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gerald chaleff

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.
L.A.P.D. Culture

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.

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.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 pressures.

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 together.

Is that to say that there was, there had been, there is a problem with the L.A.P.D. culture?

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 situation.

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 department.

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 structure.

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. . . .

CRASH

[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 criminal activity.

. . . 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 goals?

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. . . .

Rampart Scandal

[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 you?

[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 study.

Why?

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. . . .

Perez's Allegations

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 cops?

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 a problem.

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 who?

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.

That's right.

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 convicted.

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.


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