A long-time criminal defense attorney, Chaleff served as deputy counsel to the
Webster Commission, which investigated the L.A.P.D.'s handling of the Rodney King
riots. In 1997, he was appointed to the Police Commission. Later, he became
President of the Commission and played an instrumental role in negotiating the
Department of Justice consent decree that provides federal monitoring
of L.A.P.D. reforms. In February, 2001 Chaleff was removed from the Commission by
Mayor Richard Riordan. FRONTLINE interviewed Chaleff on February 28, 2001.
Mr. Chaleff, one of the things we're trying to get a sense of is a profile
of the Los Angeles Police Department, not necessarily in the Rampart
context, but in its ideal mode, if you would. Could you help me to understand
the persona of the L.A.P.D. as against, for example, an East Coast model?
Well, the Los Angeles Police Department, at least for the last 50 years, has
been a department that is probably among the smallest per population size. So
we have a highly mobile police department that's more of an incident-responding
department. It responds to incidents, rather than being out in the community
and walking the streets, and doing things like that.
New York has 40,000-plus police officers. Chicago has 22,000. Los Angeles
has--I think, as of today and the end of February--9,100 sworn police officers.
And with our large geographical size, we have a department that primarily is in
cars, responding to incidents.
Some of the effects are that we tend to have more--or at least we used to
have--more arrests per contact than other departments. There is less time to
do some of the community policing that other departments may do. . . . Because of
our size and our geography, we tend to have less involvement with people with
individual police officers on a daily basis. . . . It's a highly mobile strike
force kind of police department, and I don't mean that in a negative sense.
But that's the way it's evolved. . . .
You might not necessarily have personal experience in this regard, but do
you get the sense, from the outside looking at the L.A.P.D. and how it relates to
the community, that it is in a sort of state of perpetual adversarial
relationship with the community? [It wasn't] New York's hip-hop scene, but
this hip-hop scene that comes up with "Cop Killer," for example.
I think part of it is because of the lack of daily involvement of people with
police officers. You don't see them. In New York, you see a police officer
walking down the street, he sort of looks like us. In Los Angeles, you don't
see that. And the police officers, they don't have that feeling that
they're just another person. They don't live in the communities. Most Los
Angeles police officers live outside the city of Los Angeles because of prices,
so they live in areas surrounding Los Angeles. In some ways, there is not a
feeling that they're part of the community.
And again, because of the size, and the fact that they're mostly in cars, you
have this feeling that the department and the community aren't that close. That
may be why people view that. Also, the problems with the Los Angeles Police
Department that have been publicized have not been ones--for the most part,
until recently--of corruption. They've been one of violence. And that, again,
adds to some tension between the community and the department. . . .
So if there were use-of-force problems, presumably there was protest over
use-of-force. Did that tend to get traction over the years in the L.A.P.D.?
It did, at times. We had situations where there was a problem with the use of
the chokehold, which was ultimately prohibited by the Los Angeles Police
Department. We had the Rodney King incident. . . . We had other incidents that
have caused the department to be reviewed.
We now have this consent decree that's been agreed to by the city of Los
Angeles, which was based, in part, upon the fact that the Department of Justice
was alleging the pattern or practice of constitutional violations that include
excessive force. . . .
Rodney King Legacy
When you saw the Rodney King tape--that endless loop that played
forever--when you saw that, what did you see?
I was horrified. I thought that it was clearly officers out of control.
Clearly, if this was the climate of the Los Angeles Police Department, then we
were in serious trouble, and something had to be done.
Did some part of you say, "That's not the L.A.P.D. I know?"
No, and the reason being is not because that's not the individual officers I
know. Certainly I know a lot of police officers, and they're all hard working,
honest, thoughtful police officers trying to do a good job. Being a police
officer is not an easy job, and I think we all have to understand the
Certainly you could argue that, in the Rodney King case, the adrenaline is
flowing, and they're chasing someone, and then this incident occurs. But was I
surprised that this happened in Los Angeles? No. Because as a defense lawyer,
you know that there are situations that you've heard about where people
arrested, or accused, or roughed up. Was I surprised at the violence of it and
the length of it? Yes. . . .
On some level, did the Rodney King incident afford an opportunity to examine
the way L.A. policing is done?
Sure, absolutely. . . . The old adage about a picture being worth a thousand
words--when you see somebody on the ground being beaten, or appear to be being
beaten by four or five officers, with other officers standing around--and then
some of the comments that were made afterwards and how it was handled, it
certainly conveys an image. . . . When you have a symbol like that of that's how
your police department operates, of course it's going to lead to people saying
that we have to evaluate what we're doing.
Which in fact, occurred.
The Christopher Commission.
A couple of things about that. Again, there seems to have been, in the last
decade, a pretty constant refrain of reform. A good many commissions are
formed. You served on one, the Webster Commission. There's the Christopher
Commission, and the L.A.P.D. Commission afterwards. What needs to be reformed
about the L.A.P.D.?
That's interesting. After viewing the department from different perspectives,
including the last one of being on the Police Commission presently, I think
it's clear that we need to have a greater degree of civilian involvement in the
police department. . . . We need to bring in people from the outside to break
through the culture, and to bring the department and the community closer
Is that to say that there was, there had been, there is a problem with the
There is a problem with any organization, in any bureaucracy that feels it's
"us against them." I believe that if the department doesn't feel that it's
totally involved with the community, it's going to be more of us against them,
and then you have a problem. . .
Can you clarify my understanding? Before Rodney King, and the Christopher
Commission, and the reforms that more or less were put in place, isn't it the
case that police chiefs in Los Angeles pretty much served for life?
We had a civil service type system, and they did serve pretty much as long as
they wanted, unless there was some crisis that occurred. And there was one
chief--I think they asked him if he wanted to run for mayor, and he said, "Why?
Why should I give up the power?" So basically, yes, at one time the police
chief probably was the most powerful political figure in Los Angeles.
So what's the effect of that?
What was the effect of that? There is an independence. There is an ability to
ignore elected officials if and when they want to, which is not healthy. . . .
There are some benefits to having a police chief that had that much
independence and autonomy. But there are also many negatives, including the
fact that they can ignore public officials and the community until the outcry
becomes so great that they can't.
They are termed out now. I think that two
terms is the limit.
Two five-year terms. . . .
Chief Daryl Gates would say, for example, that . . . you now have police chiefs
having to be politicians.
Well, let's start off with every official in that kind of a position has to
have some political skills to deal with the community. And the term
"politician" is not necessarily bad; it depends on what you're trying to
connote. Are you saying, do you have to have a police chief that kowtows to
elected officials? That would be bad. I don't think we will ever get to that
But we at least have now a situation where there is the ability for the elected
officials, and the appointed officials, to have a greater impact on the person
who has the job. That person knows they're more responsible, and that their
ability to stay in that job is dependent on how they respond. . . .
When you look at Los Angeles and its problems with the police department
from the outside, in a way it seems that there is a disconnect. This is a
police department that suddenly, in the last decade or two, is having consent
decrees. They have the feds come in, and commission after commission
investigating. . . . But this is Los Angeles. This was the best police department
in the world.
Yes. I think a couple of things happened. One is Chief Parker was very good
at creating the image of the Los Angeles Police Department. He wanted a highly
professional department. He came in right after the brigadier general who came
in right after the war. . . . and he really professionalized the police
He brought in a lot of the methods and the teaching that became nationwide,
because he professionalized the department in a military type of model
And then, of course, there was a whole connection with television, with
"Dragnet." So it put L.A.P.D. in the view of being the best police department in
the country, and then there were the officers. At that time, they all looked
like they were 6'5", and in perfect physical shape.
Also, that was a time when there wasn't as much diversity, and there wasn't
much tension in the city of Los Angeles.
But then you had the Watts riots in 1965, and that began to change things,
because people began to view Los Angeles differently. They began to view Los
Angeles as a city that wasn't as homogenous as it appeared, and viewed Los
Angeles as a city that did have these kinds of tensions. People who didn't
live in minority communities began to realize there were some problems. . . .
Then, of course, in the late 1960s, everybody had problems, all across the
country. Then you went into the 1970s, where things changed. Los Angeles would
have a problem on occasion. And part of that is, again, because one, we also
are the media capital of the world. If something is going to happen here,
everybody hears about it. We've had a number of problems over the past, and I
think part of it, again, relates to the fact that we have a very small number
of police officers trying to police a very large city. . . .
[How did the gang problem develop in Los Angeles?]
You always had groups in communities. You could call them gangs, you could
call them whatever you wanted to call them, where kids, young adults, would
associate with each other. . . . They get jackets. They get colors. But they
then developed into. . . I'm not sure exactly when you can say it started, but
you had groups developing that became gangs for the protection of turf and for
. . . The gangs were getting more exclusively either black or Hispanic, and
then we had narcotics. When narcotics got involved, gangs began to have
criminal contexts to it by selling and dealing in narcotics. Then you had the
proliferation of weapons--guns, automatic weapons, Uzis, and other things that
people could really cause a great deal of damage with. Then you began to have
people fighting over turf, fighting over who could sell what narcotics in what
area, and what kind of crimes. So it became a very violent city. . . .
That led us to CRASH. I think it stood for Community Resources Against Street
Hoodlums. It was a police department inside the police department. It was a
group formed of experienced officers. It started out being experienced
officers, whose job was to be on the streets; get to know all the people in
gangs; get to know all the different gang members; get to know where the gang
territories were; and to help stop criminal activity among and between
gangs. . . .
What sort of officer would be ideal [for CRASH]?
They were some of the most, you could say, gung-ho or ambitious officers that
wanted to get into this office, because it was highly prized, and they had
freedom of movement and activity.
Were they effective?
Well, it depends on who you talk to as to what they did. Obviously, we've had
a lot of problems with what's come out in the last couple of years, but gang
violence went down. . . .
In 1980, there was a consent decree, an agreement to sort of a hiring
formula that seemed to almost literally impose a quota system. . . .
We have a number of consent decrees in the Los Angeles Police Department
relating to the hiring of women, and other restrictions on us, relating to the
use of canines. I think there was one relating to sexual preference. . . .
Is that a good thing? Is it useful?
I think it's been helpful for the department. We've had goals that have been
set to meet to increase the number of minority officers, and increase the
number of women, and some of that is being achieved. . . .
You want to have a department that looks like the community it's policing so
you can build up trust, and I think that's helpful. There are a number of
people who want to complain, who say that that's why you have problems with
your police department. But anybody who complains about it is missing the
boat, because we're not getting less qualified officers, we're just getting
different kinds of officers.
So how, exactly, does it makes them a better police force?
Well, they're more reflective of the community and of what's going on in
society. If you tried to police a community as diverse as ours with a group of
people who all thought one way, looked one way, and acted one way, it wouldn't
work, because they wouldn't be sensitive to cultural differences. They
wouldn't be sensitive to language differences. They wouldn't be sensitive to
all kinds of different things that occur. You need to have some sensitivity to
understand why it's happening. . .
Do you believe that there is an inherent good in having these hiring
I believe there is inherent good in hiring goals. I believe there is inherent
good in having a police department that looks like its community. I can't
imagine a police department that doesn't have diversity. If not, it will
always look like an occupying army. . . .
[As president of the Police Commission], let me ask you your memory of these
events. You have this "road rage" shoot-out between Frank Lyga and Kevin
Gaines, a white police officer and a black police officer, both off duty. Not
too long after that there is a bank robbery at Bank of America. They catch the
guy, David Mack, L.A.P.D. It turns out that he goes to Las Vegas two days after
the bank robbery with another officer who, it turns out, is Rafael Perez, who
is stealing cocaine and putting it on the street. How did this look to
[It] caused me to believe that we needed to have a more thorough review of how
these things could happen, and why. The department did a board of inquiry
report. And I felt it was imperative that the Commission conduct its own
For a couple of reasons. One, I didn't believe that any internal report would
be acceptable by the public in general. Any time you have a group that tries
to always keep everything internal and investigate itself, and then says, "Here
are the changes we're going to make," it is subject to a lack of confidence by
everybody else, and I think that occurred.
And second, there were things they didn't explore. Obviously, they were
viewing it from a different perspective. But there are things they didn't
explore, and that we needed to expand our review way past that. What was
accomplished from that Rampart Independent Review Panel was some very
good work, which I intend to keep pushing to see that those reforms are made.
A lot of them are contained within the consent decree. . . .
When Chief Parks began to see these things happening, one thing he did was
form what became a Rampart Task Force to look into what looked liked it might
be a subculture of gangs to cops, basically. Was it appropriate, in your view,
that the L.A.P.D. be investigating itself?
Yes. I think it was appropriate. I think it's appropriate that the police
certainly began the investigation, and then the FBI became involved. I think
that certainly was appropriate.
Do you have every confidence that they expended every effort to actually get
to the bottom of it, wherever it led, however high it led?
Well, I don't think anybody could have [level of] confidence. . . . Do I think
that the officers involved, or some of the people investigating this were
highly motivated? Yes, because they were ashamed by the actions of these
people. Do I think that we know the full extent of what happened? No. Do I
think we'll ever know the full extent? No.
I think one of the problems we had is Chief Parks' refusal to allow any kind of
amnesty or immunity for officers coming forward for wrongdoing that may have
occurred in the past that they now wanted to talk about. And they are fearful
of being punished, because of L.A.P.D.'s rule about if you fail to report a
misconduct, you're guilty of misconduct. That inhibited the ability to have
officers come forward. . . .
When you hear those stories that Ray Perez starts to tell, what do you hear?
What's your response?
Well, I have a certain cynicism of somebody who has been in the criminal
justice system for a very long time. My first thought as I heard them, and
read some of them in the newspapers and other places, is that I didn't believe
all of it. I thought some of it was true, but not all of it. I thought some
people were trying to get a deal. There was embellishment going on. I think
that there is some truth to what he says, but certainly I don't think every
individual incident that he talks about is probably supported by other facts.
But it certainly was a situation where you said, "There is a problem here. If
there is not a department that is out of control, which there didn't appear to
be, there are certainly individual parts of it that needed more control, and
had problems, major problems." And I think that's what we found.
Was this particular CRASH unit a bunch of rogue cowboy vigilante
Well, this particular CRASH. . . First of all, there was something in L.A.P.D. called
"the Rampart Way,"--things in Rampart were done differently. But second of
all, this particular Rampart unit was in a building away from the main station
because of space problems, without supervision. So you had these sergeants,
senior police officers and others doing whatever they wanted to. That's always
What was "the Rampart Way"?
That's just the way of how they dealt with things. I don't know if they ever
really totally defined it. But Rampart had its own unique way of doing things.
Also, Rampart had a unique population. Many people in that community are
recent immigrants from Central and South America. They expected the police
department to act differently than others might expect the police department.
So I think they developed their own methodology of how they wanted to deal with
it. Many people who would say that the CRASH unit in Rampart became just
another gang, and that's how they dealt with things. If some of the things
that are alleged are true--and I'm certain that some of them are--they were as
violent as gang members are, and they cut corners.
We, as a society, always have to deal with the problem of, what kind of
policing do we want? You could really have effective policing if you have a
police officer on every corner, and if you say to the police officers, "You
don't have to follow any rules. You just go find the bad guys." But that
obviously creates problems, because then you're letting the police department
decide what the bad guys are, and what the rules are.
We developed this constitutional system that has kept us going for over 200
years with the type of society we want, so we need effective policing within
the rules. I think sometimes, in places where officers are not supervised--and
CRASH is one of them--or don't have rules that they're following, you end up
with officers acting extra-judicially, or outside the law.
. . . Rafael Perez started talking about, "It wasn't just me and my pals
doing that bank robbery, it was really the culture," kind of stuff. Do you
think that he perceived, and was there actually, a real eagerness to hear this
about the L.A.P.D.?
By the media, by politicians, by antagonists?
Many people fastened onto it to further whatever cause they had. But there
were a number of people who were obviously concerned with: is this our police
department? And if it is, is this the type of police department we want? I
think the answer is no.
Now, there are some people that would say, "I want a police department that's
really thorough, and I want a police department that's efficient, and I don't
have to worry about the rules, because they're not going to do it to me."
That's when I personally get nervous, because everybody is subject to police
power, and we have to make sure that the rules are followed.
But as you know, Mr. Chaleff, you and I could go get in your car right now
and drive just a few blocks down and be in Rampart.
And in Rampart, we could go to the community, knock on some doors, and ask
some people there, "How do you feel about the CRASH officers that used to be
here, and no longer are here?"
They want them back. They want them back, because they felt their community
was safer, because they weren't the ones getting picked on. Then the question
becomes, as a society, do we want to have officers who can circumvent rules,
violate constitutional provisions--if that is what occurs--in order to insure
safety? I am one of those who believes that you can't do that. Because every
time you do that, the line gets more elastic, and things that begin to happen
are going to get worse and worse. You have to devise strategies that are
within the rules.
We now have this consent decree. CRASH has been re-formed and renamed
as Special Enforcement Unit-Gangs, I believe. It still can perform its job
effectively. But now it has greater oversight by its sergeants, lieutenants,
captains and commanders, and the rules are set out more clearly. I think
they'll be able to accomplish their mission, but within the rules.
Federal Oversight of L.A.P.D.
What is your view of the current consent decree?
First of all, it's not a federal takeover. It's basically guidelines of how
this department is supposed to operate. As the federal judge said in one of
the hearings, we have been attempting since 1965 to achieve some meaningful
police reform, and now we have the opportunity. As someone who took part in
the negotiations almost on a daily basis for six months, I think we have
achieved real meaningful reform within that document, which can serve as a
model for other cities and other departments throughout the country. . . .
To the L.A.P.D., from inside Parker Center, it doesn't look that way at all. Do
you understand that?
Sure, I understand that. Any bureaucracy feels they know best. But this is a
department, like any other department that serves the public, that is subject
to public responsibility, to oversight by the public. And I think if you
walked around Los Angeles, you'd find that the majority of the people, in fact,
a great majority of people in Los Angeles, think the consent decree is a good
idea, and what's in it is good. . . .
Chief Parks' Response
Help me to understand Chief Parks in this Rampart scandal. Where is he on
it? You've been an informed observer. Has he been interested in shutting this
thing down, identifying enough of a scandal to shut it down and move on? Or
has he really been interested in getting in there, and rooting around, and
doing a [thorough investigation]?
That's a difficult question, because I think that he's exhibited both. You can
look at the fact of his highly public dispute with the district attorney about
filing cases--you can argue either way--that he wanted to get cases going so
officers would then begin to cooperate. Or, in fact, he wanted to have certain
ones picked off, and that would be the end of it.
His bringing in the FBI and the U.S. attorney would indicate that he wanted a
more wide-ranging [investigation]. One of my concerns was that they began to
do administrative hearings too quickly on matters that I thought weren't that
important. That caused the Board of Rights to begin to basically say, "We
can't trust Perez," because there was a drinking party up at the academy,
which is certainly small in comparison to other things. Why? You'd have to
ask them why they did that. I think the department sent out mixed messages. . . .
He certainly wanted certain people prosecuted. . . . Whether or not there is an
honest belief that it was Perez and limited to a small group of people, or
whether, because of their board of inquiry report or others, or whether they
felt that we should contain it, I can't answer that. I think the best I can
say is that the department has sent mixed messages. . . .
Having ended up where we have, do you think, in retrospect, that on some
level, Rafael Perez sort of outsmarted the system?
No. He's still got many problems. They are investigating him now for some
other stuff. The federal government, I'm sure, is looking at ways to try to
indict him for things, and get around the immunity. . . . One thing you can say is
that you can't overlook the fact that we have over 100 people whose
convictions have been overturned, which means there seriously was a
problem. There was a serious problem that this many people could be
We had a number of shootings and officers involved with uses of force. It
appeared that the reports that we received as a commission, and others, were
not correct. There was fraud in them. They were not investigated the way they
should have been, for various reasons. So obviously, there were systematic
problems that we were trying to deal with.
One of the results of those problems, and the overturning, and the opening
of the jail cell doors, is that it has [created] this class of instant
millionaire criminals. How do you feel about that?
. . . The people whose rights have been violated, obviously, should be
compensated. I don't think we have instant millionaire criminals yet. I
think we have one person who received a large settlement who was crippled for
life. No matter what your background is going into that, he was crippled for
life by improper activity, and then it was covered up, and then he was sent to
jail by it being covered up. Certainly that is improper, and people should be
compensated for that. . . .
You don't believe that we have gotten necessarily to the whole bottom of it.
And you also believe that we may never get there. How far along a path towards
necessary reform do you think we've gotten?
I think we're at the threshold. The consent decree is a good start.
The consent decree puts in many reforms of, as I say, oversight and
accountability, and making sure the department has more information, so that it
can run better. It has safeguards built in, in relation to simple oversight
and community involvement. I think it's the beginning.
Now we have to look at what kind of police commission do we want, if we want
one? Do we want full-time people? We have to look at, should they be involved
in discipline, as the sheriff's department is now involving civilians in
discipline, by hiring lawyers to actually run some of the discipline system in
their internal investigation? It has happened in other cities, where other
type of individuals besides lawyers run those systems.
There are a number of changes that we have to make about how we want our
department to run. We have the opportunity, and Los Angeles has a history of
having opportunities and missing them. I think it's up to us now to make sure
we don't miss this one.