“Code of Silence” raised by Dorner

“Code of Silence” raised by Dorner

Los Angeles Daily Journal LogoFebruary 12, 2013 | By Gregory Yates

It should go without saying that no civilized person can condone the actions of former Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner — the killing and wounding of police and civilians and the resulting terror throughout the Los Angeles area. Yet, despite this terrible and ongoing tragedy, there is a historic opportunity here.

Dorner claims he wants vengeance for being fired by the LAPD in 2009. In his online manifesto, Dorner charges that he made truthful allegations of excessive force against the sergeant who was training him which were wrongly labeled as “unfounded” upon investigation by Internal Affairs. That led, he claims, to trumped-up charges of making a false accusation and to his termination in a departmental Board of rights proceeding. His attempt to have the decision overturned by a superior court failed.

In the interests of proving to the community that the bad old LAPD is dead and that the new one is transparent and just, Police Chief Charles Beck has made a courageous decision to reopen the investigation into the incident that led to Dorner’s charge against his sergeant — that he kicked a mentally-ill man in the face and chest in a hotel lobby.

But, while Chief Beck has taken a step in the right direction, he has not gone far enough, offering only to use interna police resources to take another look at Dorner’s charges. This ignores the fact that how this inquiry is conducted — and even more importantly, by whom — will be critical in determining whether any good comes of it. Above all, LAPD must not investigate itself. There is a long history of failed departmental probes, notably during the Rampart scandal. To be done right, the task should be performed by a blue-ribbon panel overseen by someone with law enforcement expertise from outside Los Angeles

To do anything less will defeat Chief Beck’s stated goal of providing confidence in is agency’s transparency. Many Angelenos will view a departmental probe of the Dorner cases with justifiable cynicism.

For whether or not Dorner was improperly fired, there is plenty of evidence that the “code of silence” in the LAPD continues to protect many wrongdoing police officers. This is due in large part to the department’s seriously flawed system of internal discipline the same system Dorner accuses of railroading him.

Despite years of federal oversight imposed on the department as a result of the Rampart scandal of the 90’s, many LAPD officers continue to believe that to report misbehavior committed by their superiors, as Dorner did, amounts to professional suicide.

And, it is easy to see why. A consistent pattern arises in these cases in which the lower-ranking cop’s allegations are judged unfounded by Internal Affairs, after which the complaining officer is charged with making false statements. Such charges usually are referred to a Board of Rights consisting of two LAPD captains and a civilian member. Usually, too, they result in the officer being fired. Facing a system that seems loaded against them, many police officers think twice about pursuing a charge of wrongdoing that lead sup the chains of command.

But, the problem only begins there. Once fired, the officer’s only remaining legal option is to ask a superior court judge to review the department’s decision, which merely involved a review of the evidence presented to the board. Superior court judges almost never overturn these cases, as Dorner discovered when he tried this route and lost.

And, that exhausts the cop’s judicial remedies. Under the law he can’t sue the city once his firing is upheld, so the issues can’t be aired before a jury. Despite many improvements in the LAPD since the days of Rampart, the disciplinary system remains a legal cul-de-sac without real transparency or accountability.

In cases where the department retaliates against but doesn’t fire an office for blowing the whistle on misconduct, the LAPD can be summoned before a jury, often with costly results for the city in the form of adverse multi-million dollar damage awards. Again, the department’s inability to deal fairly with officers who do the right thing and report wrongdoing hurts the LAPD and the city. The code of silence not only encourages bad cops, it costs taxpayers a lot of money.

During the Rampart scandal, I brought over 30 lawsuits on behalf of individuals who were falsely arrested, beaten, and sometimes shot by police officers in LAPD’s anti-gang CRASH unit. In one of those cases, former police Chief Bernard Parks admitted in a sworn deposition that serious allegations by local residents involving widespread and unit-wide misconduct came across his desk as early as 1995, but no meaningful action was taken until four years later when one of the CRASH cops, Rafael Perez, was arrested and confessed and implicated others. By then, the damage was done — both to the individuals victimized by the rogue officers and to the department. And yet, though much of wrongdoing was witnessed by officers who did not take part and was known to command personnel, not one of these officers broke the code of silence and reported the incidents.

Although some improvements have been made as a result of the Consent Decree and the work of Chief William Bratton and Chief Beck, the code of silence is still very much a part of the fabric of the LAPD. Its closed disciplinary system still discourages cops who want to report misbehavior. As long as it does, the city of Los Angeles will never really be able to believe that it can trust the LAPD to root out bad cops — whether patrolmen or captains — without fear or favor. Whether Dorner was unjustly fired or not, Chief Beck’s promise to take another look at the circumstances involved could mean a new era for policing if the inquiry is done by a truly impartial agency– which, unfortunately, the LAPD itself can never be.