Pubdate: Thu, 30 Nov 2000
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Contact:  PO Box 120191, San Diego, CA, 92112-0191
Fax: (619) 293-1440
Author: Kim Curtis, Associated Press


OAKLAND -- He was young and inexperienced -- a 23-year-old police officer 
just three weeks out of training. He went straight to the night shift, 
where most officers start their careers.

There, on patrol in west Oakland, one of the city's most dangerous 
neighborhoods, Officer Keith Batt met "The Riders."

Nearly every day from June 13 until July 3, prosecutors say, the rookie 
watched his fellow officers beat, harass and falsely arrest at least 10 
victims. His training officer, Clarence "Chuck" Mabanag, warned him not to 
be a "snitch." His superior officer, Frank Vazquez, told him to forget 
everything he had learned at the police academy.

And he tried to. For nearly three weeks, he silently stood by and watched.

Then on July 3, near the corner of 10th and Center streets, the training 
officer told another rookie to falsely report that he had seen 19-year-old 
Rodney Mack discard 17 rocks of cocaine and to arrest him. The rookie did 
as he was told. And Batt had seen enough.

Batt, who quit the force almost immediately after reporting what he saw, 
set in motion a police corruption scandal that shows no signs of being 
contained, despite repeated statements from Police Chief Richard Word that 
the alleged abuse was limited to the four officers who worked the late 
shift in west Oakland.

The officers -- Vazquez, 44, Mabanag, 35, Jude Siapno, 32, and Matthew 
Hornung, 29 -- were charged Nov. 2 with more than 60 felony and misdemeanor 
counts including assault, kidnapping and filing false reports. Three are 
expected to enter pleas in court on Wednesday; Vazquez is a fugitive, 
believed to be hiding in Mexico.

Mabanag's lawyer, Michael Rains, said the officers are "both sad and 
anxious to have their stories heard." Attorneys for Mabanag, Siapno and 
Hornung, all of whom remain on paid administrative leave, said they've seen 
no evidence backing up any of the charges against their clients. Vazquez's 
lawyer hasn't returned repeated phone calls.

Though the charges are limited to what Officer Batt witnessed, the 
department is re-examining the records of the officers -- each of whom had 
been accused of abuses before -- and investigating whether other officers 
were involved.

Word has said that all four officers should be fired.

"The charges are disturbing and the nature of the activity alleged is 
disturbing," Word said earlier this month. "We've learned from this. We'll 
move forward. We have to. The people of Oakland deserve nothing less."

Moving on won't be easy. Now, Oakland's criminal prosecutions are in 
jeopardy. Future juries may not be so quick to trust the word of police 
officers. And everyone hears echoes of the Rampart scandal, which rocked 
the Los Angeles Police Department this year.

The similarities are uncanny: both involved renegade bands of officers who 
patrolled the toughest neighborhoods. Both became known after complaints 
from fellow officers, not victims or community advocates.

In Los Angeles, three officers have been convicted to date; more than 100 
criminal cases have been thrown out and more than 70 civil rights suits 
have been filed. The city attorney estimated the scandal could cost the 
city at least $125 million.

Exactly how far and wide "The Riders" scandal will reach remains to be seen.

"It's very hard to believe these incidents began in June and lasted through 
early July and were only noticed by one rookie officer," said Alan 
Schlosser of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. "It 
seems very unlikely that no one else within the force knew what was going on."

Prosecutor David Hollister says 49 mostly drug-related convictions and 
pending cases have been thrown out and more could follow as his office 
sorts through all cases involving the four officers dating back to 18 
months before the officers were taken off the streets, a time period agreed 
upon by both sides.

Oakland's city attorney also anticipates more civil suits, and community 
advocates say phone calls and letters are pouring in from people saying 
they were mistreated by "The Riders."

"It's burying one's head in the sand to assume these cases are confined to 
a short period of time involving these four officers," said Oakland lawyer 
John Burris.

He has talked to at least 15 of 100 people arrested by "The Riders" about 
filing civil suits.

The department had reason to be proud before the scandal broke; crime in 
the city of 370,000 had dropped by 15.8 percent, more than twice the 
national average from 1998 to 1999.

For Mayor Jerry Brown, who demanded the resignation of Oakland's popular 
police chief shortly after taking office and replaced him with Word last 
July, the safer streets became a key part of his economic development 
message: that Oakland, with ample office space just across the bridge from 
San Francisco, is on the rebound and ready for the same infusion of money 
that technology companies have poured into other Bay Area cities.

"Oakland has more crime than San Francisco with half the people and that's 
not something people are happy about," Brown said Tuesday. "The vast 
majority of people would like to see more police in Oakland and no 
slackening in the vigilance against crime."

Brown said if the officers are convicted of wrongdoing, they're not 
representative of the department as a whole.

"You're talking about a fraction of the police department," Brown said, 
"and people make mistakes. We're taking corrective steps."

But now, Oakland's tough-on-crime politicians face even tougher choices as 
they try to appease a mostly black and poor community that already 
mistrusts officers.

"It's good that this was brought to light," said Cameron Yee, policy 
director for People United for a Better Oakland. "But it hasn't made people 
trust the police any more. That can't change until the leadership of the 
city steps forward and says this is something we need to talk about with 
the community instead of saying, 'This is an isolated incident. We're 
taking care of it and it's fine.' "
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