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Los Angeles Times | Saturday, June 13, 1998 | Front Page
 

Illegal Drug Scene Spurs Rise in Police Corruption

Crime: Number of officials jailed has multiplied 5 times in 4 years, study says. Effect is felt in big, little towns.

By JACK NELSON, RONALD J. OSTROW, Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON--Law enforcement corruption, sparked mostly by illegal drugs, has become so rampant that the number of federal, state and local officials in federal prisons has multiplied five times in four years, from 107 in 1994 to 548 in 1998, according to a new study.  The official corruption, which has raged for years in the nation's big cities, is also spreading to the hinterlands.

"It's a big problem across the country, in big towns and small towns, and it's not getting any better," says Chicago Police Supt. Mike Hoke. Hoke was head of the force's narcotics unit until three years ago, when officials, suspecting that some officers were deeply involved in the drug rackets, put him in charge of internal affairs to begin an investigation that is still underway. "So far, we've sent 15 police to the penitentiary," Hoke said. "And we're not done yet."

Los Angeles, New York, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Washington, New Orleans and Savannah, Ga., are among the other cities that have experienced major law enforcement scandals involving illegal drugs in recent years. And many smaller communities, especially in the South and Southwest, have been hit by drug-related corruption in police or sheriff's departments.

Police officials from more than 50 major cities are meeting in Sun Valley, Idaho, this weekend to review the new report, "Misconduct to Corruption," compiled by officials from 15 cities with assistance from the FBI. The authors of the report sent questionnaires to 52 cities. Of the 37 that responded, all acknowledged continuing problems with general corruption and misconduct in 1997.   Altogether, they reported 187 felony arrests of officers and 265 misdemeanor arrests. Eighty-five officers were charged with illicit use of drugs, 118 with theft, 148 with domestic violence and nine with driving under the influence of alcohol.

The report cited several cases of officers robbing drug dealers. In Indianapolis, one of two officers charged with murdering a drug dealer during a robbery admitted that they had been robbing drug dealers for four years. A big-city police chief, the report concluded, "can expect, on average, to have 10 officers charged per year with abuse of police authority, five arrested for a felony, seven for a misdemeanor, three for theft and four for domestic violence. By any estimation, these numbers are unacceptable."
 
 

Numbers Tell Only So Much

"You can't just look at the numbers" in measuring the effect on the community of "a police officer abusing citizens through corruption," said Neil J. Gallagher, deputy assistant director of the FBI's criminal investigative division. "Corruption erodes public confidence in government." Gallagher, as special agent in charge of the New Orleans FBI office several years ago, directed an investigation that led to convictions of 11 officers and a sweeping overhaul of the city's police department.  Underlying causes of corruption there, he said, ranged from "severely
underpaying officers to lack of training, poor selection of officers and very little command and control."

Some veteran police executives said that, despite recurring reports of corruption, they have the impression that the problem of police corrupted by drug money has subsided somewhat in recent years.  In this camp is Robert S. Warshaw, associate director of the National Drug Control Policy Office at the White House and former Rochester, N.Y., police chief. Warshaw said that law enforcement agencies have become much more aware of the problem and "there's a high level of accountability internally."
 

Many other experts see little or no abatement of police corruption. "It's going on all over the country," said former San Jose Police Chief Joseph McNamara, "and corruption ranges from chiefs and sheriffs on down to officers. Every week we read of another police scandal related to the drug war--corruption, brutality and even armed robbery by cops in uniform." McNamara, now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, has concluded that preventing drug trafficking is "an impossible job." "The sheer hopelessness of the task has led many officers to rationalize their own corruption," McNamara said. "They say: 'Why should the enemy get to keep all the profits?' Guys with modest salaries are suddenly looking at $10,000 or more, and they go for it."

Even veteran officers can succumb. One is Rene De La Cova, a federal Drug Enforcement Administration supervisor in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., whose photograph ran in newspapers from coast to coast in 1989 when he
took custody of Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega from the U.S. military forces who had captured him. Five years later, De La Cova pleaded guilty to stealing $760,000 in laundered drug money and was sentenced to two years in prison.
 

Protecting Others Seen as a Virtue
 

Police often work in a culture in which protecting their colleagues is a virtue. Ed Samarra, police chief in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Va., learned that during his five years in the internal affairs section of
Washington's police department.  "I never encountered an officer willing to talk about the conduct of another officer, even if he was videotaped committing a crime," Samarra said. "Some went to prison even though they could have remained free if they had agreed to cooperate." More than 100 Washington officers were arrested during Samarra's five years in internal security. In every instance, he complained, the police union "said our responsibility is to defend our people regardless of whether they are guilty." In Alexandria, by contrast, the police department has a reputation for zero tolerance of misconduct. The police union tells new officers to report misconduct by their colleagues. Those who lie, it warns, will be fired.
 

In Los Angeles County, Sheriff Sherman Block credited his own task force with directing an investigation from 1988 to 1994 that led to the conviction of 26 former narcotics deputies--about 13% of those assigned to narcotics enforcement--for skimming drug money they had seized. Not all county officials agreed with Block that his aggressive internal investigation had been so successful that the scandal actually "somewhat enhanced" the sheriff's department's reputation. He was widely praised, however, for rooting out corruption and condemning the deputies for violating their oaths and dishonoring their badges.  The Los Angeles Police Department, while sharply criticized for use of excessive force, has been remarkably free of corruption linked to money or drugs.

The independent commission that examined the department in the wake of the Rodney G. King beating noted in its 1991 report that the department had done "an outstanding job, by all accounts, of creating a culture in which officers generally do not steal, take bribes, or use drugs. The LAPD must apply the same management tools that have been successful in attacking those problems to the problem of excessive force."

New Orleans, which had one of the nation's most corrupt police departments in the early 1990s, is widely recognized today for its reforms--a sharp increase in hiring standards, pay increases of up to 25% and a reorganization and restaffing of the internal affairs unit. New Orleans officials, working with the FBI, uprooted the bad cops and tightened controls that not only curbed corruption and drug dealing but also helped reduce homicide and other crime rates.

Sting Operation Becomes Violent
 

In the FBI's New Orleans sting operation, undercover agents acted as drug couriers who were protected by police officers. The situation became so violent that at one point FBI agents overheard a policeman using his bugged patrol-car phone to order another policeman to kill a woman who had filed a brutality complaint against him. Ten minutes later, before the agents could act, the woman was shot to death. An FBI memo on the killing noted that the undercover operation was terminated earlier than scheduled "because of the extreme violence exhibited by the officers, which included threats to kill the undercover FBI agents acting as couriers and also to steal the cocaine being shipped." Eleven officers and a civilian police employee were convicted of corruption and about 200 police officers were fired.

In another major FBI sting operation earlier this year, 59 people in metropolitan Cleveland, including 51 law enforcement and corrections officers, were arrested on charges of protecting the transfer or sale of large
amounts of cocaine. DEA Administrator Thomas A. Constantine, a former New York state police superintendent, said that many police departments have adopted policies similar to Alexandria's zero tolerance for misconduct. These departments, he said, have beefed up their internal security units and are recruiting better quality officers by providing better salaries and conducting thorough background checks.

But many police departments have failed to take these steps. Raymond Kelly, the U.S. Treasury Department's undersecretary for enforcement and a former New York City police commissioner, contended that many departments conduct inadequate background checks and some are using internal affairs units as "dumping grounds" for problem officers. Kelly said that police forces should be careful to check the lifestyles of their drug investigators. "I've never seen an officer get involved in corruption to put food on the table," he said. "It's always for something like cars or drugs or girlfriends." As New York's deputy police commissioner in 1992, Kelly headed an investigation of the department's internal affairs unit during a drug-linked corruption inquiry.  Kelly, seeking to become more directly involved in law enforcement and the war on drugs, has stepped down as the No. 2 Treasury Department official to become commissioner of the Customs Service. In that role, which he will begin next week, his first challenge will be to take a hard look at Customs' internal affairs unit.
 

Copyright Los Angeles Times

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