March 9, 2000
By now there is no need to recap all the details of the Rampart Division police scandal. The newspapers have been on top of it, albeit late in the day. We have read about corruption by some policemen; lying and cover-ups by police administrators; planting of evidence; and even the shooting of unarmed men. We are still waiting for the final tally of wrongfully convicted men, and the complete listing of all those who need to be held accountable. Does it stop at the individual policemen in the Rampart Division? Or does it spread elsewhere in the Los Angeles Police Department?
Beyond this are perhaps questions we hesitate to ask, in part because we are reluctant to know the answers. It has occurred to some observers that at least a few of the prosecutors might have sensed the stories being told in court by police did not quite add up. But they were intent on a conviction. Or the judges: Was there not any suspicion by those on the bench about the evidence, the stories, the denials, the veracity of law enforcement officers? A few legal voices have suggested that on experience alone some judges must have turned a blind eye to the truth. And if not the truth, to the law.
At the moment we are all locked in this together, troubled, even alarmed, by this scandal. If nothing else, self-interest has propelled us to inquire about lawsuits and claims (32 lawsuits have thus far been filed, and the City Attorney's office has estimated somewhere between 120 and 180 legal actions will be taken). Will this bankrupt the city?
Perhaps, appropriately enough, we are looking for administrative solutions. That has the virtue of being bureaucratic, which means committees, commissions, diffusion of responsibility, all leading to an effect that distances us emotionally from the proceedings. One current struggle is focused on oversight of the LAPD. Should it be in-house and concentrated in the hands of Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, as he urges? Or should oversight authority be vested in an outside civilian body, particularly when Internal Affairs and officer-involved shootings or beatings are at issue?
Even here there is bureaucratic disagreement. The Police Commission, which was established by the Christopher Commission less than a decade ago, after all is a civilian review body, and its president, Gerald Chaleff, claims that review and oversight of the police department is precisely the role the Commission was assigned to play. But Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, believes the civilian Police Commission almost by definition has become part of the police department.
Journalists and lawyers and academics have taken us to task and have remarked with some concern that many in this Jewish, Latino and broader L.A. community have largely been silent on the matter of the Rampart scandal. Or, if not silent, at least not condemnatory in an active, vocal way.
But why the surprise? In some Latino communities -- certainly the one in which Rampart is located -- the choice is between the police and the gangs. Which one is more likely to claim your son? In a majority of cases the families tend to choose the police over the gangs -- even though individual gang members were innocent. It is, I suppose, an opting for some kind of vigilante justice.
In the Jewish community the divisions seem to me more complicated. Those of us -- myself included -- whose professional life is connected to the Bill of Rights of course respond more directly to abuses of police power. Civil rights is not an abstract concept or an intellectual game that attracts our interest. Quite the contrary: it consumes our lives, professionally and, in many instances, emotionally as well. We not only are disturbed by corruption within the LAPD, but we feel the need for the community to share our perspective. After all, we tend to say, as though the public interest belongs to us, it is the community's interests we are championing, not our own. We are the guardians of a just society and we assume (sometimes self-righteously, sometimes naively) that such an ideal benefits everyone equally.
Not all Jews in Los Angeles hold this view. Safety from the threat of gangs takes precedence for some, even if it means overlooking a number of police abuses. Weed out the bad apples, goes the reasoning, but let the police have the necessary power to combat our (and their) enemies.
A few critics have commented that what we are witnessing is an end-of-decade weariness, a sort of "pox on all their houses" attitude. After the infamous Rodney King videotape, the O.J. Simpson trial, the shooting of the homeless woman, the killing of the black woman asleep in her car, and the recitation of abuses in New York (which made national headlines), we may be living in a society that has all but given up the possibility of achieving large-scale permanent reform. The police are who they are, no less than the gang members. And at best we can try only for limited changes in response to specific abuses.
Obviously I am not sympathetic to this line of reasoning, though I recognize some of its resignation. At this stage of the game, I have opinions, but no concrete solutions to propose. But I believe that a healthy start lies in hearing the chorus raise its many voices; expressing its different points of view. There will be two forums this week on Rampart: One sponsored by by the ADL at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Westside Campus, Tuesday evening (see the ad on page 34); the other organized by the Progressive Jewish Alliance at Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills (see page 24). All this is not to promote the ads. Just a way of saying I would like to hear your voices. -- Gene Lichtenstein