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Burden of Proof

L.A. Law and the Controversial Investigation of Police Corruption

Aired March 16, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHIEF BERNARD PARKS, LOS ANGELES POLICE: The investigation of the material will go through the U.S. Attorney's Office. It will go through to a team of investigators from LAPD and the FBI. And when those investigations are completed, we then will have those cases presented to both the U.S. attorney and the D.A. simultaneously.

GIL GARCETTI, DISTRICT ATTORNEY, LOS ANGELES COUNTY: There is no legal authority for the chief to thumb his nose at us and I can't accept it, I won't tolerate it.

JAMES HAHN, LOS ANGELES CITY ATTORNEY: It is certainly appropriate for the police chief to go to the U.S. attorney and ask them to concurrently review these case, but the police chief you can't cut the D.A. out.

MAYOR RICHARD RIORDAN, LOS ANGELES: This isn't a children's game. The chief of police and the district attorney have been acting like children. They have got to start acting like adults and put the city first.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: The L.A. police chief withholds information from the district attorney. The D.A. cries foul and threatens to subpoena.

Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: L.A. law and the controversial investigation of police corruption.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

VAN SUSTEREN: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

The subject of the investigation itself provided enough controversy for the citizens of Los Angeles, but now the investigation is becoming controversial.

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: On Tuesday, Police Chief Bernard Parks announced he would only share evidence with the U.S. Attorney's Office, leaving the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office out of the loop. Sources tell CNN, the D.A.'s office responded with threats to subpoena the material from the chief and his officers.

The feud between Parks and District Attorney Gil Garcetti has made its way to City Hall, where the mayor has tried to negotiate a truce.

Joining us today from Los Angeles is former detective of the Los Angeles Police Department, Tom Lange.

VAN SUSTEREN: Also in Los Angeles, former federal prosecutor David Weichert. Here in Washington, Jeff Moss (ph), former federal prosecutor Larry Barcella and Barbara Zimmerman (ph). In our back row, Sarah Melinda Eron (ph), Ryan Gardiner (ph) and Mandi Souk (ph).

COSSACK: And also joining us today from Los Angeles is CNN correspondent Charles Feldman.

Charles, what is this dispute between the district attorney and the chief of police?

CHARLES FELDMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, one city council person yesterday described this all as a three-ring circus, which was probably doing a disservice to circuses all across America.

This goes back a couple weeks ago, when the chief of police decided that he was unhappy with what he considered the slow pace of the investigation being conducted by Gil Garcetti, that is the Los Angeles County district attorney, and so Chief Bernard Parks invited the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office in to participate in the investigation.

As the days and weeks progressed, however, it became very clear that the chief's real motive was not to share equally the information that was being gathered by the LAPD with both agencies, but to favor the federal prosecutors.

And in a letter that was sent by the chief to the district attorney's office earlier last week -- later last week, I should say, he made it very clear that his intent was to deal, first and foremost, with federal prosecutors, and then, only at the time when cases were ready for presentation, would he give them simultaneously to the district attorney's office, the county agency, as well as the federal prosecutors.

This outraged, as you can imagine, the district attorney's office, the D.A. held a very angry news conference that I attended yesterday. He said that, if necessary, he would subpoena the chief, he would subpoena investigators and all of the records.

Later in the day, the mayor tried to mediate, he asked for a conference with both participants, the district attorney balked at that, that fell apart. There were private conversations between the mayor and Garcetti, the mayor and the chief.

Later in the day, it was announced that a compromise was reached. The chief made it sound, though, in his comments, as if the word compromise might be a bit too premature. He said he was going to give everything simultaneously to both agencies. But then, as you heard in that sound byte that you played at the top of this broadcast, he later went on to sound very much like he was retreating, saying that the information part of the investigation would go through a clearing house, if you will, at the federal office first, and then to the district attorney. This is far from being resolved.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, well, let's go to Tom Lange.

Tom, you used to be a member of the Los Angeles Police Department, and there are a lot of good police officers on the force who I assume are very unhappy with this investigation going on. Who do you think that the rank-and-file good police officers are supporting in this feud between the mayor and the chief?

TOM LANGE, FORMER DETECTIVE, LOS ANGELES POLICE: Well, I don't think the rank-and-file officers are going to get involved in this little political skirmish here. You know, let's not forget that Mr. Garcetti, and he is in a good man, don't get me wrong, but he is in the fight -- the political fight of his life coming up in November with Mr. Cooley.

Chief Parks did exactly the right thing in calling in the federal authorities because, to begin with, most of these charges are going to be federal, if in fact they are brought anyway, and this also lends credibility to this whole investigation. And let's not forget that it wasn't a crusading reporter or an ACLU attorney, or anyone else who uncovered this, it was the police themselves, and they moved on it.

I think most officers, and I'm talking 99.9 percent, are disgusted by this whole thing, and they are in fact the true victims.

VAN SUSTEREN: Tom, you say that the police discovered it. Are you saying that the police started this investigation because a police officer got caught stealing cocaine and he confessed to shooting a gang member and planting evidence on him, and accusing him of crimes that he didn't commit?

LANGE: Well, much of this began with Perez stealing narcotics from the evidence locker, but there were some other activities around this time that precipitated much of this -- that occurred. And one of the more interesting aspects is that the narcotics stolen by Officer Perez had been booked by an officer, a narcotics officer, approximately one month after that particular narcotics officer had been involved in a shooting with an off-duty L.A. police officer, who was probably involved in criminal activity himself, who was tied with Perez.

So this goes much deeper than we see, but there is a certain element here that has been involved all along, and he probably shouldn't have been hired in the first place.

COSSACK: Tom, there seems to be a favoring by the police chief of the U.S. attorney over the district attorney, and the reason he says he favors the U.S. attorney is because he believes that Garcetti is too slow to bring charges against police officers. Now, do you think that is a criticism that is correct in this case? LANGE: Well, I don't know if he's being too slow, certainly he's being careful because, as I said a little while ago, he is in the political fight of his life, and he has other considerations. He is not going to be just filing charges to file charges. He is going to be very careful. But most of these charges, it would appear, if in fact any are brought at all, are going to be federal charges. And so, to me, it makes all the sense in the world, and again, lends credibility to this whole investigation to have the feds involved.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. Dave, you were a former federal prosecutor out there, who should run this investigation at this stage? Should it be Gil Garcetti, the district attorney, or should this be a federal investigation?

DAVID WEICHERT, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: This should be a federal investigation. There is going to be close interaction between Jeff Eglash, who is the former chief of the government fraud unit and who worked on the big spender investigation with the sheriff's department about five years ago. Jeff is going to work with the U.S. attorney, he knows him very well.

From the standpoint of difficulty of proof, in federal court, you don't need corroboration of an accomplice, and in a lot of these cases, Mr. Perez is going to be the only eyewitness who testifies. It is very difficult to get other police officers to corroborate someone like Perez. So if a jury believes Perez beyond a reasonable doubt you can get a conviction in federal court, whereas you couldn't in state court.

Plus, any defense lawyer representing someone in a state court prosecution, a police officer in a state court prosecution, is going to challenge whether the District Attorney's Office can handle the case at all. They are going to argue that the District Attorney's Office is biased against these officers because it has prejudiced a number of cases. And I don't know whether or not a judge is going to disqualification the District Attorney's Office.

So there are a number of reasons that you would want to go federally.

COSSACK: All right, let's take break. Up next, the culture within the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department and how can other cities identify bad cops within their ranks? Stay with us.

(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

The North Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments this week in a case that could decide if drunk drivers who kill should be eligible for the death penalty.

Source: www.about.com

(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 onto 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.

COSSACK: A scandal within the Los Angeles Police has exposed widespread corruption within officer ranks which could affect thousands of cases. The corruption has tarnished the battered image of the LAPD, which has already suffered from the image of bad cops.

Larry Barcella, is this just a Los Angeles problem?

LARRY BARCELLA, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: No, sadly it's not a Los Angeles problem. I mean, to a lesser or greater degree, it happens in any police force. And I think, as Tom said earlier, the percentage is very, very small, but when you take a police force as large as the LAPD, that percentage turns into a lot of numbers and it makes the problem look perhaps even more serious than it is.

VAN SUSTEREN: Tom, are you surprised by these latest revelations or has it been sort of information within the LAPD that there were a few rogue cops who were doing very bad things?

LANGE: No, I'm not surprised. In fact, I would be surprised in an organization of this size if, from time to time, you didn't find corruption. I would be real suspicious if you didn't find these types of things happening from time to time because the police departments are like anyone else: They have to recruit from the human race. This particular group, though, if you take a look at how they were hired, they were hired to fill certain mandated positions. There was not proper background checks done on many of them.

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you think that any other police officers were aware of this but sort of closed the ranks or looked the other way because they didn't want to rat out a fellow police officer?

LANGE: Sure, that's a possibility. And as we know, there've been 29 or 30 officers relieved pending investigation. These officers may not have committed criminal acts themselves, but they certainly may have acquiesce to others. Certainly this is a possibility, sure.

COSSACK: Dave, this was a special unit of the Los Angeles Police Department that Tom points out. And about five years ago, there was this kind of activity that happened within the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and that had to do with a high-profile narcotics detection squad. Do you think it's these kinds of special units that become more vulnerable to corruption?

WEICHERT: Well, clearly the individuals involved in the unit have such close camaraderie because they're working together every day. They see each other, they socialize with each other. It's very difficult for them to provide testimony against their friends and counterparts. Plus, the environment that they're in is a very hostile environment. And as you know, Roger, you tried that case together with me. The defense lawyers are going to portray this as a war and the police are the people who are protecting the rights of the innocents. And in this war, sometimes you have to go out and do things to win, and a lot of jurors will accept that, whereas in a Malibu environment, something might not be appropriate, in the inner city in Los Angeles, it will be appropriate.

VAN SUSTEREN: Larry, how difficult is to -- as a prosecutor to prosecute a police officer who's accused of a very bad thing?

BARCELLA: It's one of the hardest cases that a prosecutor has because the, as Dave says, the community has a view of the necessity for the police so that they give them slack that you wouldn't give an ordinary criminal defendant. Frankly, corruption cases are slightly easier in some sense than cases of police violence, believe it or not, because the defense that you can raise as a police officer in a police violence case is, look, I'm trying to protect you. Police corruption cases, it's a little more difficult to raise that kind of defense, obviously.

VAN SUSTEREN: What about the personal side, though? I mean you prosecutors have been rubbing shoulders with the force the entire prosecutor's career. What about the personal side?

BARCELLA: It makes it very, very difficult. First of all, as you know, on most police forces the internal affair unit is not exactly the guys you go out and drink with after your shift gets over. That's number one. Number two, prosecutors who prosecute police corruption cases, even with the police officers who are completely honest, they view that relationship now with some suspicion. So it does cause a poisonous relationship to develop. And when you remember the fact that all the other cases have to be brought to those prosecutors to prosecute, big public corruption cases involving police officers usually take a couple of years to sort of still the waters again in the relationships between prosecutors and police officers.

COSSACK: Tom, do police officers and district attorneys become too close? And should there be something done about that kind of relationship?

LANGE: Well, they're going to become close when you work with them year in and year out, especially within the detective ranks. But part of what we do is we have this intimate relationship with the district attorney and we essentially work for them after we file a case. That's just the way it's set up. I don't know how you can get around that.

VAN SUSTEREN: Charles, what about any personal animosity between the D.A. and the chief of police at this point?

FELDMAN: Well, I mean, that may actually be at the root of a lot of this. You though, when young medical students go to school, they're taught by their professors: Before you look for the very complicated, you know, complex things to make a diagnosis, look at the simple things first because more often than not that's the reason.

I've heard all kinds of Machiavellian reasons why there's this animus between the district attorney and the police chief, but the one that makes the most sense is they really just don't like one another. They've known each other for almost 25 years, but in recent years they have found themselves at odds over a number of things. Key among them is, a few years ago, the district attorney had a policy, what they called a roll-out policy which meant that some members of the district attorney's office would go to the scene of police-involved shootings to sort of evaluate the integrity of the scene.

At the time, Garcetti, now the district attorney, was very much a proponent of it and instrumental in having it instituted. Parks, at the time, was in internal affairs, and then a deputy chief. He was very much opposed to it. That ride-along policy disappeared for a while. Now it's been reinstated. The chief very reluctantly signed back on board for it because of the Rampart scandal, but he's never forgotten that this is something that he and Garcetti have been at odds at for a good number of years. The chief does not like any outside intervention. Garcetti believes that that's something that's necessary in the police department. And so there's a lot of hostility between these two men, and...

VAN SUSTEREN: And that doesn't -- of course, doesn't help solve any of these problems.

We need to take a break.

Up next, the LAPD, the district attorney's office, the U.S. attorneys and the FBI -- they're all involved in the investigation of police corruption, but who's in charge? Stay with us.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q: Of the 35 clerks currently at the Supreme Court, how many are minorities?

A: Five; two are African-American and three are Asian-American. In previous years there has generally been no more than three minority clerks.

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: Welcome back to BURDEN OF PROOF.

Dave, give me an idea. These investigations usually follow a pretty predictable path. What do you expect the path to be? And when will this LAPD corruption scandal investigation likely be over?

WEICHERT: Years. The path that's going to start is -- they are going to take information from Perez and then, once FBI and IRS will be involved -- because there are allegations of thefts of money, IRS is going to do the financial background information -- they have to corroborate Perez in as many ways as they possibly can.

They will talk to the officers, but I assume they aren't going to get much information from many of the officers that worked with Perez. There've been some articles recently, then a couple of officers may be talking, but I wouldn't put a lot of weight into that there's going to be a lot of corroboration on that side.

And then you go out and you talk to the purported victims, the people who supposedly had dope planted on them, or were the victims of an unreasonable use of force.

In the case that Roger and I tried, it was very difficult because the task force was targeting some of the worse drug dealers in South Central Los Angeles. And so, for to a jury to believe that drugs were planted on drug dealers was a difficult concept.

I think it will be easier in this case for the feds to prosecute, because it sounds like the victims are a lot cleaner. They may not be drug dealers. In fact, many may not have had records at all. And that's the one difference, in my mind, between the case that we worked on before and this case, is that it seems like a community was victimized and the information about going to INS to try to get people deported all fits within this general scheme of a department that ran amok.

COSSACK: Tom, you know, when Dave and I tried that case, some of the evidence that we were told early on was that a deputy sheriff said, the way it worked was that we would get out of the academy and then we would ride along with our first supervisor, who would say: Forget everything you've learned in the academy, we are going to show you the way it goes, right now. Is that part of the Los Angeles Police Department culture?

LANGE: Well, the way it really is certainly doesn't extend to planting evidence, and shooting suspects, and the brutality that we've been talking about here. It extends to life on the streets, the way things really are. They don't teach you in the academy how to react to a drunk spitting in your face. You can't crush somebody's skull if they do that: they do teach you that.

But it's just that things are different in the street, and there is no training -- you know, we plant guns, we plant evidence.

I did this for 29 years, and I've never seen any planting of evidence. I have seen excessive force, but they were probably under circumstances where it was justified. But, as far as shooting suspects, planting guns, planting dope, and this type of thing, just does not occurred normally; this is an aberration.

COSSACK: I don't know, Greta. This is -- it seems to me this is going to be an investigation, like Dave says, that's just going to take forever and really hurt the city of Los Angeles.

VAN SUSTEREN: But I -- and it hurts the good police officers, that's the problem. But it's not isolated; it happens in other cities as well, not just Los Angeles.

COSSACK: That's right. That's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests, and thank you for watching. Should students be allowed to pray at public school events, even if they initiate that prayer? Weigh in on the separation of church and state today on "TALKBACK LIVE." That's at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time, noon Pacific.

VAN SUSTEREN: And speaking of religion and government, tomorrow on BURDEN OF PROOF, law professor Alan Dershowitz joins us to discuss his new book, which traces the book of Genesis and its impact on today's justice system. Join us then on another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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