By Patrick McGreevy, Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times
Two Los Angeles police officers filed a lawsuit against the city Monday, alleging that the Police Department transferred them from gang-enforcement efforts in the troubled Jordan Downs housing project after gang members and their supporters made many unsustained complaints about them.
Southeast Division foot beat Officers Ryan Moreno and Chuck Garcia also charge that department investigators worked inappropriately with gang members on a sting operation that did not find any wrongdoing by the two.
For years, many police officers, especially in anti-gang units, have complained that the LAPD's receptivity to complaints have made officers susceptible to false allegations. That debate, which often has pitted officers against reform advocates, frequently has been aired in squad rooms. Monday's lawsuit offers a rare opportunity for the competing perspectives to be heard in court.
Police union leaders, who are paying for the lawsuit, said that a federal consent decree restricting policing in Los Angeles had given criminals a way to keep aggressive law enforcement out of their neighborhoods.
"This case is just another demonstration that the consent decree has become a model for unintended consequences," said Bob Baker, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League. "Dedicated officers are being stopped in their tracks by gang members who know how to manipulate the system."
The suit filed Monday does not refer to the consent decree, which was approved in 2000 after the Rampart police corruption scandal.
However, Philip J. Kaplan, an attorney for the two officers, said that it probably would be part of the case, and that the league is also weighing a potential filing in federal court to seek a clarification of whether the consent decree can allow aggressive policing such as enforcement of gang injunctions.
Kaplan said consent decree provisions that set higher standards for gang-enforcement officers and that require supervisors to look for patterns in citizen complaints have created an "ultra sensitivity by the department that leads to overreacting" when an officer has multiple citizen complaints.
Kevin Maiberger, an LAPD spokesman, said the department was following its usual policy of not commenting on pending litigation.
Catherine Lhamon, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the consent decree was not a problem. "The consent decree does not prohibit officers against whom no complaints have been sustained from a gang unit assignment," she said.
According to the suit, Moreno and Garcia were responsible for more than 300 arrests, detentions and/or stops in a one-year period, vigorously enforcing gang injunctions won by the city that prohibited gang members from meeting, loitering and operating in the neighborhood. More than 20 civilian complaints were filed against the two officers by "gang members and their supporters," the union officials said.
The officers allege in their suit that Internal Affairs Division detectives, "in concert with certain gang members, had commenced a 'sting' operation against Moreno and Garcia" that found no improper activity.
During the arrest of one alleged gang member and drug dealer, the officers found a "highly sensitive document generated by the department" in the suspect's car. The man arrested displayed little concern and said "something to the effect that 'his guys' at IA [Internal Affairs] would 'take down' Moreno and Garcia," the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit, which also names Police Chief William J. Bratton, was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, and seeks the return of the two officers to their gang enforcement beat, as well as potential damages for retaliating against officers for exercising free-speech rights.
Union officials said the case also would get into whether complaints by an unidentified council member to LAPD management about the two officers played a role in the transfer. Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who represents the Jordan Downs area, declined to comment on the case.
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2 LAPD officers sue city over transfer out of gang unit