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  (Source: AP)
Destruction of government property and alleged coverup may have violated civil rights violations deal

Many of you have read about how police unions nationwide have been pushing to ban the taxpayers who pay their salaries from being allowed to take pictures of their behavior on the job or to record their on-the job actions with video or audio recordings.  While not all departments support such efforts, some insist that logging officers’ activities interferes with their "ability to do their jobs".  
 
Some states have threatened to put citizens in prison for up to 15 years for recording police for signs of wrongdoing.  Last year in Florida a woman was allegedly brutalized for recording an on-duty cop during a traffic stop.  While courts and even U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder have stood firm against such efforts, many departments continue to defiantly back anti-accountability efforts.
 
I. LAPD -- A History of Corruption
 
Now The Los Angeles Times (The LA Times) is reporting on a series of stunning accusations that suggest that dozens or more officers with the city's police department may have been involved with damaging taxpayer funded equipment in an effort to sabotage accountability programs.
 
The claims are disturbing, but not entirely surprising.
 
The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has long struggled with accusations that it was one of America's most corrupt police departments.  In March 1991 the LAPD became for many Americans the face of police brutality when the traffic stop of Rodney Glen King was caught on tape.

Rodney King beating
LAPD officers were caught on tape beating Rodney King in a famous 1991 incident.
[Image Source: AFP/Getty Images]

Four officers were put on trial, but the trial was allegedly tainted by police interference.  After all the officers were acquitted the LA residents rioted in 1992.  Subsequently a retrial was ordered and two of the officers were found guilty.  The city was also eventually ordered to pay Mr. King $3.8M USD in damages.

Under scrutiny, the LAPD pledged to reform itself.

LAPD reform
The LAPD has promised to reform itself many times. [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

But according to the "Shielded From Justice" investigation, a project by the Columbia University School of Journalism and the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, Mr. King's case would not be the last.  Between 1991 and 1996, the LAPD paid out $79.2M USD to citizens in pre-trial settlements and court-ordered damages -- roughly $13M USD per year.
 
Again the LAPD pledged reform.
 
Unfortunately, things don't appear to have changed much since then either.  If anything it appears the issue of civil rights violations, reckless officer behavior, and other forms officer misconduct has gotten worse by the year, even as the LAPD has fired hundreds of officers over the last decade.
 
II. The Numbers Show LA Has a Problem With Bad Cops
 
In the last quarter century, the LAPD has gone through nine police chiefs.  Many have struggled with controversies that gripped the media and their department.
 
The department is the third largest police department in the nation with a $1.4B USD budget, more than 10,000 officers, and over 2,800 civilian staffers.  In a department so large, some level of officer misconduct is a practical reality. However, the LAPD has struggled with both high profile incidents of police misconduct and simply the number of officers involved in incidents.
 
Based on the numbers, it appears up to one in ten LAPD cops may have a sustained complaint against them (a guilt finding) in the last five years.  And the city has paid roughly $16M USD a year -- nearly 0.1 percent of its budget -- in lawsuit settlements or damages. 
 
Our review of The LA Times' database shows that in 477 cases the LAPD was forced to settle or was found at fault in civil lawsuits.  Over this five-year period, the total payouts totaled $80M+ USD.  Accusations ranged from reckless driving by officers (the most civil complaint common) to more serious accusations, including trespassing, threats, false imprisonment, and civil rights offenses.
 
Our analysis of the four most recent LAPD reports made available [1, 2, 3, 4 -- PDF] shows that between Oct. 2009 and Sept. 2012 nearly 13,750 complaints were filed against the department, of which internal investigators found officers to be at fault in 1,300+ cases -- nearly 10 percent of the time.  The most common outcomes were admonishment or an official reprimand.

LAPD

Nearly 250 officers a year on average received one of these punishments on a yearly basis.  Also nearly 100 officers a year on average were suspended and nearly 50 per year on average were terminated, resigned under investigation, retired under investigation, or were removed, following a finding of guilt.

Last year was full of high profile incidents.

In Jan. 2013, for example, at least four women came forward claiming that a pair of officers had threatened and sought to force them into performing sex acts on them.  The officers -- both department veterans -- have been embroiled in an ongoing court case and may yet be fired.



Also in Mar. 2013, Kim Nguyen -- a graduate student -- was allegedly arrested by police on suspicion of public intoxication and handcuffed, according to police officers' version of events.  Ms. Nguyen fell (according to officers) out of a moving police car, resulting in brain damage, lost teeth, and other injuries.  No charges were pressed in the wake of the incident.  Slowly regaining her memory of the event, she would claim earlier this year that officers had sexually assaulted her and then thrown out of their car.
 
The city has also made some clearly earnest efforts to trim back these troubling statistics.  In 2013 it raised over $1M USD from private donors to deploy 30 "body-cameras" to record officer behavior.  The department deployed the cameras in January and said it would look to purchase 600 of the cameras for use throughout various precincts after the trial was finished.
 
III. Accusations of Multiple Forms of Sabotage of High-Tech Accountability Equipment
 
The officers already have a good deal of high tech equipment in an attempt to cut down on the rampant rates of officer abuse.  But a critical flaw in that scheme has come to light in the past few months -- police officers appear to be sabotaging and vandalizing that taxpayer funded equipment in what appears to be a concerted effort to avoid accountability monitoring.
 
In a way this sort of behavior isn't exactly surprising, given how often police unions have asserted that recording cops on the job "interferes" with their job performance.  But on the other hand it is an eye-opening accusation, considering that it involves nothing less than the destruction of government property, which is clearly a criminal act and quite likely a criminal act aimed at obfuscating other more serious criminal acts.

LAPD cop cars
Cops have been snapping the antennas off their cars in LA, in an apparent effort to cover up their actions while on duty. [Image Source: Getty Images]

The Los Angeles Police Commission -- a supervisory board that overseas the LAPD – first discovered the incidents in Feb. 2014 while they were investigating a shooting and alleged officer misconduct.  The LA Times reports, based on its discussion with LAPC commissioners:

Poor recordings during a shooting investigation drew the attention of commission members in February. They were puzzled why several cameras in cars at the scene had poor audio quality, while another had good, clear recordings. Even though the recorded conversations did not seem germane to the incident, the commissioners asked for answers about the problem.

In the field, officers' cars are equipped with video and audio recording equipment.  Officers themselves also carry body-recorders; typically part of the chest radio they use to communicate with civilian station dispatchers.  Audio from these chest recorders is relayed to the vehicle, which relays it to police facilities for storage.
 
This video is supposed to provide a key track record.  It can provide valuable evidence against criminals.  It can also be used in misconduct allegations to either exonerate cops from false accusations, or sustain accusations in cases of actual misconduct.
 
But the tool is limited by vehicle range, and moreover by the antenna the vehicle uses to extend that range.  While sabotaging the transmission device directly would likely be much more difficult and raise much more suspicions, some officers allegedly looked to interfere with the recording devices by snapping off their antennas.
 
With the antenna snapped off the range that chest-recordings could be transmitted would be reduced by up to a third, meaning that if the officers were far enough from their cars they could escape being recorded and having those recordings later used against them if they committed crimes.
 
IV. Antenna Snapping Was Common, and Almost Unquestionably Deliberate
 
Accidents might occasionally snap off the antennas, but the frequency such damage was occurring at seems to suggest many officers were regularly damaging their vehicles themselves in a purposeful anti-accountability effort.
 
The LA Times reports in a previous piece some of the LAPD's findings, writing:

An inspection by Los Angeles Police Department investigators found about half of the estimated 80 cars in one South L.A. patrol division were missing antennas, which help capture what officers say in the field. The antennas in at least 10 more cars in nearby divisions had also been removed.

....

The first sign of a problem came in early July when a Southeast supervisor noticed the cameras in a few patrol cars were missing antennas, said Cmdr. Andrew Smith, a spokesman for Beck. Vehicles are equipped with two small antennas, one for each of the officers assigned to the car.

After the supervisor's discovery, a check of the entire fleet of cars in Southeast and the other divisions in the department's South Bureau was done. With a total of about 160 antennas installed in Southeast Division vehicles, 72 had been removed, Smith said. Twenty antennas from cars in other divisions were missing as well.

Because cars in the Southeast Division had been equipped with cameras since 2010 and different shifts of officers use the same car each day, officials decided an investigation into the missing antennas would have been futile, according to Smith and Capt. Phil Tingirides, the commanding officer of the Southeast Division.

The LAPD responded by reportedly instituted pre-shift and post-shift checks of cars, and spending thousands in taxpayer money to replace the damaged antennas.  But it declined to actually try to find out which officers were involved, making the excuse that it would be "too difficult".

In other words the LAPD seemed to clearly admit that some of its officers broke laws and destroy government property, but by its accounting it would be simply "too difficult" to find out which cops committed crimes.

LAPD Police Chief
LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck claims it would just be "too hard" for his department to figure out which of its cops committed criminal acts, vandalizing and sabotaging government property in an attempt to escape accountability. [Image Source: The LA Times]

Furthermore, it didn't bother to tell the LAPC until after irregularities in last year's recordings were noticed, why the recordings might not have been as good quality or as complete as they should have been.  Eight months passed between when the LAPD found out about the apparent criminal destruction of government property and when it briefed the accountability board.
 
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck claims the officers did nothing wrong, characterizing the failure to tell the LAPC about the incidents as "unintentional".  He comments:

The department did not try to hide this issue.

But the LAPC isn't buying that claim, given the timeline.  LAPC President Steve Soboroff blasted what he views as a coverup by the LAPD, stating:

On an issue like this, we need to be brought in right away.  This equipment is for the protection of the public and of the officers. To have people who don't like the rules to take it upon themselves to do something like this is very troubling.

While the LAPD reported that only one antenna had since been "found missing" on a vehicle in the Southeast District, the report was swiftly followed by fresh questions.

V. Allegations of Even Worse Anti-Accountability Crimes by Officers Emerge

In March 2014, after the LAPD admitted to the antenna incidents, a subsequent LAPC investigation revealed yet more serious irregularities, including possibly even more severe destruction incidents.

The LA Times, once more, does an excellent job in summarizing these audacious apparent vandalism efforts, writing:

The issue resurfaced in recent weeks when a follow-up audit by the department found more problems with the video equipment in the Southeast Division. Dozens of the transmitters worn by officers were found to be unusable because small antennas on them were either missing or broken, the audit found. The department has opened an investigation into whether officers intentionally sabotaged the devices.   

Some reports have suggested that officers may have conducted some patrols without the necessary recording equipment to hold them accountable.  Again it appears this was due to incidents of sabotage by some of the police force.

police chest recorder
Some LAPD cops allegedly purposefully lost or destroyed chest recording devices in yet another anti-accountability plot. [Image Source: Fortuna PD]

This latest investigation could prove far more serious. Without the antenna, audio may still be recorded. However, without the chest recorders, literally nothing may be recorded on some patrols.  The LAPD has not publicly stated whether officers conducted patrols without chest recorders due to the high levels of apparently purposefully damaged equipment.
 
It has also not publicly stated whether it investigated or caught any of its officers damaging the chest equipment.  But given its past stance, it seems likely that we will discover that it has once again decided that it is simply "too hard" to investigate and identify the cops committing these crimes against taxpayers.
 
This two-fold sabotage scheme is still under investigation.  The LAPC is demanding a full investigation and that the LAPD immediately try to determine which officers were involved.
 
VI. Destruction of Government Property by Cops Could Jeopardize Fresh Freedom From Federal Oversight
 
The incidents could cost the department dearly.  In 2001 the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) selected the department as one of seven troubled jurisdictions with an unacceptable number of internal affairs complaints regarding civil rights violations.  The LAPD gave its usual pledges of reform, and it appeared to be following through with them to some extent.
 
In May 2013, after a decade of scrutiny, a federal judge cleared the department of federal monitoring.  The order basically freed the department to self-police.

LAPD oversight ends
Last year a federal judge freed ended a decade of federal oversight over civil rights complaints against the LAPD. [Image Source: AP]

LAPC Commissioner Robert Saltzman says that fresh freedom may already be in jeopardy thanks to the LAPD's apparent coverup.  He remarks to The LA Times:

[The judge's decison to end monitoring] was made based on the clear and crucial understanding that this commission would provide the civilian oversight necessary to ensure…the Department engages in constitutional policing.  The commission's ability to provide effective civilian oversight depends on the Department's full and prompt communication with us regarding serious issues such as this one.

In other words, the LAPD's headaches -- deserved as they may be -- may have just begun.

For those interested in more reading, the LA County Sheriffs have also been embroiled in an ongoing federal investigation over sky-high levels of civil rights violations.  The investigation found particularly high levels of claims that County Sheriffs abused inmates, sometimes in a manner that appeared racially motivated.

LA County Sheriffs
LA County Sheriffs are also facing growing scrutiny. [Image Source: Jametiks / Flickr]

That federal investigation has led to multiple firings, and the Sept. 2013 appointment of a federal monitor, a development that juxtaposed against the LAPD finally being cleared of monitoring months prior.

Sources: The LA Times [1], [2]





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