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Justice Department Begins Probe of Los Angeles Police

By Pierre Thomas
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

Sparked by charges of police misconduct that surfaced in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the Justice Department has begun examining the Los Angeles Police Department to determine whether there is a "pattern" of civil rights abuses by officers in one of the nation's largest law enforcement agencies.

The department's civil rights division is in the early stages of an investigation that will seek to determine whether alleged abuses by Los Angeles police officers, including excessive force, is a systemic problem, sources said Thursday. The investigation began after racist comments by former LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman and allegations of fabricated evidence became a focal point of Simpson's successful defense.

Broad federal investigations of police misconduct in cities have been rare and controversial, since police internal affairs units and local district attorneys claim primary jurisdiction over disciplinary matters in those agencies. But under last year's crime bill, the civil rights division gained new authority to develop "pattern of practice" cases against agencies with egregious records. Since then, officials say the department has worked on developing a "handful" of cases against city police departments across the country that have been criticized for widespread civil rights violations.

A pattern-of-practice investigation, in which Justice could bring civil charges against an entire department, and criminal probes of individual officers are among the tools the department could use in examining Los Angeles, which one official described as an "extremely sensitive" situation.

The Los Angeles Police Department, with about 8,000 officers, has been under intense public scrutiny since the 1992 riots that were triggered by the acquittal of four white police officers who were videotaped beating black motorist Rodney G. King. The Justice Department later prosecuted the officers on civil rights violations.

In the Simpson case, legal analysts speculated after the verdict that concerns that police were capable of serious misconduct against a black defendant played a role in the decision by a mostly black jury to acquit Simpson.

Attorney General Janet Reno promised shortly after Simpson was acquitted that the department would look into suspected civil rights violations. Capt. Bob Ruchhoft, a spokesman for the LAPD, said he was aware that the Justice Department was contemplating an investigation but did not know specifics.

Department lawyers have reviewed at least one specific complaint of abusive practices that related to a case Fuhrman described in taped interviews with a screenwriter. The civil rights division has received a number of other complaints against the LAPD, primarily from African American and Hispanic residents.