly 100 convictions have been overturned, 30 officers have either been suspended or fired, and the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office believes 250 and 275 lawsuits will be filed in federal court on behalf of the alleged victims of Rampart’s anti-gang unit.

Wide-Ranging Review

Kalunian believes the scandal may go back before 1995 — perhaps 10 years or more. He said the scope of their investigation will depend on the individual officer, the nature and number of the suspicious arrests, and the time elapsed since the suspicious arrests. For example, the public defender said, if investigators suspect wrongdoing in a 10 year-old arrest, they may go back as far as 15 years in the officer’s arrest record.

The case reviews may not be limited to only Rampart police officers.

“We believe that the situation may not be confined to the Rampart division,” said Kalunian. “The cases may not occur with as much frequency and may not be as widespread, but we don’t think they’re limited to Rampart.”

The Los Angeles Public Defender’s Office has 20 full-time lawyers working on potential corruption cases, which will cost tax payers an estimated $4.5 million a year. Kalunian could not estimate how long the case reviews would take, only conceding that the investigation will take “several years to complete.”

Trying to Restore FaithKalunian says the case reviews are intended to accomplish two things: obtain justice for his clients and ultimately restore the community’s faith in the police department.

“Our goal here is to undo the wrongs done to our clients, that’s our most important issue,” he said. “Obviously, it will take a lot more than that to restore the public’s faith in the department, but that will only come with time.”

According Kalunian, a variety factors led to the Rampart scandal. New limits on motions to suppress evidence, he indicated, have increased the likelihood that jurors will hear about evidence allegedly planted by officers. In addition, Kalunian noted that California juries are instructed that they can consider the demeanor of the witnesses when deliberating and that, he said, only benefits police officers.

“They’re professional witnesses; that’s what they’re trained to do,” Kalunian said. “In most of these cases, it’s one person’s word against the police officer’s word. The police officer is calm, cool and collected and neat-looking while the person [arrested] is most likely nervous. What it comes down to is that we always want to believe police officers and jurors are no different.”

The first trial stemming from the Rampart scandal is scheduled to begin next month. That case involves four officers — Sgts. Edward Ortiz and Brian Liddy and officers Paul Harper and Michael Buchanan — who are charged with conspiring to frame reputed gang members. All are suspended from the force without pay. Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation of the department continues.

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