Pubdate: Mon, 13 Mar 2000
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2000 The Baltimore Sun, a Times Mirror Newspaper.
Author: Todd Richissin


Mexican-Americans Numb To The Violence

LOS ANGELES - Police bullets crashed into the spine of Javier Francisco
Ovando, and only the judge who sent the paralyzed 19-year-old to prison had
any harsh words about the shooting. He admonished Ovando for being a danger
to society.

When police shot Juan Salana, officers left him unattended long enough that
he bled to death.

The events weren't big news in East Los Angeles, a poor,
immigrant-populated area just a five-minute bus ride from the high-rises
that mark the city's skyline.

But in September, the stories of Ovando, Salana and their like suddenly
began dominating headlines, newscasts and frantic meetings at City Hall.

The two men were shot not by police defending themselves while trying to
bring order to a troubled area but by officers who threw their fists and
fired their guns as indiscriminately as the gangs they were to eradicate.
The officers of the city's Rampart Division, most of them in an anti-drug
squad known as CRASH, attacked not only drug dealers but innocents as well.

Ovando and Salana are victims in the biggest scandal ever to hit the Los
Angeles Police Department. Thousands of convictions are in jeopardy, state
and federal investigations are under way, and lawsuits have been filed
against the department and city.

New revelations, exposed when an officer caught stealing drugs turned on
his cohorts in exchange for leniency, have come almost daily.

For residents of this patch of poverty and violence, though, the biggest
scandal in Los Angeles Police Department history has barely raised an eyebrow.

For years, the mostly Latino population has been well aware of the
uncontrolled violence of the police officers, who have been given the
moniker of "gangsta cops."

"Look, this is L.A.," says David Thomas, 47, whose lives just down the road
from the Rampart station house. "We've become numb to it all. We've had
Rodney King, the riots, we've had O. J. This is supposed to surprise us?"

Six months after the conduct of dozens of officers was publicly exposed,
there have been no citizen demonstrations, no grass-roots demands for
reform. Rather, many residents -- especially the Mexican-Americans who bore
the brunt of the police misconduct -- seem resigned to the fact that many
Rampart Division members were rogue cops who stole money and drugs, beat
innocent people, tried to deport witnesses to their actions and might have
committed murder.

Official Los Angeles has reacted with outrage -- and not merely because the
city and the Police Department have been taking a public relations beating.
The most intense outrage has come because Los Angeles, which is to receive
$300 million from a tobacco liability settlement, is being forced to put
the money into a fund to pay off the scores of lawsuits that are sure to be

About 40 convictions have been overturned because of police misconduct,
ranging from the planting of evidence to "confessions" obtained through
beatings, making the characters in "L.A. Confidential" look like a band of
school guards who bullied the small kids.

Officials say up to 4,000 cases could be affected. Ovando, paralyzed, was
released from prison after serving 13 months of a 23-year sentence. Police
shot him while he was unarmed, officials determined, then planted a rifle
on him to cover their actions and secure his conviction.

In at least four other cases, officers are being investigated for
unnecessary killings, including that of Salana. He reportedly lay bleeding
to death while police -- rather than call an ambulance -- worked with
supervisors to concoct a plausible reason for shooting him.

As out-of-control as Rampart Division was, the situation would likely be
continuing if one officer hadn't gotten increasingly greedy and reckless.

Rafael Perez, a four-year veteran, was caught stealing 8 pounds of cocaine
from the division's evidence locker.

In exchange for a reduced sentence, he has been spilling the secrets of
Rampart, exposing fellow officers with tales that have left official Los
Angeles aghast even as the neighborhood that was most victimized has taken
the beatings and the other forms of corruption as nothing more than a fact
of life.

"You can look at it like there's two cities here," says the Rev. Richard
Byrd of the Unity Center of African Spirituality. "You have the mayor and
his type reacting, then you have the community that's -- I don't want to
call it apathy -- it's much more like, `OK, here we go again.' "

But this case, the minister says, should be different. If police are
stealing drugs from suspects and planting them on others, he asks, if those
with badges are shooting people and leaving them to die while they concoct
a story, who's protecting Los Angeles? Who's policing the police?

"I think we need to stop calling this a scandal," Byrd says. "A scandal is
when the police chief is sleeping with the mayor's wife. This is murder.
This is planting evidence. This is beating people. These are not scandals.
These are crimes."

Crime, ironically, was the genesis of so much power for officers such as
Perez. Gangs, as many as 30 of them, have ruled the streets around the
Rampart Division for years. The area approached 200 murders in a year 15
years ago, most of the killings drug-related. So, in came a special
anti-gang unit, Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, or CRASH.

Far from the friendly, "How can I help you?" brand of "community policing"
that has become popular with forces all over the country, the CRASH unit
specialized in confrontation, going after gang members for such offenses as
carrying pagers.

The approach was credited with reducing crime in East Los Angeles. Last
year, the area had 33 homicides. Shopkeepers who hadn't dared to leave
booths made of bullet-proof glass began feeling more comfortable, if not
altogether safe. Parents who once kept their children from their porches
for fear of random bullets began letting them play in the yard.

For many people here, the actions of the officers were bad, but the
residents will take gangsta cops over gang shootings anytime.

"Now it's better," says Young Song, 54, who owns a market off Occidental
Street. "It's no good what the police have done, but our circumstances are
getting better. People wanted something done. Now the police keep the law."

Except when it comes to policing themselves. So far, about two dozen
officers from Rampart have been fired, and police officials are
investigating others. Divisions other than Rampart may have similar, if not
as severe, histories of wrongdoing and will be investigated as well, police
officials say.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service has been dragged into the mess.
The Los Angeles Times, citing federal documents, has reported that INS
agents working with police recommended deporting suspected gang members
when criminal cases could not be made. The police agreed.

The practice violated an LAPD policy that has been on the books since 1979,
which bars officers from initiating actions against suspected illegal
aliens. The policy was designed to ease the fear of deportation among
immigrants who might have been crime victims or witnesses.

East Los Angeles was particularly vulnerable to being targeted by police,
says Dan Tokaji, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union
of Southern California, not only because of calls to clean up the area but
because of its population.

"This is a poor immigrant community. There's a certain reluctance here of
speaking up because they fear being deported, and there's been a general
fear of retaliation," he says. "That does a lot of explaining of why the
police were able to do what they did and why you don't see people
protesting in the neighborhood."

This month, Police Chief Bernard C. Parks abolished the CRASH units. But a
report spurred by the Rampart situation -- based on a review by some 300
top officers and investigators -- said problems permeate every level of the
department, caused largely by a culture of "mediocrity."

"This scandal has devastated our relationship with the public we serve and
threatened the integrity of our entire criminal justice system," the report

Claudia Monterrosa, a director of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and
Education Fund, says it will be years, perhaps decades, before the
community trusts police.

"And it's going to take a tremendous amount of work by police, by city
officials, by everyone involved," she said. "People in the community need a
sense that if they do right, they won't be harmed, and that if police
officers do wrong, they'll be punished."

The officer whose actions led to the exposure of Rampart has completed his
plea bargain with prosecutors for stealing the cocaine. Perez was sentenced
to five years in prison. He could be out in two. He will not be prosecuted
for the cover-ups, evidence plantings or unjustifiable shootings he has
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