Los Angeles: Gangsta Cops

Los Angeles: Gangsta Cops

As the L.A.P.D. scandal keeps growing, a city asks itself, How could the police have gone so bad?

By Adam Cohen | Monday, Mar. 06, 2000

Time Magazine Greg YatesSo what have you got for us? It’s the question D.A.s always throw back at criminals looking to save their own hides. O.K., then, what bigger fish are you going to help us fry? In this case the perp, Rafael Perez, was a Los Angeles cop accused of stealing 6 lbs. of cocaine from downtown headquarters to sell on the street. If Perez wanted to plea bargain that, he’d better offer something pretty good.

He did. Perez admitted that he and his partner had shot an unarmed, handcuffed 19-year-old and planted a rifle on him to cover it up. And then in 2,000 pages of riveting testimony, Perez yanked back a curtain on a dark, dime-store-novel world in which cops routinely frame the innocent by planting (“throwing down”) drugs and guns, smack around (“thump”) citizens on the street for kicks and perjure themselves (“join the liar’s club”) to get convictions.

The upshot has been the biggest police scandal in Los Angeles history. At the center is the Rampart division–a police station in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods–and its special antigang unit. In the six months since Perez started talking, lurid revelations about law enforcement Rampart-style have emerged almost daily: allegations that cops raped a woman while on duty; accusations that a cop interrogating a handcuffed man beat him until he vomited blood; a fast-growing list of prisoners who were allegedly railroaded with fabricated evidence and police lies.

Forty criminal convictions have already been reversed, and hundreds more are targeted for immediate review. Public defenders predict upwards of 4,000 cases could be affected. So far, 20 officers have been relieved of their duties, two others fired and scores more placed under suspicion.

Last week the FBI joined the campaign to root out public corruption and civil rights abuses. The G-men assigned to the case have joined a crowd of other investigators–the civilian police commission, the Los Angeles district attorney’s office, the police department’s internal-affairs unit along with a special task force. Following in their wake: an army of private lawyers who have been flooded with calls from alleged Rampart victims. By the time all the civil rights lawsuits are resolved, Los Angeles could face hundreds of millions of dollars in liability. Mayor Richard Riordan has called for using the city’s $300 million in tobacco-settlement money to resolve the litigation.

And the scandal shows every sign of spreading. Charges have been leveled that the Rampart division systematically targeted for deportation immigrants who were witnesses to police malfeasance. L.A.P.D. chief Bernard Parks told the city council that investigators will look beyond the allegations at Rampart. One source close to the investigation said it could spill over into at least one nearby division.

The Los Angeles Police Department has had a troubled history, from the pervasive corruption of the 1930s and ’40s to the bitter feelings of the city’s minority communities toward former chief Daryl Gates’ department, culminating in the uproar over the 1991 beating of Rodney King. But the Rampart scandal has taken police misconduct to a new level of lawlessness and given currency to a new term: the gangster cop–not much different from the gang members the police are battling. As investigators work to get to the bottom of it all–and to separate the good cops from the bad–a city is wrestling with a larger question: Who will police the police?

The Rampart police station, in the shadow of downtown Los Angeles, is set in the middle of one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. It’s a densely populated mix of Latino immigrants, Korean shopkeepers, down-on-their-luck drug addicts and gangs–lots of gangs. The 8-sq.-mi. area has 30 different youth gangs, with thousands of members among them, squaring off for turf.

To win the area back, the L.A.P.D. established a special antigang unit, Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, or CRASH. In addition to their weapons and swagger, CRASH officers were armed with a powerful legal tool–sweeping antigang injunctions (since lifted) that gave them free rein to push around suspected gang members. Among the offenses the injunction covered: blocking sidewalks and carrying pagers.

In their domain, Rampart’s CRASH officers ruled. “The most powerful public official in the city of Los Angeles is not the mayor,” says Robert Hansohn, the recently installed captain brought in to clean up the Rampart division. “It’s the officer we put out there on the street in a black-and-white car with guns, badges, shotguns and assault weapons.” In the ’90s the CRASH unit certainly lived up to its name, with a confrontational style of policing that aggressively took back the streets. It seemed to be getting results. In the 1960s the area had 170 murders a year. Last year there were just 33.

There have long been complaints that Rampart cops were playing dirty. “It’s been happening for years,” says Alex Sanchez, a former gang member arrested by Rampart and facing deportation. “We’ve seen cops take drugs and let the youths go. We’ve seen them plant drugs on others. Youths have been saying, ‘That wasn’t mine. He planted it on me!’ But who would believe them?” The fact was, as long as the complaints were coming from suspected gang members–some of whom had criminal records–no one much seemed to care. “If you peeled the layers back in a community and got down to the truth and asked, ‘Do you mind what we do to get them off the street?’ they’d say no,” says Hansohn. “Just get rid of the six gang members on that corner.”

That all changed when one of CRASH’s own started talking. Perez says he was part of a tight-knit group of CRASH officers who played by twisted rules. This antigang fraternity acted a lot like a gang itself. When a new recruit joined the unit, CRASH members allegedly circled around and beat him–an initiation ritual that criminal gangs call “jumping in.” In one case, a white CRASH officer leaving the scene of a police beating of a civilian–for which the city had to pay a $25,000 settlement–allegedly yelled out, “┬íPuro Rampart! [Totally Rampart],” an imitation of a gang slogan.

Perez has recounted a stunning collection of illegal acts, many as bizarre as they are disturbing. He told of one officer whose car tires were slashed. The cop and his partner tracked down the gang member they believed was responsible and dropped him–naked–in a rival gang’s turf. Perez tells of another CRASH officer who shot a suspect repeatedly with a beanbag shotgun–a nonlethal weapon used to knock suspects to the ground–for the fun of it.

Some of the malfeasance was more lethal. Perez’s most incendiary story concerns the 1996 shooting of admitted gang member Javier Francisco Ovando. Ovando was a skinny 19-year-old whom Perez and his partner shot and then, according to Perez, planted a rifle on to make it look as if Ovando had attacked the police. Ovando was paralyzed, and may never walk again. The judge at the trial lambasted Ovando–who had to be wheeled in on a gurney–for endangering the lives of two hero policemen, before sentencing him to 23 years in prison. In September, Ovando was released after serving two years and 11 months.

Perez also claims to have helped cover up two other unjustified shootings. In one, he says, he watched police plant a gun next to Juan Saldana, 21, whom they had just shot. Perez says the cops delayed calling an ambulance for Saldana while they worked with a supervisor on getting their stories straight. Saldana ended up bleeding to death. In another case, Perez says, police shot at New Year’s celebrators who were firing guns into the air at midnight. He says at first he helped pick up the officers’ shell casings so they could deny having fired their weapons. When it turned out that two men had been shot, the police concocted a story: that the injured men had been aiming their guns at the police.

One of the most brazen officers was Perez’s friend David Mack. Mack is serving a 14-year prison sentence for robbing a bank of $722,000. After the robbery, Perez says he traveled to Las Vegas with Mack for a high-living gambling spree. Mack has reportedly renounced his police associations and claims to belong to the Piru Bloods, an L.A. street gang. And the Los Angeles Times has reported that Mack is being investigated in connection with the murder of Christopher Wallace–the rapper Notorious B.I.G.–who was shot to death after leaving a party in 1997.

Last week the L.A.P.D. scandal veered off in a new direction as charges surfaced that the police have illegally used deportation as a weapon. Perez reported that CRASH officers conducted routine street sweeps to check the immigration status of suspected gang members. That would violate a 21-year-old Los Angeles policy that in most cases bars the police from arresting illegal aliens and turning them over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. CRASH officers have also been accused of using the INS to have antipolice witnesses deported. They allegedly worked from a list of 10,000 Latinos they believed to be deportable because of supposed gang ties. Latino leaders have charged that the list is so long it amounts to placing a whole community under suspicion.

The man at the center of the deportation controversy is Alex Sanchez, who is being held for deportation to his native El Salvador. A former gang member, Sanchez works with a group called Homies Unidos that fights gang violence. Sanchez also is an alibi witness for Jose Rodriguez, a 15-year-old charged with murder (and later acquitted). Sanchez says the police want to deport him because he was with Rodriguez at the time of the killing–at a Homies Unidos function–and because he knows how the cops operate. “They felt I was a threat,” he says. “I knew how they beat up kids in alleys and threatened deportation. So I was a target.”

But the heart of the scandal remains the thousands of convictions that have been placed in doubt. In words that defense lawyers will be citing for years, Perez told authorities that “90% of the officers who work CRASH, and not just Rampart CRASH, falsify a lot of information.” Defense attorneys claim to be working from a list of 17,000 convictions that could possibly be tainted, involving 71 L.A.P.D. officers.

Los Angeles is only now hearing many of those stories–like Rafael Zambrano’s. Zambrano was at a party when 15 Rampart cops, including Perez, burst through the door. While Perez was arresting Zambrano, he found a gun, which Zambrano says was planted. Zambrano was familiar with Rampart officers. Before his arrest, he says, they regularly showed up at his home and harassed him and his family. Once, he alleges, they held his brother over a rooftop ledge and threatened to drop him. Zambrano, who served 16 months in prison, is suing the city.

Zambrano’s lawyer, Gregory Yates, has an additional 30 clients with police-misconduct complaints against the city. He says the cases he has seen so far point to “systematic corruption” in the ranks of the L.A.P.D. One disturbing pattern: many of his clients have told him arresting officers tried to recruit them to sell drugs. Another lawyer, Steven Yagman, has filed 10 lawsuits against the city and says he expects to file 190 more in the next month. Not all involve Rampart directly, but most of the defendant officers spent some time there. Yagman says the current predictions for how much the scandal will cost are grossly low. “I think it will bankrupt the city,” he says.

What went wrong in Los Angeles? A lot of the blame seems to lie with poor hiring practices. Analyzing the scandal for the city council, Chief Parks admitted that four of the officers on official leave because of the scandal should never have been hired because of prior arrest records, bad debts or inability to handle financial problems.

L.A., like many other cities, is finding it hard to attract good talent. Police salaries are generally low, and in a tight labor market, there are lots of easier ways to earn a living. The L.A.P.D. is understaffed by some 700 officers. Although it has been advertising heavily, including on the Internet, the department has been falling short of its recruitment targets lately, hiring only 20 or so candidates a month when it needs more than 100.

Getting good recruits is particularly difficult when departments bulk up quickly, as the L.A.P.D. did in the late ’80s and early ’90s–so-called binge hiring. L.A. isn’t alone on this score. In the early ’90s Washington hired 1,000 police in a hurry for political reasons. Since then, 25% have been discharged for misconduct or indicted.

Weak supervision has also been a problem. Los Angeles lost 1,600 positions in the 1980s owing to budget cuts, and much of the attrition came among managers in the field. Parks says supervisors often didn’t see–or worse, ignored–“red flags” that something was wrong. Perez has charged that a key reason for the misconduct he observed and participated in was that officers were “trying to impress supervisors.”

This too is a problem that is not limited to the L.A.P.D. Law-enforcement experts say police nationwide are too often told by their supervisors, or by prosecutors and politicians, that the only thing that matters is getting a conviction. “The seed of corruption begins when cops are asked to fill in the blanks for district attorneys to make cases,” says Gene O’Donnell, a professor at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former cop. “If they don’t remember, there’s a tremendous pressure for them to make it up.” O’Donnell says one of the most common refrains he hears from police is that “this job is not on the level.” Police then often find themselves adapting to a corrupt system.

The L.A.P.D. board of inquiry is expected to address many of these issues in a report to be released this week, a blueprint for turning the department around. One of its main recommendations, Parks has said, will be tightened screening of applicants, including better background checks, improved psychological testing, polygraph exams and more management in the field.

The L.A.P.D. scandal will surely shine a light on other cities, where complaints about police tactics may get new scrutiny. It will also focus attention on successful reforms in such cities as New Orleans, the site of the nation’s last major police scandal. Things were ugly there in the 1990s. One policeman was convicted of murdering a young mother of three who filed a supposedly confidential brutality complaint against him. Nine officers were arrested in a sting operation and convicted of selling protection to a cocaine warehouse. Two cops were charged with raping a 14-year-old girl. More than 100 others were charged with a variety of felonies.

But in the past five years, a new police superintendent has turned the department around. Richard Pennington invited the FBI in, asking it to assign three agents to his new Public Integrity Unit. He tightened the screening process for recruits, looking not only for criminal records but also for money troubles that could make them susceptible to financial temptation. Complaints against the department are down 27% in five years, the city’s murder rate fell 31% last year, and public confidence is growing.

Will the L.A.P.D. be able to put its house in order? Critics of the department are skeptical. “The L.A.P.D. investigators have intractable conflicts of interest. They’re complicit in what has happened,” says Los Angeles civil rights lawyer Michael Mitchell. “The supervisors are afraid they won’t be able to put a lid on it.” But with the public clamoring for answers–and the FBI involved–it may be difficult to fight off the tide of reform.

Rafael Perez’s plea bargain was finally completed on Friday. He was sentenced to five years in prison for the cocaine theft. With time served, he could be out within two. Fortunately for him, he has been given immunity for his worst crimes: the shootings, the cover-ups, the fabricated evidence. At his sentencing, a tearful Perez offered a moral to the story. “Whoever chases monsters,” he told the court, “should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster himself.” How to stop that from happening in the future is L.A.’s challenge–and the nation’s.

–Reported by Cathy Booth, Margot Hornblower, David S. Jackson and Stacie Stukin/Los Angeles, Edward Barnes and William Dowell/New York and Tim Roche/Atlanta