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LAPD complaints allegedly went unprobed

60 cases were reviewed in probe
February 12, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
Internal investigators failed to adequately probe almost half of 60 excessive force complaints brought against Los Angeles police officers, according to an audit of randomly selected cases presented to the city's Police Commission on Tuesday. The review, carried out by the Police Commission's inspector general, found problems in 29 of the cases, including police investigators omitting or misrepresenting important information.

"It is a disturbing number," Inspector General Andre Birotte said after he presented the report at the commission meeting. His key recommendation was for the Los Angeles Police Department to re-evaluate how it trains investigators.

One case cited in the audit described how police arrested a man at a mall for trespassing. The man alleged that an officer stepped on the back of his heels as he was being escorted from the shopping center. When the man tried to write down the officer's badge number, the officer slammed his head against a bench, according to the report.

Despite grainy video footage that potentially supported the man's account, as well as a witness report backing up his statement, investigators called the allegations unfounded.

Still, Birotte said officers had not deliberately tried to cover up the incident.

"We have no information that leads us to believe there was some deliberate attempt on any officer's part," he said. "But that's not an excuse. You've got to make sure these investigations are done properly."

Commissioner Alan Skobin said it appeared most of the cases fell into that category.

"Most of the cases we see are mistakes of judgment, not mistakes of heart," Skobin said.

The report contained a string of recommendations aimed at improving how investigators look into allegations of police abuse. Digital recordings of interviews should be made, paraphrased statements should be accurate and greater efforts should be made to identify unknown officers where witnesses are unable to do so.

Cmdr. Rick Webb, who heads the Police Department's internal affairs group, said he disagreed with some findings but acknowledged that investigators need to be better trained. "We will certainly respond and where we agree, we will certainly fall on our sword," he said.

In another case cited in the audit, police arrived at a house to break up a loud party. As they apprehended a man, one of his friends questioned their actions and was himself tackled by officers, five of whom stepped on his face, causing a scar, according to the man's complaint.

The initial probe into the man's complaint failed to include a photograph of the scar and investigators failed to adequately paraphrase witness statements, the audit report stated. The complaint was deemed "unfounded."

Police Chief William Bratton said he was somewhat disappointed by findings in the audit, but was pleased the Police Commission had identified an area of concern.

"What we saw here ... is the process works," Bratton said. "Are there issues of concern? Certainly. But if we did not have this Police Commission, it's possible these things could have gone for quite a while."

The five-member board of mayoral appointees functions as the civilian, policy-setting overseers of the department.

The 60 cases that were reviewed came from a pool of 154 complaints involving the use of police force. The incidents took place during a 2½-year period starting in January 2005.

In all, police investigators handle some 6,000 complaints each year, Birotte said, although most do not involve use of force.

Civil rights attorney Connie Rice said the audit turned up nothing new. The Police Department has for decades fallen short in its efforts to investigate its own, largely because officers only serve as internal investigators on a temporary basis and will eventually return to the regular ranks, she said.

"You still have a problem with the police investigating themselves," Rice said. "It's very hard to investigate your friends and colleagues. ... You have to have an independent outsider and an entity that doesn't recycle people through the organization."


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