LA police in mire of widespread corruption

IT IS unlikely to be a happy new year for the Los Angeles police. Already mired in one of the worst corruption scandals in its history, the force had hoped to kick off the new millennium with a relatively straightforward, headline-catching vice case - the trial of Jody "Babydol" Gibson, a Hollywood madam in the Heidi Fleiss tradition with, it is alleged, a tantalising client list of the rich and famous.

But, as the trial date of 7 January looms, things are not looking promising for the prosecu- tion. Sources close to the investigation, quoted prominently in the Los Angeles Times, have alleged that the only reason the client names were expunged from the court record - itself a questionable notion - was because they included political supporters of the Los Angeles district attorney, Gil Garcetti.

The undercover police agent who successfully lured an alleged member of the prostitution ring to an assignation at the Century Plaza Hotel appears to have indulged in some very peculiar behaviour before making the arrest.

According to court deposition papers, the detective, Raz Kertenian, stripped naked with two alleged prostitutes and had a back-rub before revealing his identity and issuing the warrants. The defence alleges that he went so far as to have sex with one of the girls, paying $1,000 in taxpayers' money for it. "A detective doesn't have to go that far to bust a prostitute," said Harland Braun, a criminal defence lawyer and former federal prosecutor.

Once again, it seems, the LAPD is going to end up looking foolish, louche and politically suspect. In the past year, the force has blown every hard- won piece of credibility it had built up since the 1992 Los Angeles riots - first with a series of questionable shootings of largely helpless civilians, and then with the explosion of a corruption scandal whose shockwaves are yet to be fully felt.

Back in September, a police officer caught stealing cocaine from the evidence room started talking about the horrors being perpetrated at his anti-gang unit in the Mid City area. The officer, Rafael Perez, admitted framing an innocent 19-year-old for murder and shooting him in the head to make it look as though he and a colleague had been forced to fire in self-defence.

And that was just the start. By now, more than a dozen officers have been relieved of their duties and hundreds, possibly thousands, of cases will be reviewed on the grounds that the police evidence leading to convictions may have been tainted. A system of so-called anti-gang injunctions - restrictions on the civil rights of suspected gangs in specific areas of Los Angeles - has also been severely shaken.

With each passing week, evidence emerges that cases at Mr Perez's division were based on fabrication, evidence-planting and even ferocious police brutality and gun violence. Some of the suspected gang members, whose convictions have been overturned, began talking about the way the police treated them, suggesting that police corruption permeates every part of the LAPD confronted with poor or crime-ridden communities.

Despite the broadening scandal, however, it is not clear how seriously the evidence is being taken. One exonerated gang member, Ruben Rojas, has offered evidence of senior officers being present at evidence-planting sessions, but claims prosecutors "act like they're just not interested". It may be no coincidence that the district attorney, Mr Garcetti, is up for re-election this year, or that the city attorney, James Hahn, architect of the anti-gang injunctions, is considering running for mayor of Los Angeles. Politically, the police scandal needs to be contained if it is not to end up embarrassing the whole power elite.

Public opinion also appears to be less than scandalised in a city where violent crime is down markedly and "tough on crime" policies are popular at the ballot box. Last week, east of LA, in Claremont, two officers who shot dead an 18-year-old black student last January were honoured as city employees of the year and city police officers of the year. "If anyone wants to make an issue of it, that's their problem," said Claremont's police chief, Robert Moody.

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