HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Los Angeles:

The Fuhrman Report
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The May 1997 report by a police task force on LAPD Det. Mark Fuhrman also provided important insights into the operation of the LAPD. The report was prompted by statements that Fuhrman made as a witness in the 1995 murder trial of football player O.J. Simpson. In contrast with its handling of most internal investigations into alleged officer abuses, the department chose to release an edited version of its investigation to the public, claiming that Fuhrman's statements had already brought the issues into the public domain. The report states, "[I]n this very unusual situation, the Department has determined that its efforts to investigate Fuhrman's allegations of systemic brutality, racism, perjury and evidence planting within the Los Angeles Police Department require a public accounting."63

In investigating Fuhrman's claims of brutality and harassment of female officers, the department found that many of the brutality incidents did not take place as he had described or were impossible to confirm due to failed memories and flawed record-keeping. The report did confirm, and express outrage, that there was institutional harassment of women on the force that was ignored by police officials.64 By delving into Fuhrman's claims, the department's investigators also acknowledged serious shortcomings in the way it investigates and adjudicates complaints alleging abuses by officers, with many of its findings and recommendations echoing those of the Christopher Commission and subsequent reports.

The May 1997 report concludes that command officers are not held accountable when egregious or systemic misconduct is found within a command. In describing the Department Manual, the report states, "[N]owhere does it spell out a command officer's responsibility to deal with systemic misconduct and to establish sufficient detection systems to ensure command awareness of activities which have the potential to become systemic."65 The report urges that a series of unresolved complaints making similar allegations should be investigated, and that lying by officers in any context should be punished severely.

The investigators found that victims frequently were not interviewed during internal investigations of the use of force, that supervisors who were actively involved in use of force incidents conducted the investigation into the incident, andthat record-keeping was so poor that it needed to be reorganized. The report called for improved record-keeping by the City Attorney's office, including all civil lawsuits against officers, whether stemming from their on-duty employment or off-duty conduct which is regulated by the department (such as off-duty employment). Although Fuhrman was the subject of seven civil lawsuits during his career, the city was found to have no record of three of the suits.66

One of the explanations for Fuhrman being allowed to stay on the force was this: "He knew exactly where the disciplinary line was, and he avoided creating any significant pattern of misconduct."67 This point assumes that there is such a line and implies that a high level of abuse was permissible within its bounds. In the absence of a functioning early warning system, the observation illustrates the need for oversight of police conduct that looks beyond the latest incident to a pattern that may span years and may manifest itself in a variety of ways, in contrast to an officer who hits someone in the same situation in incident after incident. Repeating one of the major findings of the Christopher Commission investigation, the report concludes, "[T]he Department must identify problem officers so investigations of this sort are not necessary in the future."68

One negative effect of the investigation into Detective Fuhrman's allegations was the backlog it created in the Internal Affairs Division because so many IAD resources reportedly were expended on the Fuhrman probe.69 Because there is a one-year statute of limitations on internal investigations, beyond which the maximum disciplinary sanction for an officer is a reprimand, regardless of offense, officers who may have engaged in serious abuse were not being punished appropriately. In one case reported in the press, an officer was given a reprimand rather than a five-day suspension recommended by his supervisors because the limitations period on his case had run out. Attorneys representing alleged victims in these cases claimed the delays were a way for the department to avoid the difficult task of disciplining officers, while police union representatives complained that they were not allowed sufficient time as cases reached the end of the year period and needed to be adjudicated in a hurry, and that accused officers were not permitted to work while cases against them are pending (although they are usually suspendedwith pay). As a result of the backlog, the department requested thirty-eight new IAG detectives in the 1997 budget request.

63 LAPD report of the Mark Fuhrman task force, executive summary, as edited for public release, May 5, 1997. Emphasis in original.

64 Harassment of co-workers for any reason is not within the scope of this report, yet the systemic nature of the problem that was repeatedly ignored by police officials for at least ten years is alarming and must be addressed.

65 LAPD report of the Mark Fuhrman task force, p. 66.

66 Ibid., p. 4.

67 Ibid., p. 61.

68 Ibid., p. 65.

69 Beth Shuster, "Fuhrman case adds to delays of LAPD probes," Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1997.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch