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Burden of Proof

FBI Joins Probe of L.A. Police Corruption

Aired February 24, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: Today in BURDEN OF PROOF: It is a police scandal -- yesterday in Los Angeles, the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office announced it will assist in the investigation of a growing scandal within the L.A. Police Department. Already working on the case: members of the LAPD, itself, and the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office. The FBI has assigned six full-time agents to work on the investigation.

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Since the scandal broke, 20 police officers have been suspended from the force, and 40 criminal convictions have been reversed. The D.A.'s office says it's looking into as many as 3,000 criminal convictions which may have been tainted by police misconduct.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: This is a scandal that's now risen to the level of accusations against sergeants and captains in the LAPD. There have been other situations where Justice has seen fit to go into local police departments and say: You can no longer police yourselves, in effect, when it comes to an investigation. Is that the ultimate goal here, to see whether the LAPD is capable of investigating itself?

JANET RENO, ATTORNEY GENERAL: The ultimate goal here is to see that people who've done wrong are brought to justice and that there is an appropriate response, and we're going to be working with the Los Angeles Police Department and the district attorney to see just what needs to be done to ensure that goal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: Joining us today from Los Angeles is City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski. And in Houston, former federal prosecutor Tom Hagemann.

COSSACK: And here in Washington, Matthew Windt (ph), criminal defense attorney Ron Sullivan and Robert Baldwin (ph). In the back, Elgin Rogers (ph) and Chris Bokulich (ph). And also joining us from Los Angeles is CNN correspondent Charles Feldman.

Charles, what's the latest developments on this investigation by the district attorney's office into the police misconduct?

CHARLES FELDMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you guys mentioned at the top, the latest is that, at the request of the police chief, Bernard Parks, the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office have now opened up formal criminal investigations. The U.S. attorney's office has been monitoring the investigation since it began to unfold in early September, but now they are in it all heart and soul.

Six full-time, at least initially, six full-time FBI agents are going to be assigned to teams already in place at the LAPD. The U.S. attorney's office is going to supply some of its own people, and also, the state attorney general announced yesterday that he will also take a more active role in this investigation. So, you now have a whole bunch of different chefs stirring this soup.

VAN SUSTEREN: Cindy, the feds or the federal government is now getting into this case, and at least by my count, there is about six or seven months a little bit late, since a lot of this unfolded last August and September. Why has it taken so long? Why didn't the city ask for the feds to come in sooner?

CINDY MISCIKOWSKI, LOS ANGELES CITY COUNCIL: Well, I think the police chief has indicated that he and his department have had...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't hear her.

MISCIKOWSKI: ... going on to investigate this itself, with full understanding that that wasn't going to be the end of it. There has been cooperation with the police department and the district attorney. And yesterday, both the district attorney and the police chief were there to say that we are now asking the federal government to be involved.

VAN SUSTEREN: Here's the problem I have with it, Cindy, is that, you know, we're six months down the road, at least by my calculation, and it's not like the Los Angeles Police Department hasn't had scandal before, and sort of the whole concept of the LAPD investigating itself with the help of the district attorney, which only uses the LAPD as witnesses in their on-going criminal investigations, was really much like sending the fox out to guard the chicken coop?

MISCIKOWSKI: Well, we have to remember that this all came to public attention by the LAPD itself. It was the LAPD who said: We uncovered wrongdoing. We have seen it grow. We know it's worse than our initial indication. And so we are beginning this process. Clearly, it's not the end of the process, and clearly, from the very first moment that the LAPD started to find a problem, it contacted the D.A., who is the local prosecutor, to take full charge of criminal prosecution.

COSSACK: Well, Cindy isn't -- I don't want to quibble with you, but in fact, what happened was an officer was arrested, who stole cocaine from an evidence locker and made a deal with the prosecutor and then said: I will give you some testimony about corrupt police officers, if you will lighten my sentence. That's how it came to light. It wasn't like the police department found out about them themselves?

MISCIKOWSKI: Well, I disagree. The evidence being stolen from the locker was the police department's uncovering it, itself, when it noticed that there were false signatures and the missing evidence. So they were the whistle-blowers themselves about a problem internally and then they...

(CROSSTALK)

VAN SUSTEREN: Go ahead, Charles.

COSSACK: Go ahead, Charles.

FELDMAN: Let me try to separate some facts and fiction in this thing. First of all, Roger, as you pointed out, it is quite correct that the LAPD didn't uncover this scandal on its own. What it did uncover was the actions of Mr. Perez stealing cocaine from the evidence locker. They knew about that for many, many months. It was only as it got to the point of a plea agreement that Perez started telling them all of this information about what he and allegedly other officers did. So that's number one.

Number two, Greta, you asked at the outset why it took so long for the FBI to get involved. Well, while it is true that yesterday we saw the district attorney on that stage with the police chief. What is not true is that the D.A. and the police chief wholeheartedly endorsed and welcomed the FBI and the U.S. attorney's intervention. In fact, the district attorney, I'm told, came to that news conference yesterday all but kicking and screaming.

It was the police chief and the mayor of the city, Richard Riordan, who came to the conclusion after many, many weeks that the district attorney was dragging his feet, that he wasn't acting quickly enough, the police department had forwarded to the D.A.'s office, the names of at least three of those officers that it felt there was more than sufficient evidence to file charges against.

And when the D.A. kept maintaining that he needed more and more time, in order to build what he called a winnable case, with the support of the mayor, the police chief was the one who initiated, I'm told, the contacts with both the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office and said: We need help.

COSSACK: Cindy, are you, as a member of the city council, and the city counsel at large satisfied with the actions that Gil Garcetti, the district attorney, has taken in this case, particularly in light of his stance that he said he wouldn't file a case unless he was absolutely sure he could get a conviction, which perhaps even prompted the bringing in of the feds?

MISCIKOWSKI: I am satisfied at this point that the D.A. is fully investigating this. The D.A. has said that there -- he doesn't want to also get a light prosecution. He wants to go for a very serious, significant offenses, and take it as far as it needs to go.

Although the conference yesterday was the mayor and the police chief and the D.A., as well as the U.S. attorney and the FBI, the district attorney had indicated that he had contacted the Department of Justice previously, hadn't publicized it, but had done that. So there had already been contact and request for intervention at appropriate times and to deal with the appropriate issues that each jurisdiction got involved in.

VAN SUSTEREN: Charles, let me ask you, look, there are unjustified shootings, beatings, evidence planting, false arrests, perjury.

COSSACK: Those are the allegations.

VAN SUSTEREN: Those are the allegations, well, yes, and we have got people who have now been released from prison, they must take these allegations rather seriously. We are six months into these civil rights problems, and this is not new to the LAPD. Isn't there a sense of outrage and a sense of, like, why would the LAPD ever investigate itself to begin with?

FELDMAN: Well, I tell you, you know, one of the interesting things about this whole case has been that, until fairly recently, and I mentioned this in the piece that I did a few nights ago, there hasn't been much in terms of public outrage or political outrage.

We only recently heard from the mayor in any real, to any real extent about his feelings on the case, and that was his feelings that the D.A. ought to move forward more quickly. We only recently really heard the city counsel get involved.

Why now? Probably because now there is a price tag on all of this. Only recently has the city learned that because of all these cases they could end up having to shell out something in the neighborhood $200 million and maybe a lot more by the time this is all done, in terms of dealing with civil litigation that is expected the result of these suits.

So a lot of the outrage that has been absent in recent months is only now starting to build and only now because a price tag has been attached to it.

VAN SUSTEREN: Which is extraordinary when you think about it, though, because now all everyone is worried about is when it is money, when these people who live in the area didn't know whether they should fear a gang member or a police officer, there wasn't that level of outrage.

FELDMAN: Well, there was a lot of -- you know, when you talk to people here, mostly off the record, I should add, what they will tell you is: Well, you know, the reason why there wasn't a lot of outrage is that by and large, most of the victims of this police abuse were drug addicts, people that had prior convictions. So these were the kinds of people that many in the political infrastructure of the city felt belonged in prison one way or the other anyway. And that's, to a large degree, why we haven't seen a lot of public or political outrage.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break.

Up next, as prosecutors and the FBI pore over thousands of cases, will there be police officers sent to jail cells that are vacated by tainted convictions? Stay with us.

(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

On this day in 1868, the House of Representatives passed 11 articles of impeachment against President Andrew Johnson. In the trial that followed, Johnson's opponents failed to get a two-thirds vote to convict.

(END LEGAL BRIEF)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: Good news for our Internet-savvy viewers: You can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the Worldwide Web. Just log-on to CNN.com/burden. We now provide a live video feed, Monday through Friday, at 12:30 p.m. Eastern Time. If you miss that live show, the program is available on the site at any time via Video on-Demand. You can also interact with our show and even join our chat room.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RENO: The Los Angeles Police Department and the district attorney have been conducting an investigation. There may be instances where we can be of assistance to them in providing additional support and we're going to try to do that but at the same time remain independent so that we can take whatever action is appropriate based on the evidence as it's uncovered.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSSACK: The federal government is getting involved in the investigation of widespread corruption within the Los Angeles Police Department. The scandal was uncovered when anti-gang officer Rafael Perez was arrested for stealing cocaine from an evidence locker. To get a lighter sentence, he began to talk. The sentencing of that former officer is scheduled for tomorrow.

Well, Tom Hagemann, you were with the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles and I know prosecuted many of these same kinds of cases. What are -- what are the kinds of problems that you run into when, as a representative of the federal government working with the FBI, you begin to investigate, for example, the Los Angeles Police Department?

THOMAS HAGEMANN, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Two main problems that come to mind, Roger, right off: One is that it's very difficult; the inter-agency squabbles and knowing where the political landmines are can be extremely difficult. And you are a bit of an outsider as an assistant U.S. attorney or the U.S. attorney, and it takes a little while to figure out where those landmines are.

Focusing specifically on this case, though, as I understand it, the thing that I'm nervous about if I'm a prosecutor is that it's all historical. What the really -- what you like in a police corruption case is to catch them in the act. That's what, you know, prince of the city and the case that I was involved in a long time ago involved. This is all historical stuff, and it's going to take a long time to make these cases, and you're going to have to get, I think, the locals comfortable with the fact that just because the Fed's got involved we're not going to have indictments six weeks from now.

VAN SUSTEREN: Ron, you know, I seem to be sort of twisted up by the fact that the federal government has taken -- at least I think it's a long time to get involved. Do you think it is -- it was wise in the first place for the LAPD to be investigating itself as well as the local D.A. to be investigating itself, or should the federal government have come in a little bit sooner and maybe even more like gangbusters.

RON SULLIVAN, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: They should have come in like gangbusters immediately. I submit that the police department cannot police itself. Your fox guarding the hen house analogy earlier on is apt. There are so many conflicts of interest that are probably too numerous to name, but the police department has an agency, institutional interests, obviously, in limiting the scope of the criminality, whereas the public has an interest in a full, thorough, vigorous investigation of the police department. The district attorney has an interest in bolstering the credibility of officers who testify day in and day out and who assistant D.A.s ask juries every day: believe the police officers, police officers tell them the truth. It's not in their institutional interest to discredit scores and scores of police officers, so it would be better if an impartial entity had come in earlier on.

COSSACK: Tom, how do you go about actually investigating this case? Now, one of the things that we talked about in the past is the blue code, the code of silence, if you will. How do you go about getting other officers to cooperate?

HAGEMANN: Well, you know, you got two primary tools that you've got as a federal prosecutor, Roger, as you well know. One is a grand jury that has sweeping powers and, therefore, the use of the full range of immunity possibilities, putting the squeeze on other cops; I'm sure there's going to be a lot of that going on.

And secondly, you've got a much more broad array of statutes that you can go after people on: tax offenses, money laundering, conspiracy offenses, things of this nature, and so you're going to be trying to use that broad array to hook some people in and, frankly, to make them scared, because I think in this investigation, again, given that it is a historical investigation, you've got to roll some other cops if you're going to make some criminal prosecutions.

VAN SUSTEREN: Cindy, what is the city doing or the police or the D.A. doing to make the community feel that they can trust the police? You've got the dangerousness of a gang but now apparently you've got some danger with some police officers who are in the anti -- anti-gang unit. What are you doing for the people?

MISCIKOWSKI: Well, the city is pursing this on two courses. One is clearly the criminal prosecution, which we're dealing with and have now outside sources as well. But the other is an internal, something called a board of inquiry that is going to be submitted to the police commission, an outside independent civilian group overseeing the police department with an inspector general, to start -- to talk about all the things that need to be done, such as the management review, the systemic problems, the code of silence, officer-involved shootings, bringing more civilians into this process and using outside-community people to give that advice.

VAN SUSTEREN: And of course always the problem is that there are an awful lot of good police officers on the police force who get tarnished by the bad ones. But we need to take a break.

Up next: defending a client in Los Angeles County and how the scandal could reshape police testimony and potential appeals. Stay with us.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q: Why was one of the women on the Amadou Diallo jury dismissed?

A: She had apparently discussed the case outside of the courtroom.

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office says it's looking into potential corruption in as many as 3,000 cases. The majority of those criminal defendants were likely represented by lawyers from the public defender's office.

Ron, if you're a public defender out there, where do you start?

SULLIVAN: Well, first you start by reviewing the cases that were in your office to determine whether there has been an involvement by one of the officers who's been named.

Also, I think that defense attorneys in general will have to take advantage of the fact that the public, after seeing something like this, will at least question the testimony of police officers. Right now in the district, and I imagine every other jurisdiction, there's a police officer has witness instruction that says, weigh the credibility of the police officer just like everyone else, don't believe the officer just because he's a police officer. That's there because there's a presumption that police officers tell the truth. That presumption is now probably a rebuttable presumption and defense counsel can use that to the advantage of the clients.

COSSACK: Tom, when you were working on these kinds of cases, did you find there was a difference in what young rookie police officers were taught in the academy as opposed to the way it worked on the street?

HAGEMANN: Absolutely, Roger. I mean, the distance that you travel from the training manual and the police academy to when you really start working the streets is a long distance, and as you know, as probably everybody knows, it's not easy being a cop and particularly when you're out working these special units that are asked to do very demanding, very dangerous, very intense jobs. It can be a breeding ground for these kinds of problems, but it's also something that we all need to recognize. It's what we as a society ask of these cops.

VAN SUSTEREN: But of course what we've got to do is make sure that the police officers aren't violating the civil rights and hurting people.

Charles, is the blame in this investigation only to be cast over in the direction of the police, or should we look at other ways to try to get to the bottom of this?

FELDMAN: Oh, I think most people who have been looking very closely now at the criminal justice system here in L.A. would say that you've got to look at a lot of other places other than just the police department. I mean, for example, you have to account for why the district attorney's office failed to notice that only a handful -- and remember, we are only talking in relative terms here -- about a handful of police officers who kept coming up over and over and over again in different cases giving more or less the same testimony. Nobody in the D.A.'s office detected a certain pattern emerging.

You mentioned public defenders. Better than 70 percent of all felony cases in L.A. handled by the public defender, most of the cases involved here of wrongful conviction were people who were told by their public defenders: better to cop a plea than risk a trial. Public defender's office, some people suggest, needs to be looked at.

And judges. I've had some judges tell me, so long as I don't use their names, that they have actually heard testimony on the witness stand from police officers that they simply do not believe but they do nothing.

COSSACK: Cindy, it's a Los Angeles problem. What is the city council going to do in light what we just heard what Charles Feldman just said, the description of the criminal justice system in Los Angeles. What does the city council plan to do?

MISCIKOWSKI: We've got many tasks ahead of us. We have one, which is a working group, to deal with the cases themselves and how we're going to handle that, as well as how we're handling future law enforcement in terms of just the issues you've been talking about. What happens with a good arrest today where we are going to the district attorney and saying we want to get a criminal convicted and yet we have to rely on police testimony? How valid is that going to be today?

Secondly, most importantly, I think, is the overall reforms that are necessary in the police department to deal with the issues where we want to identify tough cops to go in and deal with tough problems but create appropriate lines, appropriate supervision, appropriate management and appropriate rotation. You can't let any one officer be in that kind of very harsh and hard environment for a long time unsupervised without being tainted or affected by it. So we've got to get a much healthier rotation out of those special units.

COSSACK: All right, that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

Yesterday, we brought you the story of Texas death row inmate Betty Lou Beets. Today, Governor George W. Bush is back in the Lone Star State as a Huntsville penitentiary prepares to execute the 62- year-old. Today on "TALKBACK LIVE," should the Texas governor stay her execution? That's at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time, noon Pacific.

VAN SUSTEREN: An Albany jury continues to deliberate the murder trial of four New York City police officers. CNN plans live coverage once the verdict is handed down.

And we'll be back tomorrow with another edition BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.

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