Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Van de Kamp’s ‘Operation Rollout’ Hindered by Domineering LAPD Lieutenant
By ROGER M. GRACE
Ninety-Second in a Series
JOHN VAN DE KAMP, as district attorney of Los Angeles County, responded in 1979 to public uproar over a spate of arguably unjustified fatal shootings by police. There had been, most recently, the killing in January of Eulia Love, a South Central widow who threatened officers with a knife, and in June of Steven Conger, a good Samaritan in West Hollywood who startled police when he emerged from a phone booth in an apartment building after calling for medical aid for the victim of a beating.
The DA came up with an innovative approach tabbed “Operation Rollout.” It entailed a deputy district attorney and an investigator hustling to the scene of an “officer-involved shooting”—no matter what the hour—if a death or a wounding of a non-officer occurred. The purpose was to make an independent evaluation of whether the firing of a weapon had been warranted.
“Rollout” became a function of the Special Investigations Division (“SID”), a unit set up in 1967 by District Attorney Evelle J. Younger to probe possible ties of government officials to organized crime. Its focus was soon broadened to include all suspected criminal misconduct by elected or appointed officials or by police, as well as seeming violations of election law. Van de Kamp in 1978 chose Deputy District Attorney Gil Garcetti—who later would become the county’s DA—to head the division.
The effort necessitated prompt notification to the DA’s office of the occurrence of officer-involved shootings. At first, Sheriff Pete Pitchess said “no”…an unacceptable response, politically and public relations-wise, and he soon acquiesced; Los Angeles Chief of Police Daryl Gates said “yes,” but saying didn’t mean doing, and delays in notification, in terms of hours, became the rule.
As I discussed here last time, police officers in the county—accustomed to investigating shootings on their own—were incensed by the scrutiny. Various police organizations backed Van de Kamp’s challenger in the 1980 DA race, Deputy District Attorney Sid Trapp, despite his manifest lack of credentials for the post.
Trapp lost, and Operation Rollout was no longer a campaign issue. It did, however, remain a source of contention.
An Oct. 12, 1980 article in the Los Angeles Times says:
“Operation Rollout, Dist. Atty. John Van de Kamp’s much-publicized effort to investigate police shootings, continues to meet resistance from the Los Angeles Police Department despite high-level talks in May that were supposed to have ironed out problems, according to prosecutors assigned to the program.
“At the center of the conflict is Lt. Charles Higbie, a 24-year Police Department veteran who is chief investigator for all officer-involved shootings in the department and wields great influence with Police Chief Daryl Gates.
“Members of Van de Kamp’s Special Investigations Division…complain that they receive minimal cooperation from Higbie, that he withholds information from them and is overly protective of the officers he investigates.”
I reached Garcetti by telephone last Friday. He was in New York for an exhibition of his photographs.
Higbie, he says, “was one of the most powerful police officers in the LAPD,” commenting:
“As a lieutenant, that speaks volumes.”
The former district attorney points out that Higbie “reported to the chief directly” and “didn’t let captains, commanders, deputy chiefs or assistant chiefs tell him what to do.”
Garcetti recalls that Higbie “acted like second-in-command at LAPD” whenever it came to “officer involved shootings or in-custody deaths.”
Garcetti says that following a shooting, Higbie would allow the officers who witnessed or participated in the shooting to confer and “get their stories together”; then they would be interviewed, en masse; and only after that, were they questioned separately. What’s more, he notes, the LAPD “never tape recorded any of the interviews.”
Garcetti says he urged Higbie to separate the officers at the outset.
“He told me to go fly a kite,” the former prosecutor recites.
“He had no liking for people in the DA’s office and maybe no respect for people in the DA’s office,” Garcetti says. “Our goal was different from his.
“He wanted to make sure that any evidence that came out absolved the officers.”
“It was obstruction of justice. Could you ever prove it in court as crime? No. In laymen’s terms, it was an obstruction of justice.”
“They used to play a game,” Garcetti says of the LAPD. They would bring witnesses, both police and civilian witnesses, to the police station…and delay interviewing them. “They would sometimes delay for several hours,” he brings to mind, and “when they finished,” they would tell witnesses that the DA’s Office had people outside who wanted to talk with them, but they didn’t have to do so.
The witnesses, Garcetti says, would flee “out a side door or a back door.”
“It was a couple of years before there was a change for the better” in the LAPD’s conduct, but problems persisted, he relates, until Higbie retired. That was in 1987.
“[A] gruff, imposing man” is the description of Higbie appearing in a May 8, 1979 Times article. Gates, in his 1992 book, “Chief,” terms Higbie “a tough ex-Marine.”
Here’s the depiction on Friday by retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Albracht, one of the dozen-or-so DDAs whom Garcetti handpicked to participate in Operation Rollout:
“He always worked in short sleeves. He was a big, tough guy with short, crew-cut hair, stone faced. He was barely civil to us.”
Albracht, now a private judge, tells me:
“He was a guy who either instilled respect or fear in everybody who dealt with him.”
Which did he instill in Albracht? He responds:
“Kind of a grudging respect for his strength, his industry. He combined being a tough guy with the instincts of a mother bear protecting her cubs.”
Albracht remembers what it was like at the scene of shootings. He says members of the LAPD “above Higbie on an organizational chart” would arrive and Higbie “would tell them to stand outside the barricade.” He was the “king” of those operations, Albracht declares.
Higbie ordered the Rollout team not only to stay behind the “POLICE—Do Not Cross” tape, he says, but generally to be confined to a small area beyond that.
“We would stand there for two or three or four hours,” the ex-deputy remembers.
“We could only see from a great distance,” he says, as police walked through the scene, reciting what had happened.
Albracht reflects that he would like to have challenged Higbie’s authority—even invite him to “arrest me” for leaving his assigned spot—but laments that he didn’t have authorization to do anything other than cooperate.
“I would argue,” he says, “that we were being prevented from truly investigating.”
Was the project, then, worthwhile? Albracht says that “just the knowledge” that there would be an independent investigation caused LAPD officers to realize “they could not act with absolute impunity.”
That view is consistent with findings in a study, financed by the U.S. Department of Justice, released in October 1981. It compares what went on during the two years before Rollout and the two years after it started. A summary says:
“The finding that no police officers were prosecuted for unjustifiable weapons use during the program years indicated that Rollout may have helped to deter unjustifiable shootings. Rollout has made LADA investigation decisions more visible. Other changes which may be related to Rollout were a decline in the frequency of police shootings and the proportion of shootings endangering officers or innocent citizens….”
The study was impliedly critical of the way the LAPD was throwing obstacles in the paths of Rollout teams. It says:
“[T]he program did little to increase the independence of the investigations; these still rely almost entirely on evidence and witnesses that the police control immediately after the incidents….The study recommends that Rollout should continue but with significant modifications. The Rollout team should have complete freedom of movement at shooting scenes, be allowed to observe police interviews of civilian witnesses, and also be permitted to interview these witnesses themselves.”
Meanwhile, one reform had been quietly put into place by Gates on June 15, 1981. Witnesses to shootings would be separated before being questioned.
By contrast to the way Higbie behaved, sheriffs’ deputies, on seeing Rollout team members, would beckon them forth, calling out, “Come on, guys,” and walk them through the scene of the shooting, Albracht says.
About 98 percent of the shootings involved the LAPD or the Sheriff’s Department, he notes. As to the other police departments in the county, Albracht says, “the only one really adversarial to us was Culver City.”
That antagonism was to persist for a number of years. The police chief was Ted Cook. The San Diego Union’s edition of May 29, 1990, reporting on Van de Kamp’s bid for the Democratic nomination for governor, notes that Operation Rollout “so angered” Cook “that he said Van de Kamp was ‘probably the worst DA we’ve had in my 35 years in Los Angeles County,’ ” who wanted to act as “some kind of supervisor of police actions.”
Robert H. Philibosian, who in 1982 succeeded Van de Kamp as DA, says that at the scene of a shooting, “Higbie literally would take the chalk and draw a circle and the deputy district attorney and the investigator would have to stand inside the circle and not move out of it.”
Philibosian remarks that “it was the fact that the deputy district attorney was there that caused Higbie to draw the chalk lines.”
He explains that the police did not want persons untrained in conducting police investigations “tromping” through the crime scene, possibly destroying evidence.
If he had himself started the program, Philibosian says, he would not have included DDAs in the rollouts. They assist the process only “minimally,” and for the most part only serve as “window dressing,” he asserts.
“Deputy DAs don’t investigate crimes,” the ex-DA says. “They prosecute crimes.”
Lending support to his view is that when Pitchess, at the early stage in 1979, said he’d allow deputy DAs at the scenes but not DA’s investigators, Van de Kamp protested that the investigators would be performing the major role.
While Philibosian questions the need for involving DDAs in “Operation Rollout”—a term he scrapped because he found it riled police—he embraces the basic concept.
So did Albracht, as a DDA, though he says he felt then it might have been better if some other agency had been performing the function given the day-to-day need of the LAPD and the DA’s Office to work “hand-in-glove,” and the ill feeling the program engendered in officers.
Albracht observes that the police had an “enormous conflict of interest” in determining the propriety of officer shootings…and given that the “great, great bulk of shootings which were ‘out of policy’ were not criminal” in light of the lack of requisite intent, police should have appreciated that the DA’s Office “operated to give objective exculpation of police from criminal responsibility.”
Within a few years, that sunk in.
Philibosian says that in 1983, when funding cutbacks cast in doubt whether the program could continue, Sherman Block, who had replaced Pitchess as sheriff, beseeched him to continue the rollouts to the extent possible. He did so, he notes, sans participation by a prosecutor…for whose presence he had not seen a need, in the first place—unless a DDA were summoned by an office investigator.
Philibosian’s successor, Ira Reiner, brought DDAs back into the program; Garcetti, citing budget cuts, dismantled the project…then reinstituted it following the Rampart scandal, in light of criticisms that the DA’s Office hadn’t been keeping an eye on the LAPD and after the Board of Supervisors made a commitment of funds; and the current DA, Steve Cooley, has bolstered the program.
SID no longer exists. Cooley set up the Bureau of Fraud and Corruption and divided it into the Justice System Integrity Division and a Public Integrity Division. Participants in what was called “Operation Rollout” are now termed members of the “District Attorney Response Team (D.A.R.T.).”
A Nov. 8, 2001 MetNews article tells of a press conference Cooley held with Sheriff Lee Baca, then-Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks, and the head of a county police chiefs group telling of accords that had been signed in connection with investigations of officer involved shootings, including cooperation with D.A.R.T. The article says:
“The protocols cover every law enforcement agency in the county—except the Culver City Police Department. Cooley said the Culver City chief, Ted Cook, believes he has an ethical department and can oversee any problems himself. But Cooley added that Cook will eventually realize ‘his department is not an island.’ ”
Cook never did. But he retired on Nov. 4, 2003, and his successor, Donald Pedersen, signed the accord.
The program that had, when Van de Kamp launched it, enraged the police, is now viewed differently.
“It is universally accepted by law enforcement in Los Angeles County,” Cooley says.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company
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