L.A. cops again under the gun

  Debbie Howlett


  USA Today


  Page 04A

  (Copyright 1994)


  LOS ANGELES - As if the police department hasn't suffered enough criticism

  recently, the conduct of its officers is again being questioned.


  Police Chief Willie Williams vowed to clean up the department. But now the

  actions of four detectives who went to O.J. Simpson's estate after Nicole Brown

  Simpson and Ronald Goldman were slain have come under fire from Simpson's

  lawyers. It's almost as if the police are on trial.


  "We will show that improper procedures were followed from the very

  beginning," defense lawyer Robert Shapiro said Wednesday when prosecutor

  Marcia Clark objected to his questioning of detective Philip Vannatter. "That

  proper forms and procedures as outlined by the Los Angeles Police Department

  have not been followed. That times and records of events that should have been

  recorded have not been recorded."


  Police detectives have spent more than 10 hours on the witness stand in the

  preliminary hearing - not to testify about what they found, but to answer

  questions about whether they botched the investigation.


  Shapiro has asked the court to throw out key evidence. His claim: Police made a

  major mistake by searching Simpson's estate without a warrant.


  Officials at Parker Center - police headquarters - were wary of saying the officers

  followed proper procedure. "That's up to the court," says spokesman Rigo



  But former colleagues were quick to step to their defense.


  "Shapiro's just doing his job," says Paul Barron, a retired police officer who

  works as a private investigator in Burbank.


  Barron has worked with Vannatter and his partner, detective Tom Lange. They

  are "probably the best LAPD's got," he says. "Tom's very mechanical . . . right

  by the book. Phil's a good hunch guy. He follows leads and he's usually right.

  He's amazing."


  In the past three years, the department has had more than its share of problems:


  -- Recently retired officer Michael Brambles, who handled some of the

  department's most sensitive cases, was arrested Tuesday in Las Vegas and

  charged with nine armed robberies while on the force.


  -- Morale suffered for two years while police worked without a contract. The city

  last month grudgingly gave a 12% raise over the next 18 months.


  -- The criminal trial, subsequent riots and finally civil trial in the Rodney King

  beating by four officers took years.


  -- Officers were transferred and disciplined after an investigation concluded male

  officers harassed female officers while others covered it up.


  A Los Angeles Times poll last month shows the department is viewed more

  positively than in recent years. But that same poll also shows 33% of city

  residents disapprove of the police and 49% still believe brutality is common.


  In court, Shapiro has not only hit police on the search warrant, he has tried to

  demean the police in his cross-examination of civilian witnesses by pointing out

  discrepancies in what witnesses told police and what police reported.


  One example: a police report said neighbor Pablo Fentjves told officers a Jeep

  was parked across from Nicole Simpson's townhouse the night of the murder.


  On cross examination, Fentjves told Shapiro he never said anything about a Jeep

  to investigators.


  Shapiro has tried to paint a picture of sloppy police work.


  And it may be working.


  "I'm torn," says prominent defense lawyer Barry Levin, who once worked as a

  Los Angeles police officer.


  "I know these detectives and they're highly professional. It's unlikely they would

  do anything stupid. On the other hand, the warrant is pretty sketchy."


  Contributing: Jonathan T. Lovitt and David Leon Moore


  Police actions at Simpson's home


  What Los Angeles police detectives say they did before getting a search warrant:


  1) Shortly after 4:30 a.m. on June 13, Detectives Philip Vannatter, Tom Lange,

  Mark Fuhrman and Ron Phillips arrive at O.J. Simpson's mansion. They say their

  goal is to notify him of Nicole Simpson's death and whereabouts of his younger

  children. 2) Detectives press intercom buzzer and receive no response. They call

  the home and hear a ringing inside but no one answers. They call the home's

  security firm, which says it has no report that Simpson was to be out of town that

  night. 3) They approach Ford Bronco, testifying it seemed to be parked askew.

  They discover a shovel and plastic in the Bronco's back, along with a letter

  addressed to Simpson. Then they find dried, tiny blood spots on handle and

  lower panel of driver's door. 4) Fuhrman scales wall and opens gate. 5)

  Detectives knock on front door. 6) Receiving no response, detectives circle home

  and approach guest house. They knock on doors of Brian Kaelin, a guest, and

  Simpson's daughter, Arnelle, who lets the detectives in the back door with a key.

  7) Kaelin tells of the "thump-thump-thump" noise he heard earlier. Fuhrman,

  exploring the area of the noise, discovers a bloody glove similar to one found at

  the murder scene. 8) About 7:30, Vannatter determines that the property is a

  crime scene and requests a search warrant.

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