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Urban Rhythms

Told You So

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 2/23/2000

Needless to say, no one has mentioned O.J.

On Feb. 17, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan proposed that his city set aside some $300 million in expected tobacco-settlement money to help pay damages from the lawsuits he said are certain to arise from the ever-growing Rampart police scandal. Riordan's proposal was the latest and most direct acknowledgement that Los Angeles could pay—and pay dearly—for the misconduct of some of its police officers (notably those in the city's Rampart Division, a police unit focused on gang activity). Other L.A. officials have even proposed cutting new city programs or trimming existing ones in preparation for the inevitable legal and financial fallout from the scandal.

"Though we have no way of knowing the dollar amount," Riordan warned, "we must expect and prepare for tens of millions of dollars of liability."

To date, more than 70 Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers are under investigation on charges that include the attempted murder of suspects, brutality, falsifying testimony, and routine planting of evidence to obtain convictions. So far 20 officers have been fired, and 57 people who were wrongfully imprisoned have been exonerated and released. The Los Angeles District Attorney and others estimate that more than 200 people were prosecuted based on bogus evidence.

Meanwhile, some critics argue that so many officers could not have been so bad for so long without complicity from the rest of the criminal-justice system. "Every part of the system—prosecutors, defense counsel, judges, and juries—have played a role in the miscarriages of justice," Myrna Raeder, past chairperson of the American Bar Association's Criminal Justice Section, recently told the Christian Science Monitor. "The legal system has become an entrenched culture in which everyone is looking the other way."

"What is troubling to us about the Rampart scandal is the number of cases where prosecutors knew for a fact that an officer was lying," Mary Broderick, executive director of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said in the same Christian Science Monitor article. "The district attorney's office and the Los Angeles court system not only permitted but encouraged a culture in the police department that anything goes."

And yet, no one has mentioned O.J. Simpson. The former football star and his Dream Team warned us that there were bad cops in the LAPD, but folks refused to listen. Simpson was presumed to be guilty of the murders of his wife and her friend (although a jury eventually found otherwise) and the cops were presumed innocent, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. Now that we have independent confirmation that Simpson's suspicions were, at the very least, plausible, you'd think someone would think to offer him a word of apology. But nooo.

The revelations growing out of the Rampart scandal illustrate what happens when the public ignores allegations of police misconduct. During the Simpson trial, minorities of all hues claimed that police misconduct is the norm in their communities. The mainstream media treated such tales with derision, scorn, and outright contempt. But those protestations seemed disingenuous even then. Was the majority really saying it could not conceive of the law-enforcement system treating minorities unfairly, or was it saying that it did not give a damn? I vote for the latter.

Now we are in the midst of a virtual tidal wave of law-enforcement misbehavior, most of it occurring in minority communities. For example, under the banner of "zero tolerance," New York City police have behaved with the cruel indifference to civil rights you would expect to find in a Third World dictatorship. The administration of the death penalty has proved so unreliable in Illinois that the governor has declared a moratorium on executions. Allegations that police target minorities (racial profiling) have surfaced from coast to coast. Prosecutors in several jurisdictions have come under fire for overzealous prosecutions, particularly in minority communities—and for bending the rules through such tactics as deliberately withholding evidence from the defense. And technicians with the much respected FBI lab have been accused of falsifying test results and lying under oath to help prosecutors obtain convictions.

This propensity to cheat on the part of the supposed protectors of law and order is the result of the nation's demand for quick results in the war against drugs, the growing political and social influence of right-wing conservatives, and plain old-fashioned bigotry. Every time the public ignores, winks at, or tacitly applauds official misconduct, police and prosecutors feel empowered to go just a little bit further. Perhaps officials sincerely believe they are protecting the public safety by breaking the rules. But there's always a cost, as Los Angeles is discovering now—to its sorrow.

And somewhere, Simpson pauses as he heads out to the golf course, turns to his slender young blonde girlfriend of the moment, flashes his infamous scoundrel's smirk, and says, "I told 'em so."

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