Pubdate: Wed, 08 Mar 2000
Source: Orange County Register (CA)
Copyright: 2000 The Orange County Register
Contact:  P.O. Box 11626, Santa Ana, CA 92711
Fax: (714) 565-3657
Author: John Mcdonald


Courts: The Police Scandal In Los Angeles Reverberates In O.C.

An explosion of evidence about dishonest officers in the Los Angeles
Police Department's Rampart division is rippling through Orange County
courtrooms and police stations.

The Rampart scandal grew from an officer convicted of stealing $1
million in cocaine held as evidence. The officer, Rafael Perez,
admitted framing suspects by planting evidence and lying at trial, and
implicated others in the misconduct. As a result of those allegations,
more than 20 officers have been relieved of duty and 40 criminal
convictions overturned.

The case has called police credibility into question, in some cases
prompting changes in the way prosecutors and officers in Orange County
do their jobs.

Assistant Orange County District Attorney Bryan Brown asked a jury
last month to put aside what they had heard of frame-ups by corrupt
officers in Los Angeles. "You can go to the bank" with testimony from
Garden Grove police officers, he told them.

That jury returned the verdict Brown sought: death for John George
Brown in the 1980 murder of Garden Grove officer Donald F. Reed.

Santa Ana lawyer George Peters, who defended Brown in the Reed murder,
said the Rampart scandal could make Orange County jurors more
skeptical about police testimony.

"It should make people more open-minded and have them look at the
facts more closely, instead of just accepting what a police officer
says as fact," Peters said.

The prospect of jurors disregarding a police officer's testimony is a
real concern, said Garden Grove police Sgt. Mike Handfield, who
supervises investigations. Handfield said many of the department's
concerns about credibility in court date back to O.J. Simpson's
acquittal on murder charges in 1995.

"The effect is not how we do our job but how we document our work," he
said. "We don't want to have a fight over a police officer's word, so
we are tape-recording more statements. We tape-record statements not
only from suspects but from witnesses who we feel may not stand by
what they tell us a few months down the road."

Another concern is searches.

"We are doing fewer consent searches," he said. "We don't want
somebody saying we can search their apartment and then have them deny
it later on. So we are more likely to go for a search warrant instead
of relying on somebody's word."

There is no more valuable possession for a police officer than a
reputation for being truthful, said Santa Ana police Lt. George
Saadeh, who supervises internal-affairs investigations.

"From the beginning, we tell people you may make a mistake. But if you
lie about it, you are going to be fired," Saadeh said. "If you don't
have integrity, you don't have any way to win a criminal case."

Assistant Orange County District Attorney Claudia Silbar, who heads
gang prosecutions, said she does not see much changing because of the
Rampart scandal.

"Orange County law enforcement is pretty much above board," she said.
"We are always impressing the police with the importance of getting
the best evidence before we file charges."

She said prosecutors have long encouraged police to seek evidence that
will support an officer's testimony.

Cases often boil down to the word of a police officer being the
primary evidence presented at trial, said Newport Beach lawyer Milton
Grimes. Grimes, who represented Rodney King in his police-brutality
lawsuit against Los Angeles police, said Orange County juries are more
likely to believe a police officer than a defendant. A black defendant
has even more difficulty being believed in Orange County, Grimes said.

"The Rampart exposure and cases across the country are showing that
police officers are human, they can make mistakes. I'm optimistic that
we will have Orange County juries who will deal with the reality that
we have some bad police officers."

He said an important ingredient to obtaining justice in Orange County
is to bring more ethnic diversity to the jury.

"You have people who have no concept of police being capable of doing
anything improper," he said. "People from other neighborhoods see what
police can do, that some are bad. We just want there to be somebody on
the jury who can point out that police don't always tell the truth."

Assistant Orange County Public Defender Denise Gragg said the recent
release of DeWayne McKinney, after serving 20 years for murder based
on questionable identification, should also alert local jurors not to
accept police evidence without question.

"Jurors need to have a healthy skepticism of all witnesses," she said.
"Not all people will believe that police officers are capable of
making mistakes or that they can be dishonest. Anything that brings
them to having an open mind is a benefit to all of us in the justice

The idea that Orange County police are immune from corruption is a
dangerous one, said Irvine police Sgt. Leo Jones, who supervises
narcotics investigations.

"There has been a tremendous ripple effect to the Rampart scandal in
Southern California, as far as putting systems in place to monitor
integrity," he said. "I've been personally reviewing our procedures
and guidelines to ensure we have safeguards in place to protect evidence."

The system that allowed a police officer in Los Angeles to steal $1
million in cocaine being held as evidence says as much about the
system as the officer, Jones said. Keeping a department's reputation
untarnished is too important to leave openings for officers to succumb
to temptation.

"You have officers who want to go to the dark side," he said. "That
can occur anywhere. It could occur here in Irvine as well as in Los
Angeles. We have to have more checks in place. I don't think we've
lost the trust of the community. You have to look at the overall work
of the department. Still, the Rampart thing is on the tip of
everyone's tongue." 
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