1999 the year in review:
Whos watching the watchers? Everyone.
The belief that police departments are capable of policing themselves took a withering barrage of hits in 1999, with local, state and Federal officials lining up to add layer upon layer of scrutiny to municipal agencies. In some cases, controversial police shootings took center stage. Other agencies found daunting corruption scandals on their hands. And then there were those that simply got caught up in the wave of police-oversight frenzy.
It is perhaps no surprise that the years two most attention-grabbing episodes played out in the nations two biggest departments. In New York, the tone was set for the year for the Police Department when an unarmed street peddler named Amadou Diallo was fatally shot by members of the plainclothes Street Crimes Unit on Feb. 4, sparking an international incident and weeks of civil disobedience, and edging the city closer to Federal oversight.
On the West Coast, meanwhile, the shock wave took the form of a drug-corruption scandal that broke in September when a former Los Angeles police officer pleaded guilty to stealing eight pounds of cocaine from an evidence locker, and then revealed to investigators a laundry list of criminal activity alleged perpetrated by members of the LAPDs Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) unit.
Lining up to investigate
On May 26, the United States Commission on Civil Rights joined other state and Federal entities in examining the practices of the NYPD in the wake of the Diallo shooting. Hit 19 times by four white officers who fired a total of 41 bullets, Diallos death became a rallying point for a wide spectrum of stakeholders, from civil libertarians to celebrities to black activists and some city officials. During a day of public hearings, the eight members of the civil rights panel seemed puzzled by the stark disparities in testimony from city and police officials and from civil rights activists, community leaders and private citizens.
While Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir testified that street crimes and police shootings had plummeted due to the restraint shown by NYPD officers, others demanded drastic measures and outside intervention for a department they saw as out of control. Said Harvard Law School professor Christopher Edley Jr., one of the commissions members: The polarization of perception is perhaps the single biggest obstacle to overcome.
At the time of the hearing, the NYPD was already under investigation by the City Council, the state Attorney Generals office and Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Under a 1994 law, U.S. Attorneys can go to court if they find a pattern of abuse within a law enforcement agency, and prosecutors had concluded that the NYPD fails to punish aggressively officers involved in excessive force incidents.
Giuliani, who has heartily resisted outside monitoring of the Police Department, said any move in that direction would be viewed by him as politically motivated. In August, city officials floated a proposal to increase the authority of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which has been criticized as having few teeth. Under the plan, the review boards findings in misconduct cases would no longer be reinvestigated by police.
At the state level, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer refused the citys request that he hold off on his probe until the other investigations were completed. Such a delay, Spitzer said, would be tantamount to terminating the inquiry. As it was, Spitzer had to use the threat of a subpoena to receive stop-and-frisk reports written by members of the NYPDs Street Crimes Unit, which had already been made available to Federal prosecutors. The reports showed that during 1996 and 1997, at least 85 percent of the 45,500 residents who drew the attention of SCU officers were nonwhites. A preliminary analysis of the reports written during 1998 and 1999 showed that in the 20 precincts where the SCU squad was active, more than 63 percent of all people frisked were black.
The latest round of inquiries into the NYPD could hardly have come at a worse time, with the civil rights hearing taking place just a day after Office Justin Volpe pleaded guilty to Federal charges of violating the civil rights of a Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima, by beating him and sodomizing him with a stick. On June 8, one of Volpes co-defendants, Officer Charles Schwarz, was convicted of holding Louima down while Volpe tortured him. Two other officers and a sergeant were acquitted in the case, although the matter appears far from settled, with some claiming that the jury convicted the wrong officer when it found Schwarz guilty.
Shots fired so are officers
In Riverside, Calif., a 15-member civilian review board was impaneled in January to reevaluate local police policies governing use of force, in the aftermath of the Dec. 28, 1998, shooting of 19-year-old Tyisha Miller by four white officers. Police were summoned when Millers cousin called 911to report that the victim seemed to be having a seizure in her locked, idling car. On the seat next to her was a .38-caliber pistol. Unable to rouse Miller, police broke the windows of her car. Hearing a boom, one of the officers began firing. In all, 24 rounds were fired into Millers vehicle she was hit 12 times.
The shooting touched off well-attended protests organized by church and civil rights groups. The four officers involved were cleared by the county district attorney on May 6, but still faced investigation by the FBI. Millers parents filed a Federal civil rights lawsuit on May 18 alleging brutality and the use of racial slurs. Riverside Police Chief Jerry Carroll announced on June 11 that the officers would be fired.
Racism is a cancer
Another police-involved shooting that prompted extensive public outcry and led to enhanced supervision of the department took place in Hartford, Conn., where a white patrol officer shot Aquan Salmon, an unarmed, black 14-year-old, in the back on April 13. Within days of the incident, Gov. John Rowland gave control of the investigation to the Connecticut State Police and appointed an outside prosecutor.
Police Chief Joseph Croughwell then dropped a bombshell, painfully conceding that racism had taken root in the department. Said Croughwell: I dont think were at the point where were going to die from a cancer, but if we dont remove it and we dont take care of it, we certainly could.
The Chief did not win any popularity contests with his troops after suggesting that officers socialize interracially as a means of countering bias within the department. The agency, he said, would have to fix itself before it could repair its relationship with the community. Croughwell suggested that officers refuse to attend any function that did not include blacks and Hispanics.
CRASH, boom, bang
In Los Angeles, former LAPD officer Rafael A. Perez traded information regarding the illegal activities of CRASH unit members for a lighter sentence. Officers routinely abused their authority and committed illegal acts to impress colleagues and superiors, he said.
Among the tales Perez told investigators was that he and his partner shot and paralyzed an unarmed gang member in 1996 and placed a semiautomatic weapon on the unconscious suspect. They then claimed he had tried to shoot them during a stakeout. The suspect is now suing the city, Perez and other officers for $20 million.
Currently being reinvestigated is an incident in which Perez and another partner, David A. Mack, shot an alleged drug dealer who witnesses claimed was unarmed. (Mack was sentenced on Sept. 13 to 14 years in prison for the 1997 robbery of a Bank of America branch, in which he and a bank employee fled with $722,000 in cash.)
By October, eight members of the CRASH unit had been either fired or suspended, including Officer Brian Hewitt, who was dismissed after beating a suspect in an interview room until he vomited blood. While the incidents of corruption and other wrongdoing were bad enough in themselves, prosecutors and officials found they had an even bigger mess on their hands because many of the CRASH officers facing disciplinary action in the scandal are the same ones whose testimony on specific gang members was used to shape an anti-gang injunction one of the few in the country to withstand judicial review.
In the aftermath of Perezs allegations, Judge Fumiko H. Wasserman temporarily halted all enforcement of the 1998 injunction around McArthur Park until at least early December. Another judge set aside an injunction ordered in 1997 affecting gang members in the Pico Union area.
At the same time that details of the CRASH units illegal activities were being revealed, the LAPD was under two sets of eyes the departments system of internal review boards and a newly appointed inspector general, Jeffrey C. Eglash, the former head of the public corruption section of the U.S. Attorneys office in Los Angeles, who was named to the post in June.
Indeed, attempts by Police Commissioner Bernard C. Parks to establish his own internal board of inquiry into the departments handling of officer-involved shootings, the supervision of troops and allegations of malfeasance were quashed by the City Attorneys Office, which issued an opinion stating that the appointed head of the Police Commission is the head of the LAPD. The opinion undercut Parks authority on every aspect of police matters, and gave broad authority to Eglash to obtain any department document he seeks.
The U.S. Attorneys Office for the Central District of California went a step further when it announced in September the creation of a new Civil Rights Section that would act as yet a third oversight mechanism for the LAPD and scores of other departments within the prosecutors heavily populated, seven-county jurisdiction.
Outside monitoring of the LAPD and the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department had been recommended by the Kolts Commission, a panel that had conducted a six-year investigation of racial bias and tension between the agencies and the communities they serve. In a 233-page study released in May, the commission called for, among other measures, the creation of a civilian review panel and an independent prosecutor to try and investigate police misconduct cases.
The recommendations were warranted, said the study, by a history of mistrust in the community towards the LASD and an inherent conflict of interest in the dependence of the District Attorneys office on police to prosecute crime. It would be better to relieve the D.A.s office of responsibility for prosecuting officers, said the Kolts Report.
The study found that the establishment in 1994 of an Office of the Ombudsman by the LASD has done little to quell demands for civilian review. While acknowledging that such boards do not find officers at fault any more often than do internal panels, their decisions are more widely accepted because of their perceived independence from the law enforcement agency, it said.
New York and Los Angeles may be the 800-pound gorillas of media attention, but the clamor for police oversight made its presence felt just as readily into other jurisdictions as well. The city of Seattle will appoint a civilian to head a new Office of Public Accountability, in response to one of a series of recommendations made by a citizen review panel established in the wake of allegations that a former homicide detective stole $10,000 from a crime scene.
According to testimony in King County Superior Court, the detective, Earl Sonny Davis Jr., pocketed a bundle of money he found in the sewing cabinet of a man killed in a shootout with police in 1996. Prosecutors contended that Davis, confronted by his partner, returned the money and later staged a discovery of the cash with his supervisor during a second trip to the scene.
The troubled SPD was also probed this year by the FBI after some of the review panels confidential files vanished from police headquarters.
In Columbus, Ohio, meanwhile, the battle lines have been drawn in a contest of wills involving the U.S. Justice Department, the city and its Division of Police, the local Fraternal Order of Police and an array of civil rights groups and community activists. At issue is a proposed consent decree between the Justice Department and the city over allegations that police engaged in abuses ranging from excessive force to improper searches.
The city and DoJ had completed the proposed settlement in August, but city officials were unable to implement reforms without the consent of the FOP, whose contract with the city prohibited many of the changes sought by the Justice Department. The union refused to go along, and the city told the Feds, in effect, Take us to court.
DoJ officials, who had conducted a 16-month probe of alleged police abuses, filed suit in U.S. District Court in late October, charging police with a pattern and practice of misconduct. The suit would compel the city to adopt such changes as:
Creating a computer system to help supervise officers and track disciplinary actions;
Requiring officers to inform the city if they have been charged with misconduct or named in a civil suit alleging violence, racial bias, fraud or domestic violence; and
Establishing an Office of Quality Assurance to handle misconduct investigations.
The FOP is said to be especially fearful that an independent monitor would be appointed to oversee the Police Division, with the power to override arbitration and grievance procedures.
Three New York City police officers are silhouetted against a protest banner representing the 41 bullets police fired in the death of Amadou Diallo,. during a rally outside a Bronx courthouse March 30, the day before four officers were indicted for murder.