Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Criminal prosecution of police officers for alleged brutality is extremely rare in Los Angeles. According to the IAG's Commander, at most one officer a year is prosecuted for an on-duty abuse-related incident, while prosecutions are "common" for other types of charges, such as drunk driving or domestic violence.158 The district attorney's office does not specifically track or tally cases in which police officers are defendants.159
The January 1997 report by the inspector general provided one explanation for the low number of prosecutions. IAD (later IAG) supervisors claimed thatprosecutors frequently objected to reviewing anything but "good cases."160 As a result, only about half of unauthorized force complaints that were sustained by internal affairs were being sent to prosecutors.161 IAD, therefore, was choosing which cases they believed warranted prosecution rather than leaving prosecutorial decisions to the city or district attorney and ignoring the LAPD manual, which states: "Department entities completing personnel complaint investigations, which establish prima facie evidence of the commission of a criminal offense within the City by Department employees, shall submit the completed investigation to Internal Affairs Group for presentation to a prosecuting agency."162 In response to this criticism, the IAG reportedly became more consistent in passing prima facie cases to the district attorney's office.163
Regarding federal prosecution of officers on civil right rights charges, the Office of the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles told Human Rights Watch that between 1993 and 1995, besides the four officers involved in the King beating, there had been two other prosecutions of LAPD officers (Officers Dana Patrick Hansen and Steven Wayne Pollack).164
In 1996, of the twelve cases decided by federal prosecutors for the federal district containing Los Angeles (Central District of California), one was prosecuted (presented to a grand jury to seek an indictment). Between 1992 and 1995, thirty-nine cases were considered, of which twelve were prosecuted.165
The Justice Department's special litigation section of the Civil Rights Division reportedly continues to review the Los Angeles Police Department under its new powers to bring civil injunctions against police forces engaging in a "pattern orpractice" of misconduct. The review was acknowledged by a Justice Department representative testifying at the September 1996 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearings in Los Angeles.166 He refused to state that federal officials would not intervene in Los Angeles, "[W]e [DOJ] will stay engaged as long as we need to stay engaged."167 In October 1996, the Justice Department turned its informal probe into an expanded investigation of the department's operations, police brutality, and racially motivated abuse.168 The Police Protective League's representative shrugged off the federal probe, however, claiming, "It's all a big political game....they won't find anything. Racism and sexism has [sic] not been rampant in the LAPD."169
There may be particular pressure for the federal authorities to apply in Los Angeles because the LAPD traditionally receives more federal funding than any other city for the hiring of new officers and to enhance communications and technological capabilities. According to press reports, between 1993 and 1997, the LAPD received more than $141 million in federal grants.170
158 Telephone interview, IAG Commander McMurray, May 8, 1998.
159 Telephone inquiry, district attorney's office, August 1997.
160 OIG report, January 1997, p.45.
161 Telephone interview, Inspector General Mader, April 20, 1998.
162 Ibid., Manual Section 3/837.30.
163 Telephone interview, Inspector General Mader, April 20, 1998.
164 Telephone interview with Carol Levitsky, U.S. Attorney's office, October 19, 1995.
165 According to data obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse from the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, Justice Department. Cases prosecuted or declined represent only a portion of the total number of complaints alleging federal criminal civil rights violations in each district in a given year. Several steps prior to this decision narrow down the number of complaints actually received to those considered worthy of consideration.
166 Steven Rosenbaum of the special litigation section of the Civil Rights Division; Newton and Goldman, "Williams, union chief clash before panel," Los Angeles Times, September 13, 1996; Ostrow and Serrano, "Justice dept. won't prosecute Mark Fuhrman," Los Angeles Times, April 3, 1998.
168 Pierre Thomas, "U.S. widens investigation L.A. police," Washington Post, October 4, 1996.
170 Human Rights Watch attempted to obtain these figures directly from the Justice Department, but the funds come from several different departments, and no total is compiled by the agency.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch