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Gil Garcetti

Garcetti became District Attorney for Los Angeles County in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating. Though unable to win a conviction in the O.J. Simpson trial, Garcetti did win re-election as DA in 1996. But with the L.A.P.D. Rampart scandal unfolding, Garcetti was defeated in 2000 by one of his deputies, Steve Cooley. FRONTLINE interviewed Garcetti on February 27, 2001.
What was your response when you saw the videotape of Rodney King and the L.A.P.D. standing over him with their batons?

I had two responses. One was the initial response about how horrible this is, and why isn't anyone in uniform stopping this? That was number one. Number two, "Wait a minute. I'm only seeing what's on television. I don't trust what's on television. I want to see the whole thing."

That's interesting. And when you saw the whole thing?

I'm still not sure whether I know everything that took place. But certainly, by the time I saw the tape--and don't forget, I was not district attorney then--I certainly saw enough evidence of criminal culpability by police officers who were participating in the beating, and who were doing nothing to stop the beating. . . .

The tape seemed to tell me that the individuals that were seen on tape had such arrogance about being able to get away with it, that no one was pulling people off saying, "Stop this. This is crazy. We can't do this. This is not what we're supposed to do." And that's just the sense I had of this arrogance. "We can get away with it."

And where did that arrogance come from?

I can't answer that. I don't know if it's the culture of the L.A.P.D.. I don't know if it's the history of the police agency in Los Angeles over the years.

As you're on your way to becoming the elected district attorney, there's a huge call for reform. Was the Los Angeles Police Department, in your view, in need of reform?

Obviously, it was in need of reform. This was not an isolated incident, where one individual, or even one individual and a partner, lost control. But this tape showed several individuals, including a supervisor, who apparently didn't do anything to really stop it. . . .

Rafael Perez

Tell me when you first hear, in a meaningful way, the name Rafael Perez.

They weren't caught up in the heat of emotion.  This wasn't someone that tried to kill them and they lost control for a split second.  These are evil cops.. . . It first came to my attention that a police officer was thought to have stolen some cocaine. Then I started getting phone calls from the chief of police, so I know that, OK, there is a little more to this than stealing cocaine. . . . We have one of our prosecutors, a specially trained prosecutor, now assigned to work with the police during the investigation phase. And they continue to work together to try to develop it.

At one point, they want to settle the case, but they want to settle it at such an insignificant sentence that we say, "No," so we go to trial. We're not successful in that trial. It's a hung jury. Then we start again. . . .

. . . You build a case against the guy. You take him to court. You don't win. Why didn't you just leave it there? Why did you keep going after him?

Because we honestly felt that Perez was involved in greater criminality, and that he could be the one that would lead us to even bigger fish, so to speak. . . .

It turns out you do build a case against him. You all make it clear to him, literally up at the moment of trial, that you've got him. He has an awakening, and makes a proffer. How do you hear about that?

I hear it by briefings by my staff, but also from the chief, who is leaning on me to accept an offer. . . . I was not personally happy accepting or making the offer that we eventually did make to Perez. I would have preferred a couple more years there. But we have come a long way from where the chief and others wanted us to go. They wanted us to accept something substantially less than that. But once we made the offer, and then when we heard what he had to say, we had to find out what this was all about. It was so shocking. I have investigated police officers who have shot citizens, but not once have I investigated a police officer who intentionally shot, and left for dead, someone that he believed he knew was innocent of any criminal wrongdoing. . . .

Is Rafael Perez a believable fellow?

That's the question that I asked. "How can we believe him? He's lied to everyone, for God's sake. You want me to believe now what he's saying?" And you know what? They said, "Yes. He's incredible, Gil. This guy is really persuasive. He's telling the truth. We're convinced of this. So we'll go out and find out some corroboration of it then." And they were able to come back with a little corroboration.

But in the meantime, I was asking my staff. This guy has testified. Do you mean to tell me there is not one judge, not one prosecutor, who has said, "Hey, this guy is a liar?" So we started looking and talking. I personally talked to a couple of our prosecutors who had him as witnesses, to tell me about him. One man, a senior prosecutor in our office, said he was the best witness I ever had. Number one, he read the reports before he testified, and that's a big plus right there.

Two, he wasn't someone who came across as biased or prejudiced towards us. He was always friendly to everyone. He came across as relaxed. He was an awesome witness. . . . At the time Perez appeared for his sentencing, when he gave his statement, I was not in the courtroom. But several people told me that you can see why people would believe this guy. He is tremendous in terms of just engaging you. . . .

Now, let's look at this from a slightly different angle. Step back. We have these incidents. We have a shooting, a weird shooting, involving a cop. We have Death Row Records, Biggie Smalls, and maybe cops involved around the peripheries of that. A bank robbery, Rafael Perez stealing coke, putting coke out on the street. Big deal. You guys go after him. You nail him to the wall. You get him to confess, to plead, and flip him. He is now going to tell you a lot of things.

Right.

Does he tell you about David Mack?

No.

Did he tell you anything about Biggie Smalls' murder or any of that stuff?

No.

Does he tell you anything at all about any of the other fellows that might be involved in the bank robberies or any of that?

Nothing.

He stays away from that?

He stays away from it. By other people's accounts--not mine, because I've never met the man--he seems to have a very strong relationship towards Mr. Mack. I don't know if that's fear, or an affection.

So it must occur to you that he knows something.

I'm absolutely convinced he knows something. He has never told us. . . . He was trying to cut himself a deal. He told us things that we never expected to hear--never. Still, as I sit here a few years later, I'm still stunned by what took place and what he told us. But he didn't tell us the big things that we really wanted to hear.

There is a suspicion that, in the same way that Perez claims that he and his fellows put cases on these gang members, that what Ray Perez is really doing is putting these cases on the cops.

That's why we had to have corroboration. You cannot prosecute one of these cases on the basis of Officer Perez saying, "You did it. Pete is the bad guy." Pete might be the bad guy, but unless you show me as a prosecutor something that corroborates this liar, the thief, the perjurer Officer Perez, then I'm not going to prosecute it. . . .

The portrait that Rafael Perez was painting of the CRASH unit at Rampart--what did that tell you?

That if we were to believe Officer Perez, then we had a rogue group of cops who were totally out of control, who were unsupervised, who were their own little enforcement group. They didn't care what the law was. They didn't care what right or wrong was. They were going to do what they wanted to do. It was a very deep feeling of angst on my part--how far does this go? How widespread is it? How far up does it go? Are we ever going to be able to find out? The only way you find out is by getting other officers to cooperate.

L.A.P.D. Response

And so, these weeks and months and actually, and now years later, is that to say that you know everything there is to know? That you've found the answer?

No.

Why not?

The investigation didn't go, I believe, the way it could have gone. . . . You simply cannot make successful police corruption cases without police officers working with you. We had some officers who were willing to work with us, and some of them did, to some extent. But the ones that were out there, who we think could have really helped us, could not, or would not, step forward, because they were afraid--fearful of administrative retribution within their own department.

But the fear of administrative retribution is not particular to the Los Angeles Police Department, and there are successful inquiries into police misconduct elsewhere. What was the problem?

The problem simply was that this police department wasn't willing to do what the New York City Police Department and other police departments had done, and that is give some administrative leniency to police officers who would help you go after a bigger fish. In other words, if we had a police officer who had in fact witnessed some wrongdoing in the Rampart division, but was a rookie cop and saw it, and was scared to death. Maybe knew that she or he had to report this, but was scared, and didn't report it. Three or four years later, this explodes and they said, "OK, I'm going to step forward now." And then he or she is told, "Fine, step forward. But you will be fired because you did not report it when you should have."

My position was--and I conveyed this to the chief--I said, "Bend on this, for heaven's sake. Discipline that person, sure. Give them some time off, or write up a report. Don't fire them, because that person will never step forward." He was unyielding on this. And he has total control and discretion here. No one can tell him--not the police commissioner, not the mayor, not the D.A. No one can tell him. He said no. If you broke the rule, you have to pay the price, and the price is you will be fired. He knew that that's the position he was going to take, and that we would not get those officers who could step forward. . . . The effect was that we didn't go as far with the case as I felt that we could, and that is really warranted by the evidence, and by the allegations made by Perez and others. . . .

Community Response

In the Rampart Division, the citizens, the people in the community there in essence say, "Give us CRASH back."

Definitely.

Does that surprise you?

That doesn't surprise me at all, because I've heard this. I've talked to citizens there. I understand how, in the poorer or lower-income areas, they rely on the police much more than they do on the wealthier areas of Los Angeles. And the vast majority of those citizens are law-abiding citizens who are terrorized by gang members and by other people who are involved in crime, and the police truly are their saviors. So, "Did they beat up someone unnecessarily? He'll recover from it." That's what you hear.

Those people who are saying that the police are their saviors. They very much do perceive that. And the police are their saviors from folks who have broken the law, terrorized their neighborhood, disrupted their lives, and in some cases made it impossible to have anything like a normal kind of domestic existence. People, in other words, like these gang members, who you have been in charge of putting away. People who have, because of this case, in many instances, been let out of jail, and have turned into millionaires on the city's dime. What should we think of that? I wouldn't focus on it, because you're talking about a very small number of people who, because they are now fairly well-to-do, are probably not involved in crime. Where I would be focusing on is, what has happened to those communities? We had, for example, injunctions against gangs in some of these areas, and those injunctions have now been thrown out. The result of that is crime has gone up. The result of that is that your citizens are a lot more fearful of crime than he or she was when we had the injunctions. . . .

Tell me about these injunctions. How did it help with the war on gangs?

The traditional role of a prosecutor is that you wait for a crime to be committed. The police investigate it. They bring it to you. If there is enough evidence, you prosecute. That's how you handle crime. You take the bad guys off the street. My position as district attorney was that there has to be a better way than that. I said, "Why don't we work in several areas like preventing crimes, keeping kids in school, etc., that kind of thing, but also with gangs? Why do we wait for them to commit a crime? Why don't we do something before they commit the crime?"

If you go into a community, the citizens can tell you yes, it's Johnny, it's Joe, it's Juan, it's Derrick. They'll tell you, and they'll tell you what they've been doing. The police officers who are out there know who they are. The probation officers know who they are. There are various probation violations going on. I said, "Let's go in there. Let's get an injunction against the gang that is terrorizing a particular community in a geographic area. Let's prohibit them from doing certain things that are lawful." For example, you can't come into this area with another identified gang member, or you violate the injunction. That stops them in their tracks. You can't use a pager. You can't ride a bicycle to be a lookout for police, etc., that kind of thing.

So did that prove to be a useful tool for the cops?

It was useful for the community. It was an incredible success in substantially reducing crime in every community it went in, and we got the injunction. And they were all upheld. They didn't violate any constitutional rights of any individual. We were very careful. It was very time-consuming. The citizens felt they were part of the process now. Their identities were protected, and crime really went down substantially. But once we had Perez tell us what they were doing, and we relied on these police officers that they were telling the truth, we had to go into court ourselves and say, "Remove the injunction." That's when the community got upset, and rightfully. "Wait a minute, what is that going to do? That will increase crime again. Now I have to worry about my son and daughter again." And the answer is yes, you do.

So what was the effect of Rampart on this city, and on that community?

The effect on the community certainly has been that crime has gone up. It's just the innate feeling of fear that had decreased is back up there. We also have seen, I think because of Rampart, and maybe Rodney King--maybe it's just a lot of the cases--a reluctance on police officers to be as aggressive, legally aggressive, as they have in the past. "Wait a minute. I don't want to lose my job. I don't want to be sued. I don't want to go in front of the chief of police who is going to fire me for whatever reason."

So is that a good thing or a bad thing?

It's not a good thing, I think by anyone's perspective. I mean, there has to be a balance here. You want police officers to be aggressive, but within the law. You don't want them to do the things that Officer Perez said that he and other officers were doing, obviously. I don't. . . .

All of this, of course, is hugely politically charged. Help me to understand the potency of the political forces deriving from all of these police issues in this city.

One simply has to look at the LA Times. They set the media agenda for the electronic media every morning. And they go with it. Just pick up the paper and see how much print is devoted to the district attorney's office or the police, and you'll see it. . . . And of course, the pressure was there on all of us. Let's move right now. The pressure was on the chief. Get this behind you. Let's get rid of those bad officers, and let's clean up this department. . . . My position is that all we have is Rafael Perez pointing the finger at you. That's all I have: a convicted perjurer, a liar, a thief. We get to a court, and it will never even get to a jury. The judge will have to dismiss the case.

And I'm hearing people who say that it doesn't make any difference, just bring the case. I said, "No, we're going to do it the right way. The right way is going to take some time. We're working as quickly as we can." I think, at one time we had, what, 27 prosecutors working full time on this case? We built up fairly quickly. But for some people, it wasn't enough. . . .

And that pressure continued, and, of course, I was facing an election. So I was particularly susceptible to people saying that I am prosecuting, or not prosecuting, for political purposes. Take your pick, I was doing it all for political purposes. I knew this was a no-win situation for me. It didn't make any difference what I did. I was not going to come out a hero in this until the very end, if that were to be the case. . . .

But as you sit here now and remember this, you are convinced that your office put in as good an effort as it can, as thorough-going an effort as it could. It was as devoted to the cause of finding the truth, as you said earlier, and justice in this case, as it possibly could have; spared no energy; spared no effort.

That is true. That is true.

Do you think the same thing can be said of the L.A.P.D.?

If you talk to our prosecutors and investigators, they would unequivocally say no. They did not put their best people on, and they did not go forward in the way that we would have preferred they go forward if you really want to get to the bottom of this.

We're not at the bottom of this now?

I'm afraid we're never going to get to the bottom of this. I'm not sure what the feds are doing. Maybe they can get to the bottom of it, because their investigation, I'm assuming, is moving forward. It's very quiet, and that's the way I wish ours had been able to go. But we didn't have that luxury.


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