Sunday, March 12, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Associated Press

MEANWHILE, THE RAMPART DIVISION corruption case continues to spread like ink on white linen: 20 officers suspended; 40 tainted convictions overturned, and an avalanche of brutality lawsuits that could cost Los Angeles at least $125 million.

LOS ANGELES - In this city where everything and everyone can be reinvented, true crime has long become true drama.

The Los Angeles Police Department stars in both.

In movies like "L.A. Confidential," bad cops inhabit a noir world of creeping corruption. In docudramas - not always accurate but close enough for Hollywood - they've chased nearly every grotesque California murderer from Charles Manson to Night Stalker Richard Ramirez.

No one has announced plans to turn the department's newest embarrassment into celluloid, not yet anyway. Meanwhile, the Rampart Division's real-life scandal spreads like ink on white linen.

The latest figures: 20 officers suspended; 40 tainted convictions overturned, and an avalanche of brutality lawsuits that could cost the city at least $125 million. In the end, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said, the corruption allegations could engulf up to one-fourth of the 400-person Rampart division.

"I've never seen anything this bad," said District Attorney Gil Garcetti, who has been a prosecutor for 31 years. "We've had cops do dumb things. But I've never seen this kind of destruction by cops who are evil, greedy, mentally sick individuals."

It is the worst corruption case in a city with a long history of them. Most unraveled in a mixture of lurid fact and pulp fiction.

The LAPD Hat Squad of the 1940s and '50s starred four detectives in crisp fedoras and matching suits costing two weeks' pay.

Publicly revered, the squad became known for its more secretive duties, including getting rid of Eastern mobsters seeking to expand business. According to legend, the Hat Squad discouraged visiting gangsters by meeting them at the airport and beating the wanderlust out of them.

Two of the detectives later became judges. None was ever disciplined.

"They were so feared and respected that when we'd announce such-and-such a case had been turned over to the Hat Squad, many of the suspects in those cases would voluntarily give themselves up," department veteran Dan Cooke, now dead, told a local newspaper in 1987.

Inevitably, a movie depicted the well-dressed quartet. In 1996's "Mulholland Falls," Nick Nolte played its leader. In an early scene, a bloodied don is about to be tossed from a canyon ledge.

"You can't do that, this is America," the gangster squeaks.

"This isn't America, Jack," says Nolte. "This is L.A."

And here, fact and fiction continuously blend.

In Raymond Chandler novels, cops sported smoking guns and boozy machismo. In Jack Webb's "Dragnet" series, stony TV detectives wanted "just the facts, ma'am," and solved their cases before the last commercial.

In reality, about half the Los Angeles police chiefs in the last 50 years have been handed a disgraced department.

When William Parker took over in 1950, he was ordered to get rid of widespread corruption caused by rogue cops on the take. He did so by turning the LAPD into a paramilitary, chain-of-command organization with a high public profile.

"Image has always been the most important thing. They've always tried to maintain the squeaky-clean Jack Webb image," said Mike Rothmiller, a former cop with the LAPD's Organized Crime Intelligence Division who wrote a controversial 1992 book alleging the department was full of brutal racists.

"It started when Parker came in to clean up a very, very corrupt agency," said Rothmiller. "The last thing he wanted was bad publicity."

But Parker had been in office for only a year when the "Bloody Christmas" scandal broke.

The unprovoked beating of seven prisoners led to the first grand jury indictments against serving LAPD officers. After initially denying police brutality, Parker eventually transferred 54 officers, including two deputy chiefs, and suspended 39 others.

The real-life jailhouse free-for-all was fictionalized in James Ellroy's "L.A. Confidential" and then ended up on movie screens in the 1997 film version of the novel.

When Parker's protege and former driver, Daryl Gates, became chief in 1978, he took his mentor's militaristic legacy to new lengths. Battering rams were mounted on military vehicles, and the homeless were jailed for sleeping on the street.

Gates ran his mouth along with the department. He told a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 1990 that casual drug users "ought to be taken out and shot."

He had to apologize for his assertion in 1982 that several African Americans died as a result of police chokeholds because arteries in the necks of black people "do not open up as fast as they do in normal people."

An unprecedented number of public scandals didn't help. Among them:

The 1970s-era Public Disorder Intelligence Division, disbanded in 1983 after newspapers reported it spied on celebrities and public figures including Mayor Tom Bradley, then gave the information to a private, right-wing group;

The 1988 assault on Joe Morgan, a black Major League Baseball star tackled and handcuffed at Los Angeles International Airport by officers who assumed he was a drug courier.

But it was the 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King that finally forced Gates from office.

After four white officers were acquitted in April 1992 of assaulting the black man, the city erupted. While Los Angeles burned on the first night of deadly rioting, Gates attended a fund-raiser.

For months, the chief ignored public howls for his resignation. Finally, in summer, he stepped down.

King's attackers were eventually convicted by federal jurors of violating his civil rights.

A scathing depiction of the department came later in the Christopher Commission report, which noted, "Too many LAPD patrol officers view citizens with resentment and hostility."

Willie Williams, Philadelphia's police commissioner, succeeded Gates in 1992 and became the city's first black police chief, saddled with the Herculean task of righting a demoralized police force feared by the people it was supposed to protect.

Some say he failed. Before Williams retired in 1997, O.J. Simpson's murder trial dissected and discredited department procedures for all the world to see in live broadcasts that replaced afternoon soap operas.

There was little hesitation to profit from Simpson's criminal trial. There was a much-ridiculed TV movie about the wife-beating football star, as well as tell-all books by seemingly every member of the defense and the prosecution. Former Deputy District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi criticized the latter in "Outrage." But a generation earlier, in the best-selling "Helter Skelter," Bugliosi had chronicled his lead role in sending the Manson family to prison.

Details of the new police scandal could blare from the cover of Hush-Hush magazine in "L.A. Confidential."

Civilians shot for sport. Officers lying on the witness stand. Guns planted on unarmed suspects. Men imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit.

The real-life plot is high-pitched drama.

Current police Chief Bernard Parks is warring with D.A. Garcetti, whom he accuses of stalling. More than a month ago, Parks handed three corruption cases to Garcetti. None of the officers has been charged. Now the chief has upped the ante by inviting six FBI agents to join the department's internal probe.

Garcetti, up for re-election, says he won't be bullied or hurried. "My goal," he says, "is to put together a prosecution that will result in law-enforcement officers getting state prison terms."

Former Lt. Anthony Alba knows the value of a good LAPD image. He was the department spokesman when he retired in July after 31 years of police work.

"These officers are world-renowned," he said, but some "allowed their ethics, values and morals to be set aside for money and for power."

Rampart's corruption came to light because an officer - 32-year-old Rafael Perez, who has since been dismissed - was caught stealing cocaine from an evidence room in August 1998. He has been telling secrets since, in exchange for immunity and a lighter jail term.

Clutching a notepad, Perez appeared to have written his own script last month as he stood weeping before a judge who sentenced him to five years.

"Whoever chases monsters," Perez said, "should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster himself."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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