LA lawmen who get away with murder: Police force with reputation for shooting first and asking few questions faces first murder charge in 10 years

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The Independent Online
A POTENTIALLY explosive trial came to a close in Los Angeles this week, almost unnoticed by the outside world. It did not concern any of America's current favourite courtroom performers - O J Simpson, the Menendez brothers or Heidi Fleiss - but the case could have been more significant than all three.

Douglas Iversen is the first LA police officer to have been charged with murder in the past decade, and one of a tiny number to have been prosecuted. His alleged crime was to shoot an unarmed man in an incident that threatened to re-ignite the racial unrest that swept through the metropolis in 1992.

His victim, a black tow-truck driver, was driving away from a petrol station near South-Central LA when Iversen shot him dead, firing through the door of his vehicle. The two had earlier had a brief confrontation. The 45-year-old white officer claimed that he had been trying to stop the trucker from running over pedestrians, although witnesses said they saw none, and the van was travelling at less than 5mph.

None the less, the hearing ended in a mistrial. Nine of the jury wanted to convict him only of involuntary manslaughter, rather than second degree murder as charged. But the case - which is to be be re-tried - had a broader significance: for many, it served to stoke cynicism about the conduct of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

Two years ago, while LA was still cleaning up after the worst urban unrest in US history, the city echoed with optimistic rhetoric. A brave new world had arrived, one that would eventually be free of police abuse. The international outcry over the Rodney King beating had been followed by a commission of inquiry headed by the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, which charged the LAPD with tolerating racism, excessive use of force, and lax discipline.

Soon the force had a new chief, Willie Williams, and made perceptible moves towards community policing.

Now, however, the picture has been clouded. Lawyers and activists who monitor the 7,500- strong force claim that, despite Mr Williams's efforts, trigger- happy excesses continue at street-level. Chief among their concerns are so-called 'officer- involved shootings'.

Last year the LAPD was involved in 21 fatal shootings - a higher rate per officer than in any other large city force except Washington. Between 1989 and mid-1993, the LAPD investigated nearly 700 officer-involved shootings, of all kinds. Only one-quarter resulted in disciplinary action, and very few were sacked or prosecuted.

Yet there has been no shortage of disputed incidents. Witness, for instance, these three deaths, which all happened after the LA riots:

Case One: No one seems to know what made Sonji Danese Taylor arm herself with a kitchen knife and climb on to the roof of a hospital in west Los Angeles, on the evening of 16 December 1993. But when seven LAPD officers arrived, they found her clutching her three- year-old son, and repeatedly chanting, 'For the blood of Jesus,' as if in a trance.

What happened next is a matter of considerable disagreement. The officers managed to separate her from the sobbing boy by squirting pepper spray into her face. They maintain that Ms Taylor then charged at one of them with her knife. But some witnesses saw her only step towards the police, while others say she made a 'stabbing motion'. What is certain is that she was shot at least nine times by two officers, seven times in her back.

The LA District Attorney's office said last month that no charges would be brought as the shooting was justified. Yet prosecutors seemed dissatisfied with the police version of events. In a 45-page report, they speculated that the officers were 'not being truthful', and admitted: 'The major question remains: how could Taylor lunge forward and yet be shot in the back?'

Case Two: Efrain Lopez, 18, was armed with nothing more than a broomstick when the police were called after a late- night emergency call from his mother on 9 November 1992. She had reported that her son was hitting her and had gone crazy. Indeed he had. Dressed only in underpants, socks and a T-shirt, he had smashed her apartment window and was raving about being Satan.

When two LAPD officers arrived, Lopez was being restrained by several onlookers, but the officers, unsure who he was, told them to let him go. They say Lopez began swinging the broom, ignoring their demands for him to drop it, and made a swipe which nearly hit one of them on the head. Officer Neil Goldberg, 30, opened fire, shooting Lopez dead with nine bullets.

One year later, the DA's office cleared Officer Goldberg. More remarkably, its investigators concluded that a broom could be a deadly weapon. An LAPD investigation produced similar results. Officer Goldberg was not disciplined for the shooting, though he was marked down for extra training - in the use of his nightstick.

As in Ms Taylor's case, the matter is now proceeding to the civil courts where Lopez's mother, Santos Gallardos, is suing the police department and the officers.

Case Three: Sergio Garcia's mistake was to drive through San Pedro, in south Los Angeles, without headlights. He was pulled over by two LAPD officers, and fled on foot.

He was chased by Officer Mark Griego, 26, and eventually the two faced one another in a stand-off in a car park. Griego claims that he dropped his police-issue torch, which Garcia grabbed and began brandishing, as if he was about to strike him on the head. The officer's response was to blast Garcia four times from point- blank range, killing him outright.

Unusually, police chief Williams concluded that this shooting was out of line, and criticised Garcia for 'a lack of fire control'. But his findings were overturned by the city's Police Commission, a body of five civic, non-elected worthies who oversee the force and review officer-involved shooting cases. The commission ruled last month that the shooting, on 24 May last year, was in line with department policy, which allows the police to shoot a suspect if there is an imminent threat of death or serious injury.

Policing LA is a tough job; in the city alone - only one- third of the total metropolis, the rest is policed by other forces - there are 200 gangs, with 30,000 members, and annual tallies of 1,000 homicides and more than 1,000 drive-by shootings. And police officers are regularly shot at. These grim facts do not, however, alter the central question: some police shootings are undeniably suspect, so why are there so few prosecutions of police officers?

Hugh Manes, an LA civil rights lawyer, has a theory: 'The victims are generally people very few others care about. They have little or no voice, no wealth and no political power. The police are very powerful . . . and the DA is afraid of that power.' In crime-frightened California there are few votes to be won by pursuing cops.

But the DA's office tells a different story. Every time there is a serious police shooting, it sends two investigators to the scene. They are not permitted to interview the police involved until the LAPD, which investigates all shootings itself, has done so. And the force goes to extraordinary lengths to protect its officers. Its detectives take their statements under pain of sacking - which automatically makes the statements inadmissible in court. Without such evidence, prosecutions are difficult to bring.

Police critics say that this is symptomatic of the attitude that prompts die-hard members of the LAPD to reject out of hand any suggestion that there should be independent inquiries into officer-involved shootings. And until that changes, it is hard not to conclude that the public will go on being shot dead for foolishly brandishing brooms, torches and kitchen knifes in front of LA's policemen.

(Photograph omitted)