Here’s the deal. According to the provisions of the Federal Consent Decree, every LAPD officer who works in either gang enforcement or narcotics details, has to sign a disclosure agreement giving the department access to all his or her personal financial records in order to make sure that said officers are not stealing money, drugs or other “valuable contraband.”
The Federal Consent Decree, for those who have forgotten, or don’t know (or never really cared in the first place) is essentially a plea bargain between the LAPD and the US Justice Department that resulted from the Rafael Perez/Rampart scandal and a laundry list of related problems. The agreement, which went into effect in June of 2001, required the department to take certain measurable corrective measures within a given time period. In addition, the LAPD had to submit to five years of oversight by the feds, which has been extended for an additional three years.
In exchange, the feds agreed not to file the use-of-force lawsuit against the LAPD that it had been investigating for some time.
Up until now, the financial snooping provision of the Consent Decree has never been enforced. But, two weeks ago, when it looked like all that was about to change, the LA police union pushed its chips to the center of the table, and threatened to sue the department over the issue.
And that when things really started to go downhill.
Here’s how the wording of the relevant Consent Decree passage reads:
The LAPD shall require regular and periodic financial disclosures by all LAPD officers and other LAPD employees who routinely handle valuable contraband or cash. The LAPD shall periodically audit a random sample of such disclosures to ensure their accuracy.
The fact that the financial disclosure provision, which would affect approximately 600 officers, was never activated has made U.S. District Judge Gary A. Feess, the guy who has official say-so over the provisions of the decree, exceedingly grumpy. A few years back, in an effort to placate the judge, the department and the Los Angeles Police Protective League managed to hammer out a compromise that involved additional background checks, and periodic stings, but no regular, blanket trolling of anybody’s checking account and/or Visa bill unless there was a demonstrable reason. Everybody hoped this deal would satisfy Judge Feess.
It didn’t. No retreat, no surrender, said the judge. Or harsher words to that effect. In response, the LAPD drafted another, more stringent financial disclosure document that it intended to first present to the police commission for approval, and then bring back to Feess.
But then the new document—which required officers to fork over access not only to their own financial records, but those of their spouses, minor children and business partners—was leaked to Police Protective League president, Bob Baker. After that, all hell broke loose. Cops posted a series of extremely unhappy comments on the LAPD blog. The union—which was unwisely not consulted at all on the revised proposal—- threatened to sue. The 500 and 600 officers directly affected said that if this puppy was put into play for real, they would either request transfers out of the gang and/or narcotic units, or would simply retire.
The specter of six hundred gang and narcotics officers walking off the job rattled everybody from city hall to Parker Center, producing a temporary standoff. A two week cooling-off period was called in the hope that someone would do something constructive. The two weeks ends Tuesday—-tomorrow.
But what about the financial disclosure requirement itself: Is it a good idea?
In a word: No.
First of all, let’s be practical. If an officer is doing what now-infamous Rampart Division bad apple, Rafael Perez, was doing—namely skimming off large amounts of high-ticket narcotics from police busts, and reselling the stuff through proxies for a tidy profit, do we really believe he (or she) is depositing those ill gotten gains in his Wells Fargo Prime checking account? Hardly. This particular kind of graft, my dears, is generally a cash business. You don’t, as a rule, report your dirty money to the IRS. (Geeze, Judge Feess, didn’t you ever see Serpico?)
To put it in more specific terms, if the financial disclosure agreement had been in place fifteen years ago, would the department have nailed Rafael Perez sooner? No, again. Perez did not deposit his drug cash, he spent it. But, let’s say, for discussions sake, it would’ve sped up the righteous pinching of Mr. Perez. In order to catch one bad cop, is it really wise to alienate and humiliate 599 decent officers? In any organization, morale is important. In law enforcement, it’s everything.
In short: Viewed purely from a cost/benefit perspective, the financial disclosure idea pretty much sucks.
But what to do? Word is that LAPD command staff doesn’t like the new disclosure plan any better than the union does.
“I think, frankly, everybody but the federal monitor and the judge, agrees the form is worthless in terms of catching bad guys,” says Baker. “But I’m not sure what the chief can do.” Baker says that the mayor or the city council are in a position to appeal the judge’s decision in the 9th circuit court. “But I don’t think they care to do it. If they did, they’d have done it by now.”
There is, by the way, one more essential point that’s being entirely missed here: The heart of the Rampart scandal was never about stealing drugs or money. It was about use of force, planting evidence, picking up gang members and dropping them in “enemy” territory, “testilying.” It was about an unspoken ethos of Do Whatever You Got to Do To Catch the “Scumbags,” that led too many otherwise honest officers to shave the dice—morally and legally. The result was a list of wrongful convictions, millions of dollars in civil rights lawsuits, and the long-term alienation of the communities that most need the LAPD’s protection and service.
The truth is, even in the worst old days, financial graft has never been the LAPD’s problem. For that you’d want to look eastward to Chicago or New York.
Or as one upper-level officer said to me on the subject, “Historically, we may beat you up, but we don’t take your wallet.”
Well, yeah. Exactly.